Turn to Religion Split Suspects’ Home

Investigators are scrutinizing every routine for the family of two brothers, 26 and 19 years old, who set off two homemade bombs at the Boston Marathon. The hope is to prevent a tragic repeat. The Wall Street Journal presents one of the more comprehensive reports, with attention focused on the family’s divide over religion. The mother and farther met in Elista, provincial capital of the Kalmykia region, and wandered throughout Central Asia, enduring prejudice as Chechens, before obtaining refugee status in the United States, where their children pursued education, sporting and other opportunities in the diverse, progressive community of Cambridge, Massachusetts. As her two sons were sidetracked by alcohol, drugs and partying, the mother urged adherence to Islam. The family argued over religion, the father resisting strict head covers for his wife and his son’s decision to give up boxing. Encountering mediocrity and typical disappointments, the oldest son delved into Islam, often arguing with speakers at a local mosque, before apparently using religion to rationalize his resentment for a tolerant society that opens its doors wide for immigrants. – YaleGlobal

Turn to Religion Split Suspects' Home

Boston marathon bomb suspects pursued opportunities in Massachusetts, then used religion as excuse to turn on tolerant society that welcomes immigrants
Alan Cullison, Paul Sonne, Anton Troianovski, David George-Cosh
Thursday, April 25, 2013

After last week's Boston Marathon bombings, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva phoned her son Tamerlan in Massachusetts to make sure he was safe.

"Mama, why are you worrying?" Tamerlan replied from Boston, laughing.

Days later, it was the son who phoned his mother. The two, in recent years, had shared a powerful transformation to a more intense brand of Islam.

"The police, they have started shooting at us, they are chasing us," Mrs. Tsarnaeva says Tamerlan told her. "Mama, I love you." Then the phone went silent.

Soon, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26 years old and a prime suspect in the bloody marathon bombings, was dead. Within hours, his younger brother and alleged accomplice, 19-year-old Dzhokhar, was severely wounded but in custody after a police manhunt found him hiding under a tarp in a boat called the Slipaway II in Watertown, Mass.

No motive has yet emerged for the brothers' alleged actions. As of late Sunday, officials still couldn't interrogate Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was drifting in and out of consciousness at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Law-enforcement officials trying to understand what happened in Boston are looking into whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev had taken a turn toward radical Islam. Among the things they are examining: a six-month trip he took last year to Dagestan, a republic in Russia's south, bordering Chechnya.

A close examination of the Tsarnaev family shows that, over the past five years or so, the personal lives of the family members slipped into turmoil, according to interviews with the parents, relatives and friends. The upheaval in the household was driven, at least in part, by a growing interest in religion by both Tamerlan and his mother.

Once known as a quiet teenager who aspired to be a boxer, Tamerlan Tsarnaev delved deeply into religion in recent years at the urging of his mother, who feared he was slipping into a life of marijuana, girls and alcohol. Tamerlan quit drinking and smoking, gave up boxing because he thought it was in opposition to his religion, and began pushing the rest of his family to pursue stricter ways, his mother recalled.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was known to visit Al Bara Market and other Cambridge locations prior to his alleged involvement in the Boston Marathon bombing.

"You know how Islam has changed me," his mother, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in Makhachkala, Dagestan, says he told her.

The changes drove a wedge through the Tsarnaev home at 410 Norfolk St., in Cambridge, Mass. Tamerlan persuaded his mother to cover herself up, which she says at one point distressed her husband, Anzor. "He said, 'You are being crazy, covering yourselves,'" she recalled her husband saying. She said that she told him, "This is what Islamic men should want. This is what I am supposed to do."

The parents' marriage broke up about two years ago. The father—a former boxer himself who was distraught when Tamerlan gave up the sport—has since moved to Dagestan after falling ill. Both parents believe that their sons are being framed for the Boston attack.

Over the past two years, Tamerlan became more confrontational about his religion, engaging in arguments with other worshipers at a Cambridge mosque he sometimes attended, according to a mosque spokesman and worshipers there.

His growing religious interest coincided with a rocky period in his life during which his boxing career stalled, he drifted in and out of community-college courses, he was charged with assault by a girlfriend who said he slapped her, and a friend of his was murdered.

The challenges in the U.S. were hard on the family, which comes from a centuries-old, patriarchal Caucasian tradition of mountain warriors that has often been at odds with Slavic Russian society. "It was hard because you realize that you used to be somebody there, but here, you're a nobody," said Maret Tsarnaeva, the brothers' aunt. "As Chechens, we always had to work hard to prove ourselves, no matter where we were."

Today, both Mr. and Mrs. Tsarnaev are in Dagestan, picking up the pieces from a family drama that has spanned three countries, nearly three decades and the birth of four children.

Back in the 1940s, Anzor Tsarnaev's parents were deported to Kyrgyzstan from their native Chechnya after Josef Stalin's regime accused the Caucasian Muslim ethnic group of being Nazi collaborators. Anzor was born and raised in Tokmok, a city not far from the capital of Bishkek. He was one of 10 siblings, many of whom went on to become lawyers.

