The Tsarnaevs from top left to right: The father, Anzor; his brother, Ruslan Tsarni; Anzor's wife, Zubeidat; and their sons Tamerlan and Dzhokhar. In the background: the Boston bombing in April and a scene from Grozny in 1995. Photo Illustration by Gluekit; Reuters (Anzor Tsarnaev, Ruslan Tsarni, Boston bombing); Associated Press (Zubeidat Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev); Agence France-Presse/Getty Images (Grozny); Getty Images (Tamerlan Tsarnaev)
When I first met Tamerlan Tsarnaev, now familiar as the elder of the two alleged Boston Marathon bombers, he gripped my hand like he was wringing out a rag. It was 2004, and Tamerlan had been in the U.S. for about a year, but he already had an outsize American dream. He planned to box for the U.S. Olympic Team one day, and he wanted to earn a degree, perhaps at Harvard or MIT, and to hold a full-time job at the same time, so he could buy a house and a car. I suggested he forget the house and the car during college, as most American students do. He didn't see why he should.
I was on sabbatical that year, taking classes at Harvard on a journalism fellowship, and had wanted to meet some of the refugees from Russia's war to reconquer the breakaway Muslim region of Chechnya. I expected to write about Russia's Islamist insurgency in the future, and I thought some Chechen expatriates might help me with my stories.
A friend told me that his mother had rented an apartment to some Chechens. He drove me to a weather-beaten three-family home crammed between others in a tattered corner of Cambridge, Mass. I was led up a narrow stairway, littered with shoes and slippers, to their third-floor apartment—the start of a relationship that came full circle last April, when I encountered the Tsarnaevs again under very different circumstances.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev emerges from a boat on April 19 in Watertown, Mass., at the time of his capture. The red dot of a rifle laser sight is on his forehead.Massachusetts State Police/Associated Press
A decade ago, there was nothing about the Tsarnaevs to suggest any involvement in Islamist extremism. But they already seemed like "losers," as their successful Americanized uncle told reporters after the attack. They were out of place in the U.S., and my relationship with them developed because they needed so much basic advice about how to get by. I didn't sense impending danger in their household, but looking back, I can see now that I glimpsed a new type of threat to the U.S., one that we have only recently begun to confront.
The father, Anzor, was a lean man with a square jaw who seldom smiled. The mother, Zubeidat, was a wide-eyed rapid talker with a low-cut dress and high heels who waved her arms and teased her black hair like the pop singer Cyndi Lauper. Their two daughters and younger son, Dzhokhar, then 11, greeted me and retreated to a corner of the room.
The parents sat me in a chair before a meal of dumplings and chicken soup—typical fare of Russia's North Caucasus region—and we spoke Russian, while Tamerlan stood in the doorway with his arms folded. They interrogated me about America while I ate. What was a good profession for young men in America? What was the difference between state and private colleges?
I had questions for them too: What did they think about the rebellion that the Russians had crushed in Chechnya? Tens of thousands of Chechens were seeking asylum in Europe, and a few, like the Tsarnaevs, had ventured farther, to the U.S. The father, Anzor, just frowned. Tamerlan remained indifferent. They were both worried about practical matters nearer at hand, like finding work and making money.
Indeed, Anzor's work gave me the closest bond to the family. He had been a mechanic back in Chechnya, he said, and wanted to open his own garage in America. Anzor seemed to be the only man in Boston who would work on my aging 1964 Buick Wildcat, a car whose leaking and primitive engine reminded him of the Soviet machinery that he had mastered. It was a pleasure, he said, to work on a car that contained no computer chips.
For a few weeks, tightening up my car with Anzor became my escape from academic routine. Anzor had no garage, so finding a place to work was a frequent problem. In good weather, we jacked the car up in the street and lay down beneath it on a piece of cardboard that he'd brought along. In a half-dozen meetings, we replaced my car's alternator and brake pads and went over the whole electrical system, but we never did learn why the air conditioner blew hot air.
I paid Anzor what he said he thought he was worth—$10 an hour. He refused more, and even this sum was hard to give, as he waved the money away, saying "It's nothing." I knew that Chechen hospitality demanded that he offer to do everything for a friend for free, so I pushed the bills into his shirt pocket and the ashtray of his car. He never acknowledged the cash and pretended not to care, but as he wrestled with my engine and cursed in Russian, I knew he had plenty of troubles. He was learning English slowly. Even if he were the best mechanic in Boston, I was probably the only person who would ever know it.
