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The Bombers’ World

Many immigrants, of course, confront similar problems. But Tamerlan’s Chechen background had a way of making itself particularly inconvenient. Traditional Chechen culture places a high value on family ties, and the defense of collective “honor,” which is regarded as vested in the women of the clan, is a high priority. A family friend told me a revealing story from a few years back. Anzor learned that his older daughter, Bella, had been seen in the company of a boy during her junior year of high school. The father deemed this unbecoming behavior, and so he kept the girl at home, out of school, for so long that she was denied credit for the school year.

Glenn DePriest/Getty Images
Tamerlan Tsarnaev waits for a decision during the 2009 Golden Gloves National Tournament of Champions, Salt Lake City, Utah, May 4, 2009

By tradition, it’s up to the family’s eldest son to enforce the rules for his siblings, so Tamerlan was dispatched to teach his sister’s would-be wooer a lesson: he found the boy and beat him up. The school then suspended Tamerlan for a week (not that he seems to have minded). Baudy recalls that Tamerlan exercised a similarly domineering influence over his younger brother—especially after their father decided to return to Russia about a year ago, leaving them behind. “His brother pressured [Dzhokhar] a lot,” says Baudy. “His brother would have had the most influence—especially when his dad left. That’s the cultural thing.”

As ominous as these details might appear in retrospect, they don’t necessarily indicate a predisposition to terrorism. Nor, indeed, does the fact that Tamerlan experienced a sudden, visible turn toward a conservative version of Islam some four years ago, about the time he decided to get married to his American-born girlfriend, Katherine Russell, whom he persuaded to convert to his religion. The two married and had a baby soon after. Katherine began wearing the headscarf of an observant Muslim woman; so, too, did Tamerlan’s mother, who had hitherto shown a partiality for short skirts and flashy clothes.

The notably irreligious father of the family roundly rejected their new piety, and the divide soon created fresh sources of friction. But the laid-back Dzhokhar, the younger brother, knuckled under. “My brother is telling me to be more Islamic,” Baudy recalls Dzhokhar saying. “Before [Dzhokhar] wouldn’t pray. But then he did. The only reason Jahar started to was because he lived in the same house and they told him to.” That the younger brother was not as committed to religious ideals as his older sibling is borne out by the many accounts of Dzhokhar’s use of drugs: he was an inveterate pot smoker. Yet Dzhokhar’s page on the Russian social media website vKontakte appears to show that he frequented a number of Islamic religious websites (During interrogation by FBI agents after he was taken into custody, Dzhokhar said that he and his brother had watched online sermons by the radical cleric and al-Qaeda sympathizer Anwar al-Awlaki).1 It’s possible, of course, that he felt sincerely wedded to his identity as a Muslim even though he had a hard time avoiding the temptations that face the typical young American.

For a time Tamerlan seems to have gone through a phase in which he adopted the ways of the Salafis, ultraconservative Muslims who want to strip Islam of all of its “modern” accretions and return to the purity of the Prophet Muhammad’s original community of believers. (The Arabic word salaf means “predecessors.”) For a while Tamerlan grew his beard long and wore the simple gown-like garments characteristic of observant Salafis, but he seems to have given this up after a few months; no one knows precisely why. (Did he decide that he needed to look less conspicuous?)

It is worth noting, perhaps, that such practices have little to do with the traditional religious culture in Chechnya itself. A source close to the family tells me that Anzor, the father, even denounced his son’s behavior—especially his decision to marry an American woman rather than a Chechen—as a rejection of their Chechen roots. At the Cambridge mosque where Tamerlan sometimes worshiped, he attracted attention on at least two occasions during prayer services by speaking out against moderate imams who were preaching the virtues of tolerance. “When he first started getting serious about religion, I asked his mother whether he was studying with an imam in the local mosque,” the family friend told me. “She said no, he’s learning by himself on the Internet.”

We now have, perhaps, some idea of what he must have been looking at. The YouTube page registered under Tamerlan’s name has links to rousing sermons by imams (in English) and an instructional video explaining the proper way to perform Muslim rituals (in Russian). But there’s also a clip entitled “The Emergence of Prophesy: Black Flags from Khorasan,” a rousing jihadi anthem favored by al-Qaeda. Another features a ballad that extols the exploits of the Chechen jihadis in their war against the Russians.

For a young Muslim firebrand with roots in the North Caucasus, this must have made for a heady mix of adventure, violence, and seductive (though horribly misguided) idealism—a stark contrast with the grubby reality in which Tamerlan was an unemployed stay-at-home father of a small girl, a man with no visible prospects, dependent on a wife who was working long hours as a home caregiver. This was hardly the grandiose life that his worshipful parents had foreseen for him.

Several members of the extended Tsarnaev family have raised the possibility that a specific person was responsible for Tamerlan’s radicalization. Some accused a mysterious figure named “Misha” of encouraging Tamerlan’s zealousness. “It started in 2009. And it started right there, in Cambridge,” Tamerlan’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, said after the attacks. “This person just took his brain. He just brainwashed him completely.” These accusations set off a frenzied search for what some reports have called an Islamic “Svengali,” who was described as an Armenian convert to Islam with a reddish beard. (In late April, FBI sources said that they believed they had located Misha and interviewed him, but journalists were unable to track him down.)

