Lighting the Fuse: What Do We Know About the Tsarnaev Brothers?

Danny Benavides
Traces of Reality
April 27, 2013


Boston Marathon explosions

PHOTO: Reuters/Dan Lampariello

Last Friday, April 19, a spell of panic and terror was finally broken in Boston, Massachusetts.  For five days, residents of the city caught a glimpse of the sort of routine violence experienced daily throughout countries in conflict such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Mexico.  In all of these locations, compromised or corrupted political institutions struggle for legitimacy, disparate groups of guerrillas wage war for power and influence, and the people feel helpless to do much about it.  If statements from U.S. officials are to be believed and the Tsarnaev brothers plotted the twin blasts that killed 3 and injured at least 264 others at Monday’s Boston Marathon as a reaction to U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, then perhaps this violent episode was successful in the eyes of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar.

Watertown, Massachusetts goes into lockdown after Boston Marathon bombing and MIT campus shootingThe actions of the two brothers paralyzed the city of Boston as businesses were shuttered, public transportation was halted, and residents were instructed to remain indoors.  Temporary martial law arrived in Boston swiftly during the morning of April 19, as a 20-block “lockdown” was declared, and militarized police conducted house-to-house sweeps searching for the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings.  It was an unprecedented show of force, ultimately amounting to little more than elaborate security theater.  The week’s events, however, will leave a lasting impression on the minds of Americans, and the political class will not allow this crisis to go to waste, that much is certain.

So, a week since the first suspect had been pronounced dead and the second suspect taken into custody, what do we know about the Boston Marathon bombers?

A Bit of Background

Before emigrating to the United States just over a decade ago, the Tsarnaev family had called many places ‘home.’  The family’s origins go back to the northern Kyrgyzstan town of Tokmok, just east of the capital of Bishkek.  Tokmok is home to one of the largest Chechen communities in the country and is the hometown of Anzor Tsarnaev, the father of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar.  Many Chechens were displaced from the territory of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic by Josef Stalin in 1944, when ethnic Chechens were accused of collaborating with Nazis, shipped via cattle cars to concentration camps or dumped and left to die.

Baby Tamerlan Tsarnaev with (L-R) father Anzor, mother Zubeidat, and uncle Muhamad Suleimanov

Baby Tamerlan Tsarnaev with (L-R) father Anzor, mother Zubeidat, and uncle Muhamad Suleimanov
PHOTO: Reuters

It was while serving a two-year stint as a soldier in the Kazakhstan armed forces, at around age 19 or 20, that Chechen-born Anzor Tsarnaev met Zubeidat, an ethnic Avar (the predominant of such groups in Dagestan) two years his junior and the woman who he would soon marry.  Together, Anzor and Zubeidat would have four children:  Tamerlan (age 26 at the time of his death), Bella (age 24), Alilina (age 22), and Dzhokhar (age 19).

The Tsarnaev children

The Tsarnaev children
PHOTO: Reuters

The eldest of the siblings, Tamerlan was born in 1986 in the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in what is now the southern district of Russia.  Sometime in 1992, the Tsarnaev family moved back to Chechnya, and Dzhokhar was born in neighboring Kyrgyzstan the following year.

After the First Chechen War erupted in 1994, the Tsarnaevs moved back to Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan where they spent their early years as a family.

The Second Chechen War in 1999 forced the family to relocate again, this time to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan and the hometown of Zubeidat Tsarnaeva.  As the war intensified, Anzor, Zubeidat, and Dzhokhar emigrated to the United States on a 90-day tourist visa in April of 2002, just three months before Dzhokhar’s 9th birthday.  Meanwhile, Tamerlan and their two sisters lived with their uncle Ruslan Tsarni in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Anzor applied for and received asylum, subsequently acquiring “derivative asylum status” for his wife and children.  In July of 2003, Tamerlan, then age 16, spent about 10 days in Turkey on a Kyrgyz passport before moving to the U.S. a short time later, arriving at New York’s JFK International Airport on July 19.  Conflicting accounts state that he emigrated to America on his own or with his two sisters.

