Interviews conducted by the Associated Press with the family members of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev suggest that under the tutelage of a mysterious mentor, the young man dropped his worldly pursuits and interests to devote himself to radical Islam. With a strict doctrine closing off the world around him, Tsarnaev found intellectual substance in extremist propaganda and conspiracy websites, and an enemy in the U.S. government and its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tsarnaev family members claim that Misha, a balding, overweight, bearded Muslim convert, began drawing Tamerlan — a boxer and student of music — away from the religiously apathetic life he lead.
“Misha was important,” said Elmirza Khozhugov, Tamerlan’s former brother-in-law. “Tamerlan was searching for something. He was searching for something out there.”
Tamerlan, who was killed in a police shootout last Friday, talked often of Misha in the years leading up to the attack. Though the Tsarnaev brothers were raised in a Sunni home, they rarely attended mosque and religion was not a dinner table discussion point. Where Tamerlan’s father had lost touch with the young man, Misha captured something essential, and Tamerlan started changing.
“Music is not really supported in Islam,” Tamerlan told Khozhugov when he dropped out of music school. “Misha said it’s not really good to create music. It’s not really good to listen to music.”
Anzor Tsarnaev, father of Boston bombers, knew his son drifting away from him.
“When Misha would start talking, Tamerlan would stop talking and listen. It upset his father because Tamerlan wouldn’t listen to him as much,” Khozugov told the AP.
Despite his fervor, Tamerlan had trouble finding common ground with everyday American muslims. The mosque on Prospect Street in Cambridge where Tamerlan visited, perhaps seeking religious community, never provided him with a sense of place. Other worshippers found him difficult.
As we struggle to understand Tamerlan and his brother Dzhokhar, the trails they left online provide an potential window to their interior lives, albeit an inherently imperfect one. Dzhokhar’s twitter feed screams normalcy, even banality, mixed with periodic alienation (which is normal too). Tamerlan, however, scoured websites of radical, militant, and anti-U.S. persuasion, and seemed to be taken by conspiracies like the 9/11 inside job theory and the Jews-running-the-world trope.
Existing evidence shows no link between the Boston bombers and an external terrorist group. Instead, officials say, the young men were "self-radicalized" through the internet and as enraged onlookers to U.S. military action in the Middle East. Speaking with investigators on Sunday, Dzhokhar claimed he and Tamerlan found manuals for the pressure-cooker bombs in the online Al Qaeda magazine, Inspire.
As the details unfold in the following weeks, we may learn more about a new type of terrorist, which has frightened experts for years: the homegrown extremist who cultivates his views online and commits atrocities on American soil.