Boston suspects [Update]: ‘Very normal,’ yet struggling to fit in
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, came to America from central Asia about a decade ago and appeared to have embraced their new life — attending school, holding jobs, playing sports and, in the older brother’s case, aspiring to represent the United States as a boxer in the Olympics.
But there were signs of discontent from the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.
“I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them,” Tamerlan Tsarnaev said, as reported in an online photo essay that shows him training for a boxing competition.
Their aunt, Maret Tsarnaev of Toronto, told Canada’s CTV the two were “very normal men,” but also said Tamerlan Tsarnaev “seemingly did not find himself yet in America because it’s not easy.”
And a man who lived in the same Cambridge neighborhood as the brothers and speaks Russian said the older one told him “he was upset with America because America was in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries.” The man, who declined to give his name, added, “Should I have called someone to tell them this guy doesn’t like America? I’m having second thoughts.”
The brothers were ethnic Chechens born in Kyrgyzstan, a central Asian republic that was part of the former Soviet Union. The family had sought refuge from fighting in Chechnya, said a Russian official. The family then moved for a short time to Makhachkala in Dagestan, next to Chechnya, a mainly Muslim Russian republic that fought a war with Russia marked by terrorist attacks in Moscow and Beslan.
The family then came to the U.S. as refugees, said a law enforcement official, and was granted asylum.
The men’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, told reporters outside his home in Maryland on Friday that they were born in Kyrgyzstan, a central Asian republic that was part of the former Soviet Union. He said he had not seen them since 2005 and has not been in touch with the family for years. He said he “never ever would imagine that somehow the children of my brother would be associated” with Monday’s bombing.
He said he did not know them to have any ill will against the United States. Asked what he thought might have motivated them to set off bombs, Tsarni said, “Being losers, hatred to those who were able to settle themselves, these are the only reasons I can imagine.”
He said it would be a “fraud, a fake” to say it had anything to do with their Muslim religion.
The men’s father, Anzor Tsarnaev, in a phone interview from Makhachkala, said Friday his sons were innocent. “I will never believe my boys could have done such a terrible thing,” he said. “I have no doubt they were set up.”
He said his sons did not know how to handle firearms or explosives. “It is a provocation of the special services who went after them because my sons are Muslims and don’t have anyone in America to protect them,” he said.
“My older son is killed and now they are after my little boy,” he said.
Authorities have not tied the suspects to a terror organization abroad “at this point,” said an FBI official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
“That’s the big question,” he added. “It would certainly change things.”
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, wearing a black cap and labeled Suspect No. 1 in photos released by the FBI, was shot in a confrontation with police early Friday and died at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, labeled Suspect No. 2 and photographed in a white baseball hat that he wore backward, was still on the loose.
Nicolas G. Hercule, a 2006 graduate of Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, a public high school in the Boston suburb, said he was on the volleyball team with Tamerlan Tsarnaev. “He was a cool dude, a nice guy,” said Hercule, who added that they were not particularly close but that his teammate was always friendly to him.
“It’s insane,” Hercule said of news that Tsarnaev was a suspect. “Hard to believe.”
Tamerlan attended Bunker Hill Community College in the Boston suburb of Charlestown, where he studied engineering. He later dropped out, his aunt said.
A website by Toronto-based scientist and photographer Johannes Hirn, which featured images of Tamerlan, describes him as a 196-pound boxer who had hoped to represent New England in the heavyweight category at the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The caption on one photo quotes Tamerlan as saying he had no friends after five years in the United States.
Tamerlan took the semester off from college to train for the competition, according to the 15-photo essay, called “Will Box for Passport,” shot at an unknown date at the Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts Center in Boston.
If he won enough fights at the competition, Tamerlan said on the site, that he could be selected for the U.S. Olympic team and become a naturalized American. Unless Chechnya became independent, he said, he would rather compete for the United States than for Russia.
The Lowell Sun newspaper reported that Tamerlan represented Team New England in the national Golden Gloves tournament in 2009 and 2010. He lost his first bout in the competition in 2009.
“I like the U.S.A. ... America has a lot of jobs. That’s something Russia doesn’t have. You have a chance to make money here if you are willing to work,” he told the Sun in 2004.
In 2003-04 and 2008-2010, Tamerlan was registered as an athlete with USA Boxing, the official body that oversees amateur boxing, said spokeswoman Julie Goldsticker. He listed the Somerville Boxing Club as his gym.
“As a non-citizen, he was not eligible to compete in the majority of national championship events and was not eligible to compete in any Olympic qualifying competition,” Goldsticker wrote in an email.