Misha’s name came up during one of my conversations in Boston with people who knew the Tsarnaevs. My interlocutor remembered him well, and told me that his real name was Mikhail Allakhverdov. Finding the right address was not hard, since there’s only one man in the region with that name. I soon found Allakhverdov at the small apartment where he lives with his parents in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in West Warwick, Rhode Island. He confirmed he was a convert to Islam and that he had known Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but he flatly denied any part in the bombings. “I wasn’t his teacher. If I had been his teacher, I would have made sure he never did anything like this,” Allakhverdov said.

A thirty-nine-year-old man of Armenian-Ukrainian descent, Allakhverdov is of medium height and has a thin, reddish-blond beard. When I arrived he was wearing a green and white short-sleeve football jersey and pajama pants. Along with his parents, his American girlfriend was there, and we sat together in a tiny living room that abuts the family kitchen. The girlfriend, who was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, shook my hand, as did Misha himself and his elderly mother and father. This was, in itself, somewhat revealing. A Salafi Muslim man generally doesn’t allow strangers to have physical contact with his wife, mother, or female companion—and it’s even more unlikely that he’d allow an outsider to see a female acquaintance uncovered.

Allakhverdov said he had known Tamerlan in Boston, where he lived until about three years ago, and has not had any contact with him since. He declined to describe the nature of his acquaintance with Tamerlan or the Tsarnaev family, but said he had never met the family members who are now accusing him of radicalizing Tamerlan. He also confirmed he had been interviewed by the FBI and that he has cooperated with the investigation:

I’ve been cooperating entirely with the FBI. I gave them my computer and my phone and everything. I wanted to show I haven’t done anything. And they said they are about to return them to me. And the agents who talked told me they are about to close my case.

An FBI spokesman in Boston declined to comment on an ongoing case. Allakhverdov’s statements, however, seemed to bear out his claim that the FBI has not found any connection between “Misha” and the bomb plot.

It’s certainly possible that Alla- khverdov may have had a part in urging Tamerlan to embrace a more fervent version of Islam. Zubeidat, the mother, has explicitly credited Misha with opening her eyes to Islam: “I wasn’t praying until he prayed in our house, so I just got really ashamed that I am not praying, being a Muslim, being born Muslim,” she said. “I am not praying. Misha, who converted, was praying.”2 Many questions about Misha’s role remain unanswered. The family, who emigrated to the US from post-Soviet Azerbaijan because of the ethnic conflict that broke out there in the early 1990s, was welcoming to me when we met but very nervous, and declined to answer most of my questions about the Tsarnaevs. “We love this country. We never expected anything like this to happen to us,” his father said.

In 2012 Tamerlan suddenly announced to his family that he had decided to return to Dagestan—ostensibly to apply for a renewal of his Russian passport. The family was caught off guard. Zubeidat, the mother, was left to take care of Katherine and their young daughter in his absence. At first he planned to spend three months in Russia, but he later extended his stay, claiming that he had been robbed of all his papers, and that he couldn’t get back to the US without them. At another time he cited a bad back injury from years earlier, and said that he needed to seek treatment.

It’s not clear why he chose to stay. But some reports recently floated in the Russian press, particularly a story in the Moscow weekly Novaya Gazeta, provide grounds for a theory. Anonymous sources have told Russian journalists that Tamerlan had made contact with two young would-be holy warriors who aspired to join the Islamist insurgency in the mountains of Dagestan. One of the men was a Canadian of Russian immigrant background, a convert to Islam, named William Plotnikov. (Like Tamerlan, intriguingly, he was also a boxer.) The other, of mixed Russian-Palestinian parentage, went by the name of Mahmoud Mansur Nidal. The Russian reports claim that Tamerlan met Mansur Nidal several times during his visit to Dagestan, and speculate that Tamerlan, by now eager to prove his worth as a jihadi, was trying to gain admission to one of the insurgent groups so that he could join them in the fight. By necessity, however, such guerrilla movements are extremely picky about accepting unproven new members from the outside world. The vetting process is long and exhaustive, and sometimes includes a “cooling-off period” in which prospective recruits are left to wait for word.

During Tamerlan’s stay, both Plotnikov and Mansur Nidal were killed in confrontations with Russian security forces. Soon after the second man’s death Tamerlan suddenly left Dagestan and rushed off to Moscow, where he caught a plane for the US—apparently without picking up the new Russian passport for which he claimed to have made his journey in the first place. Did he then decide to prove his worth to the cause by carrying out a jihad of his own design on American soil? Or could he have been acting on instructions from people associated with Plotnikov and Mahmoud-Nidal? These are tempting theories. But they should be taken with some skepticism, since they likely come from sources whose interests are impossible to gauge. The Russian government certainly has an interest in gaining US support for Moscow’s own war against its own Islamic radicals.

Each day, indeed, brings fresh questions about the peculiar constellation of forces that seem to have driven the Tsarnaev brothers to commit their crime. We may never get entirely to the bottom of it all.

—May 6, 2013

  1. 1

    There is a Facebook page for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but it appears to be a fake, set up after his identity first became known. 

  2. 2

    See David Caruso, Michael Kunzelman, and Max Seddon, “Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, Mother of Bomb Suspect, Insists Sons Are Innocent,” Huffington Post, April 29, 2013. 

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