North Caucasus to Boston: Rise and fall of the Tsarnaev brothers
Boston bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev emerged from turbulence in the former Soviet Union into a hope-filled future in the U.S. Then something changed.
Bombing suspects Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, left rear, and his brother, Tamerlan, are seen in an image captured by a spectator who was taking photographs near the Boston Marathon finish line April. 15. (Photo by Bob Leonard) More photos
The Tsarnaev brothers’ troubled trail to Boston
Boston bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev emerged from turbulence in the former Soviet Union into a hope-filled future in the U.S. Then something changed.
By Kim Murphy, Joseph Tanfani and Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times
April 28, 2013
Anzor Tsarnaev was tough, a championship boxer back home, and he wanted his oldest boy to be tough too.
Rain or shine, like a scene from “Rocky,” the wiry Chechen immigrant would ride his bicycle as his son Tamerlan jogged to a Boston-area boxing gym, pushing him to run faster, to punch harder.
“He was his trainer, basically,” said Joe Timko, Anzor’s supervisor at Webster Auto Body, a corner repair shop in Somerville. “And he was an old Russian soldier. He’d make him run for miles.”
Armed with a good left jab and powerful right, “Tam,” as friends called him, climbed the ranks in regional tournaments and dreamed of joining the U.S. Olympic boxing team. At home, a crowded third-floor walk-up, he showed off by doing chin-ups outside. At night, he played the piano and accordion.
But by 2009, Tamerlan’s life abruptly changed course. He told his parents that “the Koran prohibits beating people in the face.” He grew a beard, began to pray more than five times a day, dropped out of college and gave up stylish leather pants for sweat pants. He argued with friends over politics, picked a fight at a pizza parlor, shouted at speakers at a mosque.
“He gave up drinking and smoking, and he even gave up boxing he loved so much,” said his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva. Anzor Tsarnaev said he was brainwashed by religion.
His uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, asked why he didn’t get a job.
“I’m doing bigger things,” Tamerlan told him that August. “Now I’m with God. Now I’m happy.”
Tamerlan, 26, died nine days ago after he and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, were in a shootout with police. Dzhokhar is in custody at a medical facility for prisoners on federal charges that he planted one of the two nail-filled bombs that exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15.
TimelineChechnya to Boston: A family history
Investigators are convinced both brothers carried out the plot, which killed three people and wounded more than 260. Yet it did not appear meticulously planned. Authorities say they planted homemade bombs in full view of surveillance cameras, and when their pictures emerged three days later, they tried to flee with no cash, no disguises and one firearm. Officials say that they killed an MIT police officer for his pistol but couldn’t figure out how to unlock the holster.
Now investigators are struggling to understand: How did a cocky young athlete and his skateboard-riding brother, if authorities are correct, become do-it-yourself Islamist terrorists?
Chechen refugees like the Tsarnaevs have a grim history in the North Caucasus. Under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, residents were forced out at gunpoint, mostly to the wastelands of what are now Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. The Tsarnaevs raised their family largely in Kyrgyzstan, but moved to Chechnya in 1992 to return to their roots.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, left, seen in an image from a Russian social media site, once listed his goals as “career and money.” His elder brother, Tamerlan, right, told a newspaper in 2004: “I like the U.S.A. ... America has a lot of jobs. That’s something Russia doesn’t have.” (AFP/Getty Images) More photos
When Chechens fought for independence in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow crushed the rebellion. The Chechen capital, Grozny, was bombed to rubble. Families watched as Russian troops set their homes afire. Villages would wake to find the head of a perceived collaborator on a stick, the grisly work of shadowy forces.
“Sleep, sleep, don’t stay near the bed,” a famous Chechen lullaby goes. “The grand wicked will come. The grand wicked will swallow you.”
The war pushed the Tsarnaevs back to Kyrgyzstan, and then to Dagestan in 1999, but the insurgency followed them. While in Dagestan, Anzor and 14-year-old Tamerlan ran into trouble with local police, who “beat the hell out of them,” Tsarni, the boys’ uncle, said. The cause wasn’t clear, and probably didn’t matter. Abuses by security forces were routine.
