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A Week After Arrest, More Unknowns Than Knowns In Boston Bombing Case

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, is shown after he was found hiding in a boat in a Boston suburb on April 19.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, is shown after he was found hiding in a boat in a Boston suburb on April 19.
By RFE/RL
The revelation that two ethnic Chechen brothers were behind the Boston Marathon bombings has evolved into a larger question about the United States and Russia.

Namely, how much did each country know about the suspects? And which side was responsible, however unwittingly, for the brothers' extremism?

It's been a week since police arrested 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, following a gunbattle that left him wounded and his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan, dead.

Since then, Dzhokhar has reportedly told investigators that he and his brother were apprehended as they were attempting to drive to New York to launch a second attack. He also described himself and his brother as "self-radicalized" and motivated in part by the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That explanation, however, is unlikely to erase doubts about the nature of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's six-month sojourn to Daghestan a year before the attack.
Patimat Suleimanova, an aunt of Boston bombing suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, holds a family photo at her house in Makhachkala showing the two as young boys .
Patimat Suleimanova, an aunt of Boston bombing suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, holds a family photo at her house in Makhachkala showing the two as young boys .

Tamerlan, an aspiring boxer and college dropout, was already on U.S. and Russian security watch lists by the time he traveled to the North Caucasus, the site of near-constant Islamist and clan violence since Russia's dual military campaigns in Chechnya.

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) warned the United States as early as March 2011 that Tamerlan was a "follower of radical Islam" intent on traveling to the Caucasus to meet up with militant groups.

FBI agents made contact with Tamerlan and his family, but found no compelling evidence that he was involved in radical activity. The FSB, for its part, did not move to prevent him from either entering or exiting Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, addressing the bombing for the first time on April 25, offered no explanation for the apparent lapse, saying only that security services lacked substantive evidence to share with their U.S. counterparts because Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a U.S. resident and had only visited Russia.

What Happened In Makhachkala?

Tamerlan had ostensibly traveled to the Daghestani capital, Makhachkala, to visit his parents, who had returned to live in Daghestan after a decade in the United States, and to renew his Russian passport.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev (right) appears to have been disaffected with life in the United States.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev (right) appears to have been disaffected with life in the United States.

In an interview with RFE/RL, his father, Anzor Tsarnaev, roundly rejected speculation that Tamerlan spent his time radicalizing or learning the craft of bomb-making.

"[Tamerlan] had no [radical] ideas whatsoever. I don't get it, who could have come up with that? He was with me in Makhachkala and he used to sleep until 3 p.m. I even used to poke him, asking him if he came here just to sleep," Anzor Tsarnaev said. "I was taking him to visit relatives, have some meals, this and that. Once we were back home, he would always just go to bed."

Anzor, who has announced plans to return to the United States to bury Tamerlan and visit Dzhokhar, said on April 25 he wanted "to find out the truth" and that he believed his son was framed.

READ MORE: Mystery Swirls Around Boston Bombing Suspect's Trip To Daghestan 

Other relatives have offered different views on Tamerlan's activities while in Daghestan. An aunt, Patimat Suleimanova, said her nephew arrived in the republic two months before his father, and had come to Makhachkala to "tell people in Daghestan that they should pray."

Suleimanova also suggested that Tamerlan -- who arrived sporting a Western-style pom-pom hat and light-colored shoes -- was seen as an Americanized dandy and failed to gain acceptance among his Daghestani peers and the local boxing community. "As an athlete, he came here hoping to train and to fight in the ring some day," she said. "But coaches usually train fighters from the beginning of their careers, so that's why I think he wasn't able to find a common language with a coach here."

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar's mother has offered some of the most eccentric commentary on the attack. Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, who admits to introducing her sons to "Misha," a mysterious Islamic convert who may have played a role in their evolving political views, herself left the United States shortly after she was charged with stealing $1,600 in clothing from a department store in July 2012.

Now in Makhachkala, she says she regrets ever bringing her children to the United States, and has embraced a theory that is rapidly gaining traction in Daghestan -- that the marathon bombings were staged, the pictures of victims faked, and that her two sons were set up as convenient Muslim suspects. Speaking on April 25, she said the marathon was "made up," with "paint instead of blood."

READ MORE: Many In North Caucasus Believe Boston Bombing Suspects Are Innocent

Such conspiracy theories are common in the North Caucasus, which has grown habitually defensive after years of Kremlin antagonism. But the rumors, this time, have also been fueled by Internet theorists, many in the United States, who continue to parse photographs and other evidence.

Brothers With Very Different Stories

Amateur online sleuths have been blamed for a number of false accusations and general mayhem in the days leading up to the Tsarnaevs' identification.

But the Internet has also proved an unlikely source of public support for the alleged bombers. Amid mounting doubts about the U.S. commitment to civil liberties, petitions have been posted on Facebook, Twitter, and Change.org calling for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to receive a fair trial.