Dzhokhar & Tamerlan

Dzhokhar & Tamerlan

Before enrolling in college, both brothers attended the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a prestigious public high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  As a sophomore in 2003, Tamerlan maintained boxing training that he had begun back in Chechnya.  He also registered with USA Boxing, an amateur boxing organization.

For a time, the Tsarnaev parents went back to Dagestan between 2005-2006, before the family was granted legal permanent residence in the U.S. in March of 2007.

Then, a year after Tamerlan graduated from CRLS, Dzhokhar began attending the school, demonstrating a similar athletic inclination by taking an interest in wrestling, becoming captain of the high school’s wrestling team and recognized as a Great Boston League Winter All-Star.

While Dzhokhar’s interest in wrestling waned once he had been awarded a City of Cambridge scholarship and accepted to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in 2011, his attention turned to junior-varsity soccer, video games, cars, rap and hip-hop, and recreational pot smoking.  By all accounts, he had embraced American culture and made friends easily.  Classmates in the Muslim Student Association on campus recalled that Dzhokhar displayed little interest in his faith.  After the first couple of semesters at college, however, Dzhokhar seemed to display little interest in his education, failing several courses.

The boxer and the student

The boxer and the student

Sometime around 2008 or 2009, Tamerlan became acquainted with a ”slightly older, heavyset bald man with a long reddish beard” known only as “Misha.”  Misha is described as a Muslim convert of Armenian descent from the Islamic Society of Boston and referred to as Tamerlan’s “mentor.”  As Tamerlan proceeded to immerse himself in Muslim fundamentalism, Misha was present and appears to have contributed significantly to Tamerlan’s ongoing radicalization.

Tamerlan had chosen to drop out of Bunker Hill Community College in 2008 to pursue a career in boxing.  He also became more religiously devout and had stopped drinking and smoking.  In April of 2009, Tamerlan was photographed and profiled while training at Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts for a university magazine in Boston. The following month, he competed in the 2009 Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions but didn’t take home a win.  On July 28, 2009, Tamerlan is arrested by Cambridge Polie Department on charges of domestic abuse and battery after becoming embroiled in an argument with a girlfriend and allegedly slapping her.  The charges were dismissed.

Tamerlan in training

Tamerlan in training
PHOTO: Barcroft Media/Landov

Temper and stubbornness aside, Tamerlan was “an extremely gifted athlete” and “not your average boxer” according to the words of a gym partner, and he went on to win the 2010 New England Golden Gloves heavyweight championship Rocky Marciano Trophy.  Back problems may have squelched Tamerlan’s hopes of being selected for the U.S. Olympic boxing team, but more intense focus on Muslim fundamentalism led him to abandon boxing altogether.

Around the same time, Tamerlan had been dating Rhode Island native Katherine Russell on and off, a home health aide and daughter of an ER doctor and a medical nurse.  She would become his wife by June of 2010, and the couple would go on to have a daughter together.

Throughout 2010, both Tamerlan and his mother Zubeidat increasingly espoused fundamentalist ideology and changed their appearances accordingly.  Zubeidat, who had previously been seen wearing high heels and low-cut tops while offering facial treatments out of her Cambridge home, had adopted the traditional hijab and more modest attire, according to former client Alyssa Kilzer.  Zubeidat fasted on occasion, and would often invoke Allah and the Qur’an.  She would talk about the deaths of innocents in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. as a neocolonial power, conspiracies surrounding the 9/11 attacks, and equally grim subjects she said she learned from her son.  American press indicates that Tamerlan was the likely influence for her religious fundamentalism, because he had persuaded his wife to wear the hijab as well.  However, family members contend that Zubeidat acted as “boss” of the household and encouraged Tamerlan’s hardline beliefs.

“Self-radicalization” and Curious Connections

In 2011, things become much more nebulous.