His status inside his family seemed to be slipping. One evening, soon before I left Boston, I dined at their home, and as Anzor and his wife walked me to the door she praised me as a "real dzhigit"—or "warrior." The moment was awkward. I replied, "No, your husband—he is the dzhigit." She waved her hand dismissively, while Anzor just frowned at something on the floor.
After I returned to my reporting job in Moscow that summer, I kept tabs on the Tsarnaevs through my friend. He told me that his mother, the family's landlady, lent them money, tutored the children and helped them apply to the right schools. At first her news was hopeful: Through them I learned that the Tsarnaevs got Section 8 housing funds, Zubeidat started a stay-at-home business giving facials, and the family found an ideal new apartment with a garage below, where Anzor finally could work on cars.
But a welter of tribulations soon followed. Health inspectors found lead-based paint in the apartment above the garage, and they had to abandon it. Zubeidat's business floundered. Their two teenage daughters married Chechen men, and then both got divorced.
Tamerlan was doing worst of all, my friend told me. He had dropped both boxing and college, and was living at home with his girlfriend, who was pregnant. Only the younger son, Dzhokhar, was supposedly adjusting and would be going to college (as I later learned, to the University of MassachusettsDartmouth).
Then came the attack in Boston last April. And although I was stunned to hear police say that Tamerlan and his brother were the bombers, it fit with the profile of terrorists I'd encountered in my work. The failed suicide bombers I'd interviewed in Afghan prisons were mostly young men with no prospects. One told me he was planning to kill himself because he had no job or family, and some Islamists persuaded him to try to take out some American soldiers while he was at it. He was arrested for stopping his bomb-laden car on the shoulder of a road to urinate.
Three days after Tamerlan died in a shootout with police on April 19, I reunited with his parents, flying to meet them in Dagestan, a troubled province in southern Russia where they had moved months before. Dzhokhar was in police custody and would later plead not guilty to federal charges against him. Defense lawyers for Mr. Tsarnaev didn't respond to requests for comment. From the parents and other family and neighbors, I have been able to piece together a fuller picture of what had happened to Tamerlan in the intervening years.
“In 2004, they already seemed like 'losers,' as their uncle told reporters after the attack.”
The Tsarnaevs had come to America thanks largely to Anzor's younger brother Ruslan, who, as the family told it, was a rich and successful lawyer. He lived near Washington, D.C. and for a time was their model in adapting to the new world. I had known little about Ruslan when I was in Cambridge, but now, reporting on the family after the bombing, I learned his story.
When I met him in Washington last summer, he looked the part of the rich uncle. He picked me up in a silver Mercedes and drove me to Off the Record, a bar in the Hay-Adams hotel near the White House, where we talked for three hours.
Ruslan was indeed successful in ways that his older brother wasn't. They grew up in the penurious former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, where Ruslan excelled in school, learned English, landed a white-collar job in the capital of Bishkek, and met and married the daughter of a retired high-ranking CIA officer, who was there advising the government on privatization. Soon he had a U.S. passport and was studying law at Duke University.
In Kyrgyzstan, Anzor married Zubeidat, whom his family didn't approve of, partly because she wasn't Chechen. Anzor found sporadic work as a car mechanic and was jailed when the Kyrgyz government began a broad crackdown on Chechens. Ruslan said he worried that his brother and his family might not do well in America, but that he could be in danger in Kyrgyzstan. "I gave him the money for the tickets, and I said to Anzor, 'You know, by changing countries, you don't change everything,'" he said. But, he said, his brother was determined to try.
In most Chechen families, it is the older brother who helps the younger one. It seemed to me that Ruslan's success grated on the Tsarnaevs, who were soon failing in America as badly as they had in Kyrgyzstan. Anzor never found a steady job as a mechanic; he soon turned to drinking and complaining about mysterious stomach cramps. Zubeidat was arrested for shoplifting, though she said it was simply a misunderstanding with store staff.
Ruslan said he worried about Tamerlan, especially because he had arrived in the U.S. too late to learn English well before college. He feared that Tamerlan wasn't living up to his potential, that he was getting depressed, was turning to drinking and doing drugs. Twice he tried to persuade him to move out to either live with him in his own home, or go to college, which he offered to pay for. Each time, Ruslan said, his parents intervened to discourage him from accepting the offer. His parents said that Tamerlan just wanted to stay with them.