In many ways, it is 19-year-old Dzhokhar whose role in the bombing has resisted easy interpretation in a disjointed family of Chechen immigrants who had achieved vastly varying degrees of success in their adopted homeland.

Anzor Tsarnaev (left) and Zubeidat Tsarnaeva have denied that their sons Tamerlan and Dzhokhar could be responsible for the Boston bombings.
Anzor Tsarnaev (left) and Zubeidat Tsarnaeva have denied that their sons Tamerlan and Dzhokhar could be responsible for the Boston bombings.

His older brother had demonstrably grown disenchanted with life in the United States. Tamerlan was a welfare recipient with a young wife and daughter, prone to angry outbursts and violence. The brothers' uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, a Maryland corporate lawyer, has loudly declaimed Tamerlan's failures, calling him a "loser" who "deserved to die."

Dzhokhar, by contrast, had received an academic scholarship and was studying at a university not far from Boston. An accomplished athlete, he was also, by all accounts, a typically laid-back college student who smoked marijuana and enjoyed a wide circle of Russian- and English-speaking friends.

Many of his acquaintances have expressed shock at his involvement, including George McMasters, a U.S. military reservist who had hired Dzhokhar to work as a lifeguard at a Harvard University pool. "I knew he was from Russia. I had asked him where he was from, with his name, [but] he seemed like a regular, young American boy," he said.

"He did know that I had been in Iraq and I was going to Afghanistan, so he asked me a little bit about what the wars were like. I told him it was tough duty and a lot of sad things, but he never pressed me for any information on explosives or anything like that."

A Chechen Connection?

Such accounts may lend credence to Dzhokhar's reported admission that the Boston attack was fueled by the brothers' resentment of U.S. military involvement abroad.

To be certain, family members have hotly dismissed suggestions that such an assault could be motivated by lingering anger over the Russian campaign in Chechnya. Despite a peripatetic childhood that included stops in Daghestan and Kyrgyzstan, neither brother ever lived in Chechnya, according to their father -- though that claim is contradicted by friends and relatives in Kyrgyzstan who said the family lived briefly in Chechnya on at least one occasion.

During his six-month 2012 visit, Tamerlan is believed to have visited the Chechen towns of Urus-Martan and Chiri-Yurt, where many of his father's relatives live. Several family members, including Anzor Tsarnaev's brother-in-law, are believed to have close ties to the security services of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Relatives in both towns refused to speak to RFE/RL correspondents.

Kadyrov himself has said it is "futile" to link Chechnya to the bombings, suggesting investigators would do better to look to the United States, where the Tsarnaevs' "attitudes and beliefs were formed."

The region's main insurgent group, the Caucasus Emirate, has also denied any connection to either the Tsarnaevs or the Boston attacks, saying the U.S. should look instead to Russia's special services.

Putin, whose years in power have been marked by numerous terrorist acts claimed by pro-Chechen Islamist extremists, has long sought to enlist U.S. aid in battling what he calls the "international terrorist threat" in his country. On April 25, Putin said the Tsarnaev brothers had "confirmed the correctness" of Russian apprehension regarding the Caucasus, and he called for closer ties between the United States and Russia in combatting terrorism.

At a time U.S.-Russia relations are especially rancorous, the sudden Chechnya link may give the Kremlin greater leverage in persuading Washington to cooperate on suspects viewed as a particular threat by Moscow, particularly as the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics approach, Reuters reported, citing an unnamed State Department official.

'This Is Not Who We Are'

Beyond the realm of political interests, former acquaintances remain perplexed by the sudden notoriety of a family they remember as educated and "decent." In Tokmok, the northern Kyrgyz town where the Tsarnaev family lived for much of the 1980s and '90s, a former fourth-grade classmate of Tamerlan's said she had only "positive" memories of him and his family.

Such feelings extend to Boston, where anguish over the bombings has mixed with regret that Dzhokhar -- who many acquaintances remember as friendly and sociable, now faces life imprisonment or death if convicted in the bombings, which killed three people and injured more than 260.

Samuel Gebru, a fellow immigrant and former high-school classmate of Dzhokhar's in Cambridge, Massachusetts, remembered Dzhokhar as "a very nice person" and said the local community was "devastated."

"This incident does not define who we are as a people in Cambridge and worldwide, as a whole. There is more to Cambridge, there is more to Chechnya, there is more to Islam, there is more to immigration than this issue in particular," Gebru said.

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting by Tom Balmforth and Zulfiya Gadzhiyeva in Makhachkala; RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in Chiri-Yurt and Urus-Martan; Timur Toktonaliev and Ulanbek Asanaliev in Tokmok; Claire Bigg in Prague; Heather Maher in Boston; and Richard Solash in Washington

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