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    The Lives of the Boston Bombers: What We Do and Don’t Know

    The Lives of the Boston Bombers: What We Do and Don’t Know

    A comprehensive primer on the bombers, their families, and their histories.

    After a nation watched in suspense as events unfolded this week surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings and the ensuing manhunt for the suspects, we now await the details in our quest to understand “why.”

    Tamerlan Tsarnaev was shot and killed Friday in a confrontation with police in the early morning hours. Younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fled, prompting a manhunt that finally ended Saturday after “suspect #2” was found injured and hiding in a boat behind a residence in Watertown, Massachusetts.  Dzhokhar remains in a hospital while the nation awaits what is expected to be an arrest.

    The week proved to be a difficult one for collecting information, as coverage was frequently erroneous, a problem only exacerbated by the viral nature of social media.  What remains in the wake of that coverage is a sea of assorted facts and fictions, mistaken identities, misquotes and bad news decisions, and even the remnants of hoaxes.

    In trying to parse through to the facts, what do we know about the suspected Boston bombers?

    The Tsarnaev Family

    Brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are the sons of Zubeidat Tsarnaev and Anzor Tsarnaev, mother and father, respectively.  Dzhokhar is 19 years old, Tamerlan was 26.  The two brothers also have two sisters who live in New Jersey.

    Where is the family from?  That’s a little more complicated to decipher.

    To start, there has been much speculation that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan were born in Chechnya.  However, news outlets that have conducted interviews with the parents, aunt and uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers have since indicated that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan were actually not born in Chechnya.  Some of the issue of confusion is one of semantics.

    As Headline News reported:

    The Tsarnaevs’s uncle told the media that neither of the brothers has ever been to Chechnya and they certainly weren’t born there. They are referred to as Chechen because of their family’s nationality. Tsarnaev is a common Chechen last name, and their aunt and uncle have both told the media their family is Chechen.

    Further, in an interview with the NY Times, the brothers’ father Anzor Tsarnaev emphatically stated, “we never lived in Chechnya” and said his children grew up in Kyrgyzstan before the family moved to the Republic of Dagestan, and eventually to the United States.  He also said his sons have never been to Turkey, despite media claims that they have.  The mother and father both eventually left the United States and returned to Makhachkala, Dagestan.

    Tamerlan returned to Russia for a short time in 2012 to renew his passport and had to wait six months for it to be issued (NOTE: Russia Today indicates that Tamerlan decided to prolong his stay, so the renewal may not have taken the entire duration of his stay).  During that time, he stayed with his family in Makhachkala, according to his father.  Although Tamerlan’s father commented that the two brothers had never been to Chechnya, he did mention in the NY Times interview that Tamerlan went with him to Chechnya to visit relatives during his son’s six month stay in Dagestan.  Tamerlan returned to the US in July 2012, once his passport was renewed.

    According to his father, Dzhokhar has not been to Russia since 2001. (I suspect it’s possible his memory could be off by a couple months).

    Media reports as to when the Tsarnaevs arrived in the US all vary.  The most reliable source I could find comes from government officials cited in a CNN article, but even those officials’ statements differ.

    Dzhokar came to America on July 1, 2002, as a tourist and asked for asylum, a federal official told CNN. He was naturalized as a U.S. citizen on September 11 last year.

    There was some dispute over when his older brother arrived. The U.S. official said he came four years later on September 6, 2006, and held a permanent resident visa. But another federal official said Tamerlan first entered the United States on July 19, 2003.

    One explanation for the differences in timelines may be that one visit was a temporary one until the brothers came over more ‘permanently,’ so to speak.

    Once in the US, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin public high school.

    Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: School and Personal Life

    By all accounts, 19 year old Dzhokhar was a laid back individual, much more so than his older brother has been described, and was considered a very friendly guy who was quiet but had friends – not withdrawn, and not in any way “a loner.”

    Dzhokhar was born on July 22, 1993 in Kyrgyzstan and became a legal permanent resident of the US on September 11, 2012.  When not staying at school, he lived in an apartment in a building on Norfolk Street in Cambridge with his brother Tamerlan, where the family lived together before their parents returned to Dagestan.  Neighbors have said that Tamerlan’s wife and baby also later resided in the apartment with the brothers.

    Dzhokhar was considered a good student in high school and graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin public high school in 2011.

    He was also an all-star wrestler in 2011.

    He received a $2500 scholarship from the City of Cambridge in 2011, awarded to select recipients in the community pursuing higher education.

    Dzhokhar sought help in 2011 from a Massachusetts professor, who is said to teach the only course in the US on the Chechen wars, with research on “rediscovering his Chechen origins.”

