Boston Bombing: Was Tamerlan Tsarnaev Mentored By a Muslim Radical?

In the quest to the understand what exactly was the motive in the Boston Marathon bombing, authorities are turning over every leaf and stone in the backstory of the alleged bombing suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. In the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, police are investigating a trip he took to Dagestan in 2012. However, a new development in the case has law enforcement looking away from the Caucasus and back in the United States.

Now there are reports that a friend, known only at this point in time as Misha, influenced the older Tsarnaev towards a radical form of Islam. The report is generating controversy over its accusations, and if it is true it still doesn't tell the whole story of why anyone would commit such a horrible act.

This mysterious Misha, according to family members, was an Armenian convert to Islam who Tsarnaev met in 2009. Misha pushed Tsarnaev towards a radical strand of Islam, convincing him to give up music even though family members said he had a great love of it and planned on going to school to study it. During his talks with Misha, Tsarnaev did research on jihadist websites along with conspiracy websites such as Infowars.

News organizations have been unable to interview, locate, or identify the alleged Misha. The Islamic Society of Boston told CNN that they have not found anyone matching the description of Misha so far. NPR has reported that the FBI is anxious to identify and question Misha.

Many in the Armenian community were skeptical when told of this latest development. Armenia is a strongly Christian country, the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD, and is overwhelmingly Christian to this day. In 2009 the Pew Research Center estimated that there were less than 1,000 Muslims in Armenia proper.

Nerses Zurabyan, an Armenian who lives in Cambridge, Mass., told USA Today, "For an Armenian to convert to Islam is like finding a unicorn in a field. It would be such a shock to the Armenian community that everyone would know this person.”

Until the existence of Misha, Schrödinger's radical cleric, is proven or disproven by authorities, this all remains conjecture. Even if this turns out to be true, it does not mean that the entire attack can be laid at the feet of radical Islam. The overall context of Tsarnaev’s life before the attack must be taken into account.

Before the bombing, Tsarnaev’s life had hit a series of rough spots. Their father struggled to make a living. Tsarnaev was forced to drop out of community college due to lack of funds. He could not pursue his life’s passion of becoming an Olympic boxer due to a back injury that he suffered. And after all of this he struggled to find employment. An online caption to a photo suggests a sense of alienation: “Originally from Chechnya, but living in the U.S. since five years … I don't have a single American friend, I don't understand them.” Amid a deteriorating life situation he may have grabbed at one of the things that has comforted humans since time immemorial: faith.

Until the existence of this mysterious Misha is proven or disproven, we will not get a clear explanation of the role Tsarnaev’s religion played in the attacks. But the deteriorating life situation that he underwent means that anything, from his Chechen heritage to his anti-government Infowars-style conspiracy theories, or even just simple anger at the powerlessness he felt in life, could have provided a trigger for his acts of violence. The sad truth is that until all the facts come in we may never know, although that certainly is not stopping us from trying to know.