Relatives of Marathon bombing suspects worried that older brother was corrupting ‘sweet’ younger sibling
Johannes Hirn /Landov
A relative of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects said he repeatedly warned the 19-year-old fugitive Dzhokhar Tsarnaev about the bad influence of his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed overnight in a shootout with police.
A picture has begun to emerge of 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev as an aggressive, possibly radicalized immigrant who may have ensnared his younger brother Dzhokhar -- described almost universally as a smart and sweet kid -- into an act of terror that killed three people and injured more than at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday.
“I used to warn Dzhokhar that Tamerlan was up to no good,” Zaur Tsarnaev, who identified himself as a 26-year-old cousin, said in a phone interview on Friday from Makhachkala. “[Tamerlan] was always getting into trouble. He was never happy, never cheering, never smiling. He used to strike his girlfriend. He hurt her a few times. He was not a nice man. I don’t like to speak about him. He caused problems for my family.”
Zaur Tsarnaev said he most recently expressed his concerns about Tamerlan -- the alleged bomber pictured in a dark hat in FBI videos released Thursday -- to Dzhokhar when Dzhokar visited last summer. He added that Dzhokhar went to mosque sometimes but he was “never an extremist.”
“Dzhokhar is a sweet boy, innocent. He was always smiling, friendly and happy,” Zaur Tsarnaev said. “I don’t know how he is involved in this.”
A YouTube account with Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s name includes a playlist that features a video dedicated to the prophecy of the Black Banners of Khurasan, which is apparently embraced by Islamic extremists, including Al Qaeda. It could not be confirmed whether the user is the same person as the dead bombing suspect.
Ruslan Tsarni, an uncle of the suspects living in Maryland, said he has never known the family to have ill will toward the United States but when asked what may have provoked them, he said “being losers, hatred to those who were able to settle themselves. These are the only reasons I can imagine. Anything else to do with religion, to do with Islam, it’s a fake.”
Tsarni said the suspects’ father, an auto mechanic, has had limited influence on them and recently moved back to Russia. Ruslan said he no longer has anything to do with that family, but would not elaborate on what led to the falling out.
“I just wanted my family away from them,” Tsarni said.
Dzhokar and Tamarlan Tsarnaev came from southern Russia, near war-torn Chechnya, more than five years ago, and assimilated through school and sports into the Greater Boston community and culture.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the alleged bomber pictured in a dark hat in FBI videos released Thursday, was a talented boxer with hopes of joining the US Olympic team, people who knew him said.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspect seen in FBI photos in a white cap, is a student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, the school confirmed. He was an all-star wrestler and a member of the class of 2011 at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, and won a Cambridge City Scholarship that year. He was on the run Friday morning and the target of an unprecedented manhunt in Greater Boston.
But within the brothers’ ordinariness, there were also subtle signs of alienation.
“I don’t have a single American friend,” Tamerlan said in a photo essay about his love of boxing. “I don’t understand them.”
John Allan, owner of Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts Boston, said the older brother, Tamerlan, was an accomplished amateur boxer, competing in the national Golden Gloves competition.
“He was the best boxer in Boston,” said Allan, who remembers helping in a competition three years ago. “He smoked all the professionals.”
Allan said Tsarnaev was trained by his father, who was also a skilled boxer. And he was always respectful. “They were an incredible family....This was so shocking to me.”
But Tsarnaev hadn’t been to the Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts center in years, instead going to another nearby boxing gym. Until this month. Allan, who is currently traveling in Thailand, got an e-mail within the past week saying Tsarnaev showed up at the gym acting rude and disrespectful, using other people’s equipment, walking on the mats with his shoes.
“It was a clear indication that something was up,” Allan said, noting that Tsarnaev hadn’t even been to his gym before the incident in years. “He was becoming a complete [expletive].
“It was completely out of place of place for him,” said Allan, who was also contacted by the FBI about Tamerlan.
In the photo essay, called “Will Box for Passport,” Tamerlan stops to answer a phone call while walking from his Mercedes to the martial arts center. He has a long wool scarf wrapped fashionably around his neck and gleaming white leather slip-on shoes and is carrying an Oceanfly dufflebag.
He said in the essay that he quit smoking and drinking. “God said no alcohol.” A Muslim, he says, “There are no values any more,” and worries that “people can’t control themselves.”
People who knew the suspects struggled today morning to reconcile the young men they knew, who lived on Norfolk Street in Cambridge, with the acts of terrorism they are accused of committing.
“He was normal,” said Lulu Emmons, who went to Rindge & Latin, the city’s public high school, with Dzhokhar.
“He kind of fit in with everyone. Not really close with anyone, but he was friendly.
“I am just a little shocked. I sat next to this guy. I joked with him. I laughed with him. I had class with him. It is a little crazy,” she said.
Former teacher and school photographer at Rindge, Larry Aaronson, said he knew Dzhokhar.
“If someone were to ask me what the kid was like, I would say he had a heart of gold,” he said. “He was as gracious as possible.”
Aaronson knew Dzhokhar came from near a war zone and they had conversations about this. “All of this is just freaking me out.”
Pamala Rolon, a senior at UMass Dartmouth and a resident assistant at the Pine Dale dorms on campus, said she knew Dzhokhar for the past year and finds it incredible that he could have played any role in the bombs at the Boston marathon.
“He studied. He hung out with me and my friends,” she said in a telephone interview Friday. “I’m in shock.”
Rolon, 22, said the 300 or so students at the dorm were evacuated this morning by school authorities as the campus was shut down.
Rolon said when she returned from class Thursday afternoon, she and her friends watched the television news broadcast showing the images of the suspects, including one that she did think looked faintly like the student she knew on campus.