He met his wife, Zubeidat, in Elista, the provincial capital of the Kalmykia region, where they were both students. Zubeidat, an ethnic Avar, came from Dagestan.

Though Tamerlan was born in Kalmykia, now part of Russia, the family blossomed after settling back in Kyrgyzstan, growing to include two daughters, Ailina and Bella, and Dzhokhar. Mr. Tsarnaev landed a job in the prosecutor's office in Bishkek.

"For a Chechen to get a job in the Kyrgyz government, he had a chance to make it," his sister, Maret, said in an interview at her home in the Toronto suburbs.

Nadezhda Nazarenko, who lived in the same building as the Tsarnaevs in Tokmok, recalled how Mr. Tsarnaev departed for work each morning and Mrs. Tsarnaeva dressed her kids tight and warm for the winter. "Even before they came here, there had been talk about how they were preparing to make it to America," said Ms. Nazarenko, a 64-year-old pensioner. "It was his dream—the father's."

According to his sister, Anzor was fired from his job in Bishkek shortly after war broke out in Chechnya in 1999, the second time the Kremlin tried to quell a separatist insurgency there since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He started working as a mechanic. "He had to feed his family," his sister said, suggesting that he was fired due to discrimination against Chechens that accompanied the war. "He fled only because of this persecution," she said.

The family first moved to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, before crossing the Atlantic to the U.S. about 10 years ago. By then, Anzor already had his sister in Canada and a brother in the U.S.

The family settled in a working-class apartment on the suburban-Boston border of Somerville and Cambridge. And the difficulty of making it in America as immigrants with meager money and little English set in. Anzor again worked as a mechanic, at times fixing cars on the street for $10 an hour. Zubeidat went to cosmetology school and started giving facials at a suburban Boston spa.

Tamerlan threw himself into boxing. He became one of the top amateur boxers in the U.S., according to Douglas Yoffe, coach of the Harvard Boxing Club. Tamerlan would fight as his father coached.

The young boxer possessed a cool, polished fighting style but came off as "cocky" and "sort of arrogant," Mr. Yoffe said. "He seemed almost disdainful of all these other fighters," he said.

Kendrick Ball, owner of Camp Get Right Boxing Gym in Worcester, Mass., remembers Tamerlan for his look. "He was dressed like he was about to walk on the runway," Mr. Ball said. The first time he met Tamerlan, in 2010, "He had on a trench coat and a pair of tight jeans, silver shoes, a white shirt unbuttoned halfway down and hair pushed back like John Travolta."

Tamerlan qualified for the 2009 National Golden Gloves tournament after winning the New England regional competitions, but he lost in the first round. He won the New England regional title again in 2010 but didn't fight in the national competition. It was unclear why.

In high school at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, Tamerlan was reserved. He haunted the library and rarely skipped class, heading to the gym most days after school to practice boxing, said his classmate, Luis Vasquez.

He and his brother liked to throw parties. A neighbor, Rinat Harel, said that about five years ago the brothers used to host loud gatherings, grilling and drinking in a shared courtyard until midnight or later.

Then Tamerlan hit headwinds. His ambitions to be a champion boxer stalled. Community college proved costly, and he didn't have a job. He also had problems in his love life that included a frantic 911 call that a woman, identified as his girlfriend, made in July 2009.

"Yes, I slapped her," Tamerlan told police in front of his home, according to the police report. The domestic-abuse case was dismissed at a jury trial in 2010.

He later married a different woman, Katherine Russell, a former Suffolk University student from North Kingstown, R.I., and she is the mother of his child. Her family released a statement saying they now realize they never knew the real Tamerlan Tsarnaev and declined interview requests. Late Sunday, the family's attorney in a statement said Ms. Russell didn't notice any troubling changes in Tamerlan in the months and years before the attack.

Meanwhile a friend of Tamerlan's, Brendan Mess, was murdered in the Boston-area city of Waltham on Sept. 11, 2011, in a case that has remained unresolved. And Tamerlan's father grew increasingly ill.

During this turmoil, his mother encouraged him to turn to Islam. "I told Tamerlan that we are Muslim, and we are not practicing our religion, and how can we call ourselves Muslims?" Mrs. Tsarnaeva said. "And that's how Tamerlan started reading about Islam, and he started praying, and he got more and more and more into his religion."

Relatives and friends say they saw a shift in the young man. Neighbors noticed that the parties stopped. "I'm telling you, something turned," said Mr. Vasquez. "And it was dramatic."

Tamerlan wasn't the only Tsarnaev who was changing. His mother grew more religious alongside him. She quit her job at the spa and started doing facials in her home, saying she didn't want to work on men. "I started reading and started learning, I started reading with my Tamerlan," Mrs. Tsarnaeva said.

Her sister-in-law, Maret, said she was startled by the transformation. She recalled having a Skype conversation with Anzor, while he was in Makhachkala, and spotting Zubeidat in the background covered in a veil. "We're not used to seeing her like that because she used to wear high heels and a low dress," Maret said.

