As the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings continues, one of the more clouded aspects is the tale of “Misha,” a mysterious US-based Islamist who has been accused by members of the Tsarnaev family of radicalizing Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two alleged bombers. “It started in 2009. And it started right there, in Cambridge,” Tamerlan’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, told CNN 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, and over the past few days, the FBI has said it has located and has been talking to “Misha,” though his identity has remained unknown.
Today I was able to meet “Misha,” whose real name is Mikhail Allakhverdov. Having been referred by a family in Boston that was close to the Tsarnaevs, I found Allakhverdov at his home in Rhode Island, in a lower middle class neighborhood, where he lives in modest, tidy apartment with his elderly parents. 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.
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 recent reports that the FBI have not found any connection between “Misha” and the bomb plot.
One question is why members of the Tsarnaev family have made accusations about Allakhverdov. A close friend of the family in Boston said that Misha was not known to have visited Tamerlan at home. I interviewed Allakhverdov in Russian and it seems likely that in whatever contact the two men had, they would have spoken Russian.
In many ways, Allakhverdov’s parents seem typical former-Soviet émigrés who had embraced middle class life in the United States. His father is an Armenian Christian and his mother is an ethnic Ukrainian. The family had lived in Baku, Azerbaijan, but had left in the early 1990s for the United States to escape growing persecution of Armenian Christians there. The family was welcoming to me but very nervous. “We love this country. We never expected anything like this to happen to us,” his father said.
Christian Caryl’s full report on the Tsarnaev family and the Chechen community in Boston appears in the June 6, 2013 issue of The New York Review.