Applying as political refugees, Anzor and Zubeidat won U.S. asylum and landed in Boston in April 2002 with Dzhokhar, then 8. Tamerlan and his two sisters, Bella and Ailina, followed in July 2003.
The family rented a small apartment atop a weathered house in the back of a courtyard on Norfolk Street, a blue-collar part of Cambridge, and hung towels and sheets for curtains. In the tightly packed enclave, one neighbor recalled regular screaming from the Tsarnaev flat but wrote it off as family squabbles.
Anzor, who had held a prestigious job as investigator for the prosecutor’s office in Kyrgyzstan, scrambled to start life anew in America. He found work at garages, or repaired cars outside the house for $10 an hour. Zubeidat, who wore stylish dresses and high heels, went to cosmetology school and got a job giving facials to women at a salon.
Both boys attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a public high school a few blocks from Harvard’s campus. Tamerlan played on the volleyball team. The school’s wrestling team elected Dzhokhar — known to his friends as “Jahar” — as their captain.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev accepts a Golden Gloves trophy in Lowell, Mass., in 2010 and boxes at a national tournament in Salt Lake City in 2009. “Nobody liked him. They thought he was too cocky and self-centered, but what boxer isn’t?” said one sparring partner, Johnathan Pabon, of Somerville, Mass. (Julia Malakie / Lowell Sun) More photos
He was small but he “led by example,” recalled one teammate, Rockeem Robinson. Another, Sanjaya Lanichhane, said Dzhokhar volunteered to help the disabled through the Best Buddies program. They talked calculus and physics over lunch, and he was “friendly, funny, smart, above-average intelligence,” Lanichhane said.
After graduation in 2006, Tamerlan enrolled part-time at Bunker Hill Community College and took accounting. On weekends, he helped his father fix car transmissions and kept up his boxing. He made money delivering pizzas.
Tamerlan composed music and sometimes surprised his boxing friends by sitting down at a piano and playing an intricate melody.
“It was not rock or classical, it was this quiet, nice, modern music I loved so much,” said his mother.
Neighbors found him charming. “He was just super outgoing, wanting to make friends,” said one, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We talked about skiing, and he said, like, ‘I don’t have any skiing buddies. Next time you go, we should go together.’”
Tamerlan moved to trainers at gyms across Massachusetts as he rose in the regional heavyweight class, winning a local Golden Gloves novice cup.
He went on to represent Team New England in the national Golden Gloves championship tournament in 2009, but he was disqualified in 2010 because of complaints that non-U.S. citizens should not be allowed to compete. It also killed his Olympic dream.
“In that weight division, he’s probably one of the best out of New England,” recalled Kendrick Ball, owner of the Camp Get Right Boxing Gym, tucked in the back of an industrial building in Worcester, where Tamerlan sometimes sparred.
Nobody liked him. They thought he was too cocky and self-centered."— Johnathan Pabon Sparring partner
In a video from a fight in Lowell, the pounding theme music from “Rocky” roused the crowd as Tamerlan was introduced, wearing yellow head gear, long white trunks and a blue sleeveless shirt. He circled the ring, testing. He threw a left jab. Then another. A third. Suddenly he landed a powerful right punch to his opponent’s head. Tamerlan won the round.
But some fighters mocked him for his fancy clothes and for being so high on himself. Johnathan Pabon, a sparring partner, said Tamerlan’s shoes looked like alligator, and he wore a scarf of chinchilla.
“Nobody liked him,” Pabon said. “They thought he was too cocky and self-centered. But what boxer isn’t?”
Even outside the ring, his violent side — and family turmoil — was never far from the surface.
In 2007, Tamerlan confronted a Brazilian youth who had dated his younger sister, Bella, for about two years, and punched him in the face. Ana Merino, a high school friend of Bella’s, said Tamerlan did not approve because the boy was not a Muslim.
Tamerlan was “very overprotective” of his sisters,” Merino recalled. “He wanted them to date within their religion.”
