Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, a U.S. resident from Russia’s mainly Muslim North Caucasus region, started to focus seriously on Islam three years ago, Patimat Suleimanova, an aunt, told reporters at her home in Makhachkala, the capital of the southern Russian region of Dagestan.
“He wasn’t religious as a child,” Suleimanova, 62, said. “That happens when a person’s soul is lacking something.”
Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokar, 19, are accused of planting two bombs that exploded about 10 seconds apart near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, killing three people and wounding at least 170 more. The elder brother died as the two tried to escape a police dragnet early April 19.
Suleimanova, who is married to the older brother of the suspects’ mother, Zubeidat, said Tamerlan returned to Makhachkala last year to practice sports with the intention of staying in Dagestan if he liked it.
After about half a year, his father, Anzor, told Tamerlan to go back to the U.S. to take care of Dzhokar and his two younger sisters, Suleimanova said. By this time the father was settled back in Dagestan with his wife after returning in May for medical treatment. The family had immigrated to the U.S. about a decade earlier.
“He would have happily stayed here,” Suleimanova said of Tamerlan, adding that like his younger brother, he was financially dependent on his parents and had no permanent job in the U.S. “Then this would’ve never happened and he wouldn’t have died.”
Tamerlan spent most of those six months in Makhachkala reading the Koran at home, aside from a few visits to relatives in other parts of Dagestan and in the neighboring region of Chechnya, the family’s ancestral homeland, according to Suleimanova. The parents, neither of whom is religious, are both lawyers by training who have a local perfume business, she said.
While his father insisted on his return to the U.S., Tamerlan “wanted to go the mountains to rest and focus on himself, learn to read the Koran,” said Suleimanova. His U.S. wife, who had adopted Islam, didn’t accompany him on the trip to Russia, according to the aunt.
Dagestan has been afflicted by an insurgency waged by Islamic rebels for more than a decade. Sixty-seven people were killed in the first three months of the year, according to Kavkazskiy Uzel, a research group that monitors the region.
Tamerlan had been brought to the attention of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation two years ago by a foreign government concerned he held extremist Islamist beliefs, the agency said in a statement. A U.S. law enforcement official identified Russia as that foreign government. The FBI said it found no evidence of terrorist activity at the time.
U.S. authorities believe the two bombing suspects were acting alone and so far haven’t found connections to any groups or other suspects, said a person briefed on the investigation who asked not to be identified because it’s a continuing probe.
Tamerlan was visiting extremist websites and was closely monitored by the FBI, his mother, Zubeidat, said in a phone interview with Russian state broadcaster RT from Makhachkala on April 19.
A profile attributed to Dzhokar on the Russian social networking site Vkontakte has links to several Chechen-related groups, while a Syrian jihadist video posted April 9 on his page purportedly shows images of atrocities in Syria and ends with the Russian phrase, “Syria calls. We answer.”
An Islamic rebel group that claims to represent what it calls the Dagestan Province of the Caucasus Emirate denied any link to the Boston bombings.
“The Caucasian Mujahedeen are not fighting with the United States of America,” the group said in a statement posted on the Vdagestan.com website yesterday. “We are at war with Russia, which is responsible not only for the occupation of the Caucasus, but also for heinous crimes against Muslims.”
Suleimanova said neither she nor other members of the family think the brothers are guilty of the bombings, dismissing any link between them and Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov. He has claimed terrorist attacks in Moscow including a suicide bombing at Domodedovo Airport, the busiest air hub in Russia, which killed at least 37 people in January 2011.
Tamerlan didn’t have contact with Islamic radicals while in Dagestan and didn’t have any problems with law enforcement agencies, his aunt said.
“We don’t believe what we’ve seen on television,” she said, her voice shaking. “I don’t want to believe it.”
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