As Tamerlan's options dwindled, he started to take an interest in conspiracy theories, according to neighbors and his former brother-in-law. He saw silent, unseen forces working against him. When the family's landlord allowed me into their old apartment over the summer, I was able to examine Tamerlan's books and a ring-binder full of articles that he had copied and marked up: material from a course on how to seduce women quickly, a manual on how to hypnotize people, some collected biographies of famous Jewish actors, and pages filled with racial theories purporting to explain why Jews were so successful.
Tamerlan's former brother-in-law told me that, in 2008, Tamerlan was fascinated by the cult film "Zeitgeist," which suggested that the Sept. 11 attacks were organized by shadowy financial elites. Around the same time, Tamerlan began searching for a copy of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the notorious czarist forgery positing that the world is controlled by a Jewish cabal. The landlady let me look at Tamerlan's copy, which he had marked up heavily, filling the back cover page with 22 words that he had translated from English to Russian, beginning with "gentile" and ending with "Mason."
A text message on the phone of Zubeidat Tsarnaev on April 21, sent by her daughter. Sergei Rasulov
Zubeidat, the boys' mother, told me that she was the one who got Tamerlan interested in Islam, because she worried he was becoming wayward and was partying too much with American friends. But even Islam didn't give him a place in society that he could keep. In Cambridge, he was told to leave the local mosque because he couldn't control his outbursts against speakers whom he considered too moderate, according to a spokeswoman for the mosque.
In 2012, Tamerlan went to Dagestan and Chechnya to get acquainted with his roots, but he had some difficulty fitting in, his parents said. He stayed only briefly in Chechnya, in part because he didn't speak the language (his mother, after all, was Dagestani, and the family spoke Russian at home).
In Dagestan, locals said he appeared strange and perhaps too American. In the capital of Makhachkala, he clashed with the congregation at the hastily-built red brick mosque on Kotrova Street, a magnet for radical Islamists. He showed up for prayers after greasing his hair with olive oil and wearing dark eye makeup, apparently in an effort to copy contemporary jihadist fashion. But that fashion isn't popular in Dagestan, and outside the front door, his father told me, he nearly got into a fistfight with some young men who accused him of playing dress-up.
In the end, Boston police say, Tamerlan turned to an article called "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," published in an online al Qaeda magazine. I suspect that nobody wanted to work with him, not even other suspected terrorists. As many experts now tell us, "lone wolf" killers are a fearsome new threat, in large part because they are so much harder to track down than conventional terrorists who belong to organized extremist groups.
When Tamerlan returned to Boston later that year, friends and family said he kept largely to himself, caring for his infant daughter while his wife took care of an elderly invalid couple. Tamerlan developed a friendship with one of the invalids, Donald Larking, who had been shot in the head in a convenience-store robbery 40 years before and, as his faculties declined, had become interested in conspiracy theories. (Mr. Larking could not be interviewed because of his mental condition, but a lawyer for the family confirmed this account.)
Psychologists suggest that conspiracy theories often serve as a crutch for emotionally needy people, allowing them to feel good about themselves for seeing truth where others don't. They believe the world is being taken over by hidden forces, that an apocalyptic battle is at hand and now is the time for heroes to act.
For an unemployed ex-boxer who spent most of his time in a grubby third-floor walk-up in Cambridge, such theories could have provided purpose, a relief from his troubles. People who escape this frame of mind generally do so with the help of family. But when I saw the Tsarnaevs in Dagestan, it seemed unlikely that they could have helped their son. They, too, were filled with thoughts of conspiracy.
They arrived near midnight at the apartment I was renting in the capital. Anzor was exhausted and thinner than when I knew him before. From an overstuffed chair he would sit up periodically and say that his sons had been framed in the bombings, but then collapse back down, semiconscious. Zubeidat was a different woman from what I remembered. Cocooned in a hijab and long black dress, she insisted that her sons were the victims of vast, unseen interests that were taking over America.
She had hoped religion would straighten the family out, she said, but she also said it might have been a mistake to go to America at all, because the adjustment was too much for her children. "We tried, but I wouldn't do it again," she said. "I don't know if we would have done it if we had known."