His other sister, Ailina, had married and moved to Bellingham, Wash. In May 2008, she complained to her mother, Zubeidat, over the phone that her husband, Elmirza Khozhugov, was cheating on her and beating her. Court records show he tried to strangle her and grabbed her hair; he pleaded guilty to assault.
Tamerlan immediately flew across the country to “straighten up the brains” of his brother-in-law, his mother said. Tamerlan “roughed up” Khozhugov, she said. Three weeks later, Ailina flew back to Boston.
On Aug. 12, 2009, Tamerlan was arrested after his then-girlfriend, Nadine Ascencao, called 911 “crying hysterically” and said he had beaten her.
“Yes, I slapped her,” Tamerlan told officers who handcuffed him, according to Cambridge police reports. The case ultimately was dismissed.
‘I don’t have friends’
By then, Tamerlan had started to explore religion and philosophy. He read Gandhi and Confucius, explored the history of Chechnya, and delved deeply into the Koran and the hadith, the sayings of the prophet Muhammad. He also began to look at Islamist websites.
Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, the suspects’ mother, has continued to maintain that they must be innocent. “My son Tamerlan got involved in religious politics five years ago ... and he never ever told me that he would be on the side of jihad,” she said. (Ilkham Katsuyev / Associated Press) More photos
“He was not a loner, but he spent so much time alone in front of his computer,” Zubeidat said. “He said to me once: ‘Mom, I don’t have friends and I don’t have enemies in America. I just don’t have time for them.’”
An Armenian who went by the name Misha began visiting the apartment to tutor Tamerlan and his mother about Islam. The FBI is still searching for him.
“Misha had a talent to speak about things, especially Islam, in a manner that made you sit still and listen to him with an open mouth,” Zubeidat recalled. “I can’t say that Misha imposed religion on Tamerlan. No, he was very tactful and very casual about it. In the end it appeared that Tamerlan made this choice in favor of religion himself.”
Tamerlan’s father was furious when he found Misha, a convert to Islam, in his kitchen night after night. He called a friend and complained that “this jerk, this new convert, took [Tamerlan’s] brain away.”
Zubeidat told her husband that she and Tamerlan were becoming more pious. She gave up her high heels and started wearing a hijab, covering her hair. She was fired from the Essencia Day Spa in Belmont after she said her religion barred her from dealing directly with men coming into the salon.
She could “no longer perform her duties,” said Larissa Dubosarsky, who co-owned the now-closed spa. “We had to let her go.”
From then on, Zubeidat brought female clients to the family’s Norfolk Street apartment for facials.
In 2010, Julian Pollard, a boxer from Brockton, ran into Tamerlan and was surprised at the change.
“He was a humbled guy,” Pollard recalled. “He wasn’t dressing flashy anymore. His conversation, tone, everything was different.”
Anzor Tsarnaev, father of the suspects, at home in Russia’s Dagestan republic. “I have no doubt they were set up,” he said. (AFP/Getty Images) More photos
Tamerlan wanted to talk about his faith, not boxing. “I’m blessed,” he told Pollard.
That June, Tamerlan married Katherine Russell, who was studying communications at Suffolk University in Boston. She moved into the crowded family apartment with her new in-laws.
Tamerlan persuaded her to convert from Christianity to Islam, and neighbors soon saw her wearing a dark head scarf as she pushed their infant daughter, Zahara, in a stroller.
The family was receiving two kinds of welfare until 2012, when Katherine started earning too much money working overtime as a home health aide. Tamerlan cared for their daughter, often bouncing her on his knee as he chatted with friends at local coffee shops.
Meanwhile, Anzor and Zubeidat were not getting along.
“We irritated each other more and more,” Zubeidat said. They filed for divorce in February 2011, and Anzor returned to Dagestan.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev enrolled that year at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, about 60 miles south of Cambridge, to study engineering. If Tamerlan was increasingly dour and devout, his younger brother seemed a happy-go-lucky kid with tousled hair and an easy smile as he weaved down sidewalks on his skateboard.
He tacked a poster of Albert Einstein on the wall of his dorm room and another of a dozen bikini-clad women on a beach. He played soccer, recited Eminem lyrics, and rejected an invitation to join the Muslim Student Assn. Friends say he regularly smoked, and sold, small amounts of marijuana, and that his room reeked of pot.