Hirn’s website said Tamerlan Tsarnaev fled the region with his family because of the conflict in Chechnya in the early 1990s and lived for years in Kazakhstan before coming to the United States.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev said on the website that he doesn’t drink or smoke any more: “God said no alcohol.” He described himself as a Muslim and said, “There are no values anymore.” He said he worried that “people can’t control themselves.”
Maret Tsarnaev said she would not call her nephew devout, but also said that within the last two years he had started praying five times daily as required by Islam.
The photo essay said he drove a Mercedes, dressed fashionably (“European style,” he called it), liked the 2006 movie “Borat” and had little respect for kickboxers. Although he has his shirt off in one of the photos, he said he doesn’t usually do that because he is very religious and doesn’t want to stir lust in women. The essay shows a young unidentified woman who is also a boxer, an American convert to Islam and supposedly his girlfriend.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s YouTube channel, created in August 2012, has religious overtones, as well as links to lighter fare, such as sites for “Vasya Oblomov,” a satirical music project by Russian musician Vasily Goncharov.
Seven months ago, he created channels, one of which has been removed by YouTube, called “Terrorists” and “Islam.” He cached videos about Russians converting to Islam, including one who turned to Shiism, a choice he seemed to denigrate. He also included inspirational videos of scholars who spoke about Islam and how the religion inspires believers and cleanses them of their sins.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger brother, graduated from Cambridge Rindge & Latin School in 2011. He received a $2,500 scholarship from the city of Cambridge to be used toward higher education.
He was a wrestler and was honored as the student athlete of the month in February 2011.
Ty Barros, 21, of Cambridge, a classmate, said Dzhokhar attended a nearby mosque on Prospect Street in Cambridge. “He would drink with us, he would smoke with us, he wasn’t too religious, but he was Muslim obviously,” Barros said as he stood next to a police barricade on Cambridge Street on Friday.
He said he had never heard Dzhokhar say anything radical. “There’s definitely nothing that would indicate that to me — no red flags,” said Barros, who added that he last saw him eight months ago.
When authorities released photos of the suspects, Barros said, “I joked with some friends, ‘It looks like Dzhokhar!’ It was ridiculous to me, that’s why I made the joke.”
Caprice Ruff, 18, who also went to high school with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, said she last saw him about 10:30 p.m. Sunday, skateboarding down Norfolk Street, where he lived. Her cousin stopped him to admire his skateboard, she said, saying Dzhokhar, wearing a hoodie and jeans, seemed fine, “like there was nothing major” going on.
Erwins Cazeau, another high school classmate, described him as a good student and “a really funny kid.”
“He always had a smile and had a positive personality,” he said.
He said Dzhokhar blended in as well as any student at the school, which is known for its diverse student body. “I didn’t even know he was Russian until today,” Cazeau said.
On a page on a Russian-language social networking site called VK, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, using a different transliteration of his name, said he was born on July 22 and went to grade school in Makhachkala. Writing mostly in Russian, he wrote that he spoke English, Russian and “Nokhchiin Mott,” or the Chechen language.
He described his world view as “Islam,” but his priorities as “Career and money.” He said he belonged to religious and secular social media groups linked to Chechnya. Those groups, in turn, have begun to post stories that one of their members might have been involved in the “terrorist acts” in Boston, as one site called it.
Dzhokhar’s most recent post was from March 2012, a humorous YouTube video of his brother sitting in the passenger seat of a car in what looks like a parking garage doing imitations of various accents of people from the Caucasus region, much the way an American might mimic regional accents in this country.
Vitriolic comments have begun to be posted by visitors to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s page, most with Russian names. One wrote, using an expletive for jerk, wrote, “Can it be that this jerk actually committed a terrorist act?”
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth an hour’s drive south of Boston, also apparently commented in August 2011 on a blog for students.
In a discussion about a case where three boys appear to have been falsely convicted of murder because they were considered outcasts, he wrote, “In this case it would have been hard to protect or defend these young boys if the whole town exclaimed in happiness at the arrest. Also, to go against the authorities isn’t the easiest thing to do.”
“Don’t get me wrong though, I am appalled at the situation but I think that the town was scared and desperate to blame someone,” he continued. “It’s because of stories like this and such occurrences that make a positive change in this world. I’m pretty sure there won’t be anymore similar tales like this. In any case, if they do, people won’t stand quiet, I hope.”
Times staff writers Shashank Bengali, Brian Bennett, Melanie Mason, Laura Nelson, Richard A. Serrano and Richard Simon contributed to this report. Bengali, Bennett, Mason and Serrano reported from Washington. Nelson reported from Los Angeles. Simon reported from Montgomery Village, Md.
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.