Tamerlan had started praying five times a day, and something caught the attention of Russian intelligence.  Whatever information Russia’s Foreign Services Bureau (FSB) had obtained, it was substantial enough to warrant contacting the FBI on March 4, 2011.  Though the FBI had been monitoring him since around the time he first met his mysterious mentor (or before), an “explicit warning” received from the Russian FSB requesting that the FBI investigate Tamerlan Tsarnaev because of information gleaned that hinted at his radicalization and intent to travel through Russia to join “unspecified underground groups.”

The FBI opened an investigation and interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his family,  scrutinized travel documents, reviewed his internet activity, combed through his education history, and probed all known associations but did not uncover any information worth raising suspicion, according to the FBI.  They inquired with Russia’s FSB to ask for additional intelligence, but received no response and officially ended their investigations in June of 2011.

Six months later, Russia’s FSB sends a second warning — reportedly similar to the first — to the CIA.

Sometime thereafter, Tamerlan applied for U.S. citizenship, but his application remained under review up until the day of his death due to that very investigation.  (Dzhokhar became a U.S. citizen on September 11, 2012.)

Following the FBI’s examination, clearing Tamerlan of potential extremist links, the CIA had the National Counterterrorism Center add his information to its bloated watchlist known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), a database criticized even by the Department of Homeland Security’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations as “useless.”  The CIA assures that it continued to share intelligence it obtained about Tsarnaev from Russia’s FSB with the FBI.

North Caucasus mapOnce included in the TIDE database, Tamerlan’s file had also been added to the TSA’s no-fly list and the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database, which populate their databases through the TIDE system.  The Department of Homeland Security had also entered his data into its Treasury Enforcement Communication Systems (TECS) watchlist.

Then it comes as little surprise to learn that on January 12, 2012, DHS received an alert notifying Customs of Tamerlan’s travel overseas to Makhachkala, Dagestan.  The ostensible purpose of the trip is for Tamerlan to join his father back home to assist with repairing and remodeling work to their apartment.

The activities or whereabouts of Tamerlan while within Dagestan remain something of a mystery.

Aziz Batukaev

Aziz Batukaev
PHOTO: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Curiously, the neighbors of the Tsarnaev family in Makhachkala are two brothers, ethnic Chechens named Movsar Batukaev and Aziz Batukaev, the latter of which is a rather notorious organized crime boss and drug trafficker in Dagestan.  Aziz Batukaev was arrested in 2006 and sentenced to 17 years in prison in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan for the murders of a Kyrgyz legislator, two of his associates, and an official with the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry.  (Coincidentally, he was released from prison after serving less than half of his sentence, with authorities citing health concerns stemming from Batukaev’s leukemia.  Links between networks of organized crime trafficking drugs through prisons with institutional support are denied by prison officials.)

During his six months in the North Caucasus, Tamerlan would most certainly have witnessed the exploits of corrupted government officials, ethnic rivalries, separatist clashes, and an expanding Islamist insurgency.  Dagestani police officials claim that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was seen meeting at least six times with a little-known but significant Chechen Salafi jihadist at a mosque in Makhachkala.  The target was under surveillance by police at the time Tamerlan was spotted, but authorities chose not move in to interrogate the target before contact with the jihadist had been lost.

According to a report from Russian state newspaper Izvestia, the Counterintelligence Department of the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs released information attesting to the presence of Tamerlan Tsarnaev at a workshop sponsored by the Caucasus Fund and held by the Jamestown Foundation NGO in Dagestan.  Georgian Counterintelligence claims that this workshop included seminars for recruitment and preparing acts of terror.  Whether this report will be confirmed or denied remains to be seen.  Also noteworthy is the direct relationship shared between Jamestown Foundation members and the CIA/National Security establishment.  This includes names such as Dick Cheney, former CIA directors William Casey and James Woolsey, former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former CIA/NSA chief Michael Hayden, among others.