Dzhokhar’s grades reportedly plunged in his sophomore year. He began spending nights with two Kazakh friends in nearby New Bedford. One of them drove a BMW with a provocative vanity license plate: TERRORISTA #1. Both have now been detained on suspicion of immigration law violations.
On social media, Dzhokhar’s postings — usually laced with whimsy about Nutella and cats — took on a darker tone. “A decade in America already, I want out,” he tweeted in March 2012.
Tamerlan had left Boston in January to visit his father in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. He helped Anzor remodel the ground floor of his house into a perfume shop, and he regularly visited a conservative Wahhabi mosque about two miles away.
Pine Dale Hall dormitory was home for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus. What did he like to talk about? “It was always soccer or girls,” said one friend, Mary Pariseau, who lived on the same floor as him. (Peter Pereira / Standard Times) More photos
Bilsan Udugov, who met him at the mosque, said Tamerlan was ashamed that he could hardly speak Chechen. America was a great country, Tamerlan said, but people “smile at you all the time and forget about you the next moment.”
Russian authorities had warned the FBI and CIA in 2011 that Tamerlan might have ties to radical Islamist groups, but the U.S. agencies said they found no evidence. Since the bombings, U.S. authorities have not seen proof that he met militants or attended terrorist training camps in Dagestan. It’s unclear whether Russian authorities monitored his movements or communications while he was there.
“The fact that Tsarnaev … was not called in for questioning doesn’t necessarily mean his presence here was ignored and his movements and actions were unknown,” said a source in the Russian Interior Ministry in Dagestan.
Zubeidat reconciled with her husband and joined him in August 2012 in Makhachkala, where she was interviewed by phone for this story. Before leaving Boston, she was charged with shoplifting more than $1,600 worth of dresses at a Lord & Taylor store in Natick, according to police records. The warrant is outstanding.
Tsarni calls her a dark influence on his nephew Tamerlan: “She kind of paved the way for his radicalization,” he said at his home in Montgomery Village, Md.
What’s clear is that when Tamerlan came back to Boston in July 2012, his views had grown more extreme.
He posted a YouTube video of desert warriors thundering on horseback from the ancient land of Khorasan in Central Asia, from which the Muslim conquest of the world will begin, according to some militant texts.
Tamerlan expressed anger about the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He shouted and almost came to blows with a customer at Angelo’s, a neighborhood pizza shop, recalled the proprietor, Lou Flores.
“He was saying, ‘It’s not right what this country does in another country,’” Flores said. When the other man stood up and challenged him, Flores ordered them to take the argument outside.
Angry at everyone
Tamerlan seemed angry at almost everyone. In November, at the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge, he shouted at the prayer leader for endorsing Thanksgiving and Fourth of July celebrations, complaining that they were not Muslim holy days.
Little do these dogs know they’re barking at a lion."— Dzhokhar Tsarnaev via Twitter
Two months later, in January, Tamerlan erupted again at the mosque when a speaker praised the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Tamerlan called the prayer leader a nonbeliever and a hypocrite who was “contaminating people’s minds.”
Others in the mosque shouted him down, and religious leaders told him not to return unless he stopped his outbursts. He complied.
By then, it now appears, the two brothers were at least formulating the outlines of a plot, authorities say.
“Little do these dogs know they’re barking at a lion,” Dzhokhar wrote on Twitter on Feb. 2.
On Feb. 6, 10 weeks before the Boston Marathon, Tamerlan walked into a Phantom Fireworks store in Seabrook, N.H. He had at least $400 and was not interested in firecrackers.
“What is the most powerful item you have?” he asked.
Murphy reported from Boston, Tanfani from Washington and Loiko from Moscow. Times staff writers Andrew Tangel, Alana Semuels, Melanie Mason, Michael Mishak, Michael A. Memoli, Ashley Powers, Maria L. LaGanga and Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report.
More great reads:
The Latinx experience chronicled
Get the Latinx Files newsletter for stories that capture the multitudes within our communities.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.