The changes grated on Anzor. He was particularly frustrated by Tamerlan's decision around 2011 to quit boxing.

Anzor Tsarnaev said he was "outraged" by his son's decision to drop boxing. He said Tamerlan told him that a Muslim must not punch another man in the face.

Anzor said he grew up in Soviet times, when it was taken for granted that Muslims didn't have to follow such strict rules. "I told him I trained him all his life so that he could accomplish something, so that he could be a champion at something," Anzor said. "He discarded it."

He said the tensions over Tamerlan's strict adherence to religion, along with his own health problems, weighed on him and his marriage. He became "very depressed," he said. Eventually, Anzor left his wife, and left the U.S.

Dzhokhar, meanwhile, remained quiet and happy-go-lucky through high school. "He was just this scrawny little kid who was always giggling and happy," said Juliette Terry, 20, who met Dzhokhar in elementary school and was part of a group of friends with whom he attended prom. "I can't remember him saying a mean word in his life."

Dzhokhar moved on to the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. For orientation, in 2011, he participated in the summer reading program and commented in a group discussion blog about the "West Memphis Three," the well-known case of men convicted of murder as teens only to be later released due to new evidence.

"In this case it would have been hard to protect or defend these boys if the whole town exclaimed in happiness at his arrest," Dzhokhar wrote. "Also, to go against the authorities is not the easiest thing to do. Don't get me wrong though, I am appalled at the situation but I think the town was scared and desperate to blame someone."

There are some signs he grew more reserved in college. One freshman-year professor expressed surprise at hearing Dzhokhar was active in high school, because "he was definitely quiet, the 'pulling teeth' kind." Lauryn Mort, 19, who worked with Dzhokhar on an English project last spring, said he was smart but seemed to care little about class work. He often showed up late to class, she said.

Others noted the domineering affect his older brother seemed to have. Gilberto Junior, owner of Junior Auto Body in Somerville, Mass., who regularly worked on the brothers' cars, said Dzhokhar was sociable when he came in by himself but silent with his brother.

Around this time, Tamerlan grew more confrontational in his religious beliefs. Ruslan Tsarni, the boys' uncle, said he realized in 2009 that Tamerlan had changed and was spewing "this radical crap." People who knew him say Tamerlan would express outrage when he perceived a religious slight and was critical of Muslim immigrants' efforts to assimilate in the U.S.

In one incident last November, Tamerlan confronted a shopkeeper at a Middle Eastern grocery store in Cambridge, near a mosque where he sometimes prayed, after seeing a sign there advertising Thanksgiving turkeys.

"Brother, why did you put up this sign?" the shopkeeper, Abdou Razak, recalled him asking angrily. "This is kuffar"—an Arabic reference to non-Muslims—"that's not right!"

At Friday prayers that month, Tamerlan stood up and challenged a sermon in which the speaker said that, just like "we all celebrate the birthday of the Prophet, we can also celebrate July 4 and Thanksgiving," according to Yusufi Vali, a mosque spokesman. Mr. Vali said Tamerlan stated that he "took offense to celebrating anything," be it the Prophet's birthday (which not all Muslims celebrate) or American holidays.

Tamerlan also protested at Friday prayers in January, around the Martin Luther King Day holiday, when a speaker compared the civil-rights leader with the Prophet Muhammad, Mr. Vali said. Tamerlan interrupted the sermon and called the speaker a hypocrite, while some in the congregation shouted back, "You're the hypocrite!" Mr. Vali said.

That was Tamerlan's last outburst at the mosque, according to Mr. Vali. He said a respected member of the community told Tamerlan afterward, "If this happens again, you're out."

Earlier, Tamerlan had attracted the attention of the FBI. His father said the officers visited one-and-a-half years ago to discuss Tamerlan's interests and had tea in his third-floor apartment. "They told me they were watching everything—what we look at on the computers, what we talked about on the phone," he said. "I said that's fine. That's what they should be doing."

The boys' mother, Mrs. Tsarnaeva, said Tamerlan was defiant in his meetings with FBI officials. "I am in a country that gives me the right to read whatever I want and watch whatever I want,'" Mrs. Tsarnaeva recalled her son saying. "He was even trying to get the FBI [agent] to convert to Islam."

Mrs. Tsarnaeva was in Dagestan as the manhunt for her children unfolded in Boston. She received a text message from her daughter Bella telling her to turn on the TV.

"I looked for the remote and couldn't find it," Mrs. Tsarnaeva said. Finally, her daughter phoned, she said, and told her: "Mama, I'm sorry to tell you this. I'm sorry to tell you that Tamerlan is killed."


Jennifer Smith, Josh Dawsey, Alison Fox, Will James, Jacob Gershman, Dionne Searcey, Lisa Fleisher, Jennifer Levitz, Jon Kamp, Pervaiz Shallwani, Stu Woo, Danny Gold, Gary Fields and Sara Germano contributed to this article.

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