With their baseball hats and sauntering gaits, they appeared to friends and neighbors like ordinary American boys. But the Boston bombings suspects were refugees from another world – the blood, rubble and dirty wars of the Russian Caucasus.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was a southpaw heavyweight boxer who represented New England in the National Golden Gloves and talked about competing on behalf of the United States.
His tangle-haired, 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, was a skateboarder who listened to rap and seemed easygoing to other kids in his Cambridge, Mass., neighborhood.
Hidden behind their former lives in Massachusetts is a biography containing old resentments that appear to have mutated into radical Islamic violence.
The brothers who are alleged to have planted bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday reached the United States in 2002 after their ethnic Chechen family fled the Caucasus. They had been living in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan and were prevented from resettling in war-racked Chechnya.
In speaking about his boxing career in 2009, Tamerlan told a photographer that in the absence of an independent Chechnya he would rather compete for the United States than for Russia, a hint that past troubles were not forgotten. He appeared increasingly drawn to radical Islam. On a YouTube channel, he recently shared videos of lectures from a radical Islamic cleric; in one, voices can be heard singing in Arabic as bombs explode.
“My son, Tamerlan, got involved in religious politics five years ago,” his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, told Russia Today television in an interview from Dagestan, the Russian republic bordering Chechnya where she and her husband are living. “He started following his own religious aspects. He never, never told me he would be on the side of jihad.”
His younger brother, who was widely known as “Jahar,” may have followed in his footsteps. “He talked about his brother in good ways,” said Pamala Rolon, who was the resident adviser in the dorm where Dzhokhar lived at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. “I could tell he looked up to his brother.”
While terrorists from the Caucasus have struck in Moscow and other parts of Russia, the conflict in the region has never led to attacks in other countries. One possible explanation for the Boston bombing, said Aslan Doukaev, an expert on the Caucasus who works for Radio Liberty in Prague, is that the brothers were motivated by radical jihadism, not Chechen separatism.
As the war in Chechnya wound down after Russian forces withdrew – they left formally in 2009 – violence has spilled into neighboring republics such as Dagestan, where the Tsarnaev family once found shelter and where the brothers’ parents now live. That conflict is increasingly marked by radical Islamic terrorism in an often vicious cycle of attack and reprisal between insurgents and Russian security forces. Tamerlan visited Dagestan last year, according to an official with knowledge of his travels.
Speaking to journalists in Dagestan on Friday, the brothers’ father, Anzor Tsarnaev, said his sons never had any interest in weapons. “I believe my children were set up,” he said.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, said in a statement that attempts “to draw a parallel between Chechnya and the Tsarnaevs, if they are guilty, are futile. They grew up in the U.S., and their views and beliefs were formed there. The roots of the evil should be looked for in America.”
Anzor Tsarnaev and his wife arrived in the United States in early 2002 after winning refugee status. Their two sons and two daughters followed a short time later.
The father worked as an auto mechanic.
Jerry Siegel, owner of Webster’s Auto Body, in Somerville, Mass., said that the elder Tsarnaev worked for him for about 18 months and that he was an excellent mechanic who spoke little English.
“He was just a hard-working, strong, tough guy,” Siegel said. “He would get under a car in the middle of winter, did whatever I asked.”
Siegel said Anzor left about four years ago for another mechanic’s job. Sometime after that, Anzor got sick and returned to Russia, according to other officials.
His wife is registered as a cosmetologist.
Tamerlan began boxing shortly after arriving in the United States. He registered with USA Boxing, the governing body for Olympic-style boxing, as early as 2003 and steadily rose through the ranks.
By 2009, he reached the national Golden Gloves tournament in Salt Lake City, where he lost a three-round decision.
In 2011, Dzhokhar graduated high school, where he was the captain of the wrestling team, and went on to study at the University of Massachusetts. He hoped to become a dentist.
Ruslan Tsarni, the uncle of the suspected bombers, said he was ashamed of them and urged Dzhokhar to turn himself in and beg forgiveness from the bombing victims.
Asked what provoked his nephews, he replied: “Being losers – hatred to those who were able to settle themselves.”
“We are Muslim. We are ethnic Chechens,” he told reporters outside his house in Montgomery Village. “Somebody radicalized them, but it was not my brother. … Of course, we are ashamed. They are the children of my brother, who has little influence over them.”