“We made a joke like – that could be Dzhokhar,” she said. “But then we thought it just couldn’t be him. Dzhokhar? Never.”
Rolon said the 19-year-old studied marine biology, and was quite studious. He was not seen on campus over the past two weeks, though she didn’t think much about it because everyone was busy with tests and studying, she said.
Rolon said the finds it impossible to believe he was involved in any zealous religious or political cause, or would turn to violence.
“I think he’s Muslim, but not so religious,” she said. “He’s a normal city kid. He never said anything about Russia versus the United States.”
She said Dzhokhar Tsarnaev dressed in sweaters and jeans, fit in easily on campus and spoke English with hardly any accent.
Peter Payack, the assistant wrestling coach at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, said Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrestled on the team for three years and was captain for two years and a Greater Boston League all-star. Though he graduated from Rindge, he came back to wrestle with the team in February, he said.
“He was a dedicated kid, and all the kids loved him,” Payack said. “We only name captains who are good, but who also gain respect from his fellow wrestlers. He had to be a leader, and he had all those qualities. He was one of my guys.”
Payack said the wrestling team thinks of itself as a family and there was nothing amiss about Dzhokhar, whose name is pronounced JA-har.
“Everybody loved him,” Payack said. “He wasn’t a loner, the complete opposite. … He seemed like one of the most well-adjusted kids on the team. He seemed like he didn’t have any problems. He did his work, came out and became a captain.”
In a high school that prides itself on its diversity, “he got along with all the different groups on the team,” Payack said.
“He never talked about being a Muslim. We’re in Cambridge. We have a completely diverse team. So nobody talked about religion,” Payack said. “He was just one of us.”
“We never saw his mother or father and never saw his brother,” Payack said. “He just came back to wrestle with us in February. I mean, he said, he went to UMass and he was studying some sort of engineering and he came back and wrestled, and he was joking with everyone.
“Never in a million years did [we] expect anything like this,” Payack said. “He never talked about violence or anything. Some of the kids say, ‘I’m going to beat you up or something like that.’ He just did his work and was a good student.”
Payack, who has run the Boston Marathon 24 times and often wears his blue-and-yellow Marathon jacket, said he was particularly saddened that Dzhokar would target the race.
“It was like a bomb going off in my heart this morning because he’s one of our wrestlers. I said ‘That guy looks like my guy.’ ”
Ashraful Rahman, a Rindge senior and friend of Dzhokhar, described the alleged bomber as “just a normal guy, very chillaxed, and very laid back.”
He and Dzhokhar wrestled on the Rindge team together, hung out together at Dana Park in Cambridge and attended the same mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston, in Cambridge.
“We just chilled out man, just average teenagers,” Rahman said. “He never stated that he was against the government or for anarchy or anything.”
Rahman said Dzhokhar mentored him on the wrestling team.
“I looked up to Dzhokhar because he won states his second year. Seeing this, it’s like seeing one of your heroes and finding a flaw in one of them,” he said.
Dzhokhar did not have a girlfriend, he said.
Rahman said the last time he saw Dzhokhar was on Ramadan in 2012, at the Islamic Society. “He said ‘what’s up’ to me,” Rahman said. “He seemed peaceful, actually.”
Essah Chisholm, 17, a senior at Rindge and member of the wrestling team, said the coaches would tell funny stories about how people would mispronounce Dzhokhar name’s.
“He seemed pretty nice, pretty normal person; he was always smiling,” Chisholm said. “Everything is pretty shocking.”
Tamerlan, who boxed at 196 pounds, studied at Bunker Hill Community College and wanted to become an engineer. He attended the school part time for three semesters, from 2006 to 2008, according to the school. Tamerlan has a domestic violence charge which was dismissed following a jury trial in 2010, according to records and was cited by state polcie for obstruction of a motor vehicle in 2008. That case was dismissed after he paid court costs.
The family left the Russian republic of Dagestan -- a predominantly Muslim region on the eastern border of Chechnya -- and lived for years in Kazakhstan before coming to the United States as a refugee, according to the photo essay.
The state news agency of Kyrgyzstan said the brothers are ethnic Chechens who lived in the Central Asian country until “roughly 2001,” when they moved to Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim republic in southern Russia that shares a border with Chechnya. A spokesman for School No. 1 in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, told Russian news agencies that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a pupil in the first and second grade.
The Russian social media website VKontakte has a page of a Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who lists himself as a resident of Boston and a member of the class of 2011 at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School.
The VKontakte page says that Dzhokhar studied at School No. 1 from 1999 to 2001 in Makhachkala. According to the profile, Tsarnayev is a member of the group “Everything About the Chechen Republic.”
The profile lists Dzhokhar’s languages as English, Russian, and Chechen, and lists him as a Muslim. The last post was made in 2012. Most of the posts on the site are jokes – one video makes fun of the accented Russian spoken by people from the Caucasus.
One joke is a wry commentary on the status of Russian citizens from the Caucasus. “A Dagestani, a Chechen and an Ingush are riding in a car. Who is driving? The answer: A policeman.”
While the brothers are Chechens, the press secretary of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow government told the official Russian news agency Interfax that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev have no recent connection with Chechnya.
The US embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, said US diplomats in the Central Asian nation were scrambling to learn more about the brothers’ roots.
“We are following this issue very closely,” said Christian Wright, the embassy’s public affairs officer.Jenn Abelson, Sean P. Murphy, Matt Carroll, Sarah Schweitzer, Noah Bierman, Jonathan Saltzman, Todd Wallack, Meghan E. Irons, Bryan Bender, and Michael Levenson of the Globe staff and correspondents Todd Feathers and Haven Orecchio-Egresitz contributed. Mark Arsenault can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org