As Tamerlan returns to America on July 17, 2012, landing at New York’s JFK International Airport, an alert was received by a single CBP official within the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force, but he was not pulled aside for further inspection.  A Customs agent noted that Tamerlan — typically clean-shaven — had grown a long, thick beard and was pictured as such in his travel documents.  DHS proceeded to claim that Tsarnaev was not considered a high-priority individual.

Almost immediately after Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s arrival stateside, a Youtube account (as yet unconfirmed as authentic) was created bearing his name which included a playlist simply titled “Terrorism” which linked to two videos: one showing members of an Islamist insurgency group called Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), and the other featuring Dagestani jihadi Gadzhimurad Dolgatov, also known by his nom de guerre Abu Dujana, the head of the Kizilyurt group of the Caucasus Emirate.  The town of Kizilyurt is about 40 miles (65 km) west of Makhachkala.  Dolgatov’s group was obscure even in the area in which the terrorist cell operated, hinting at the fact that Tamerlan seemed to have more than just a casual acquaintance with the insurgent movement in Dagestan.

Gadzhimurad Dolgatov, a/k/a Abu Dujana

Gadzhimurad Dolgatov, a/k/a Abu Dujana

Abu Dujana (Dolgatov) and his group had been extorting protection money from police in Kizilyurt, leading to the formation of a pro-government militia that sought extrajudicial punishment by killing the Islamist rebels, their families, wives, and children.  Dolgatov called for fellow Salafi jihadis to respond in kind, and threatened to assassinate the Kizilyurt police chief, precipitating the raid the killed him and five others, including Arsen Kuramagomedov, Dolgatov’s subordinate, and Shamil Akhmedov, the owner of the apartment in which they were hiding out.

After suspicions were raised with regard to the Imarat Kavkaz video featured in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Youtube account, a statement was released by the group, reading in part:

[T]here are speculative assumptions that [Tamerlan Tsarnaev] may have been associated with the Mujahideen of the Caucasus Emirate, in particular with the Mujahideen of Dagestan.

The Command of the Province of Dagestan indicates in this regard that the Caucasian Mujahideen are not fighting against the United States of America. We are at war with Russia, which is not only responsible for the occupation of the Caucasus, but also for heinous crimes against Muslims.

The leader of the Imarat Kavkaz mujahideen Doku Umarov reportedly disavowed any ties to Tamerlan, dismissing such claims as Russian propaganda.

Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokeman for the Pakistani Taliban, also offered a statement:

“Certainly, America is our target and we will attack the U.S. and its allies whenever the [Pakistani Taliban] finds the opportunity, but we are not involved in this attack.”

As Western media sought to pin political blame somewhere, Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov issued a statement offering condolences for the Boston attacks and rejecting any notion that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been radicalized in Chechnya.  Made available via Instagram, Kadyrov’s statement included the following:

Any attempts to make a connection between Chechnya and Tsarnaevs, even if they are guilty, are in vain. They grew up in the United States, their attitudes and beliefs were formed there. It is necessary to seek the roots of their evil inside America.

Abdurashid Magomedov, Dagestan’s Interior Minister, also denied that Tamerlan became a follower of radical Islam amid his visit to the Chechnya-Dagestan region.

Anzor and Zubeidat Tsarnaev

Anzor and Zubeidat Tsarnaev
PHOTO: Reuters

Similarly — and understandably — the family and friends of the Tsarnaev brothers do not accept the accusations of the police and intelligence officials of the United States.  They maintain the innocence of both brothers as Tamerlan is readied for burial and Dzhokhar recovers to stand trial for using a Weapon of Mass Destruction at the Boston Marathon bombing, carrying a maximum punishment of the death penalty.

All the while, the White House and U.S. intelligence chiefs continue to proclaim that the Tsarnaev brothers were “self-radicalized,” acted alone, and thus far, no evidence has been discovered implicating other persons or groups in the horrific violence at the Boston Marathon attack or the MIT campus shootout.  After searching through the mobile phones and computers of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, the FBI has reached the same conclusion.  Whether any of the connections made above receive any attention or serious inquiry over the coming days and weeks is anybody’s guess, however.