    After high school, he became a student at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he was a sophomore this year and lived on campus.  His father describes him as a “medical student,” while other reports indicate he was a marine biology major; the school will not disclose his major course of study, so there has been no official confirmation on this detail.  The NY Times, which reviewed Dzhokhar’s transcripts, described a student who was struggling to pass many of his classes, having received seven failing grades over three semesters.

    Dzhokhar worked the last two summers as a lifeguard at Harvard’s Blodgett Pool.  George McMasters, who hired Dzhokhar, said he was “impressed with Dzhokhar’s work ethic,” and indicated that he always showed up on time and got along well with others.  But when McMasters returned from a National Guard deployment to Afghanistan last summer, Dzhokhar was no longer working there.  A former classmate and co-worker at the pool said Dzhokhar was let go after only a few weeks last summer because he’d stopped showing up for his shifts.

    The day after the bombing, Dzhokhar rushed into a Somerville, MA auto body shop where his white Mercedes wagon had been in for repairs, and wanted to take the car without the repairs, according to the NY Times.  The shop owner described Dzhokhar as nervous, biting his nails, and said that Dzhokar’s demeanor was so nervous that it made him wonder if he might be on drugs.

    There were also reports of Dzhokhar having been on campus at his school since the bombings.  Upon learning that one of its students was suspected of being involved in the Boston Marathon bombings, and may have been on campus since, UMass Dartmouth evacuated its campus as a safety precaution and closed its facilities until Sunday.

    Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: Religious and Political Views

    Friends, family and acquaintances have all indicated that Dzhokhar rarely expressed any sort of political views or strong views on religion.

    There has been much discussion about materials posted from social media accounts that are presumed to be that of Dzhokhar’s, some on which he describes his world view as “Islam.”  Despite that friends have confirmed Dzhokhar’s ownership of some of those accounts, with so much disinformation out on the internet disseminated through fake social media accounts, I am hesitant to address any of the social media material in any detail until official confirmations have been made.

    Friends and family suspect that Dzhokhar’s views and recent acts of terror were heavily influenced by his older brother.  Zaur Tsarnaev, a cousin of the Tsarnaev brothers, spoke to The Boston Globe.

    But as friends and neighbors pieced together recollections of the terrorism suspects and their family, a picture emerged of an older brother who seemed to grow increasingly religious and radical — and who may have drawn his more easygoing younger brother into a secret plot of violence and hatred.

    “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 from Makhachkala, Russia, where the brothers briefly lived. “[Tamerlan] was always getting in trouble. He was never happy, never cheering, never smiling. He used to strike his girlfriend.  He was not a nice man.”

    Dzhokhar and Tamerlan’s mother and father vehemently insisted in interviews that the brothers were “set up,” as does one of their aunts.

    Tamerlan Tsarnaev: School and Personal Life

    Unlike his brother Dzhokhar, there seem to be more clues in Tamerlan Tsarnaeva’s background that may point to changes in the older brother’s religious and political views in recent years, as well as various events in his personal life that might offer insight into his potential outlook on life.

    After high school, Tamerlan later attended Bunker Hill Community College as a part time accounting student for three semesters – fall 2006, spring 2007 and fall 2008 – but never got a degree.  Maret Tsarnaeva, an aunt of Tamerlan’s, said that her nephew dropped out of school after he married his wife, Katherine Russell, now 24.

    WPRI confirmed that Katherine Russell attended Suffolk University in Boston from Fall 2007 to Spring 2010.  She also dropped out before graduating.  Former roommates of Russell’s said this is when she became pregnant, according to a new report from NPR.

    Reports indicate that Tamerlan lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his brother Dzhokhar (who also lived some of the time in a campus dorm), in an apartment the family had shared for the last ten years.  Neighbors say Tamerlan’s wife and baby lived there in the residence as well, and describe frequently hearing late night arguments that included a female voice and a “baby wailing.”

    A neighbor of the family told the Daily Mail that Katherine Russell became a Muslim after her freshman year of college, and changed her dress accordingly.

    ‘I knew Katherine was married and she had converted to Islam.

    ‘She went away to college about three or four years ago and I saw her a year later and she was dressed in the Islamic style. Her hair was covered and she was wearing very baggy, flowy clothing.’

    The report from NPR also discussed concerns that Russell’s friends and roommates had over what they perceived as “[Tamerlan’s] controlling and very manipulative” behavior toward Russell.  They also mentioned Russell’s religious conversion and indicated that something about Tamerlan changed around 2008.

    He was arrested for domestic assault and battery, but it was of a different woman. They had an on-again, off-again relationship, Katherine Russell and Tamerlan, and that was at a different period in about 2009, but over the years that they knew Tamerlan, and they knew him through Katherine, they say that, you know, he had really changed a lot. That he had started off in 2007 sort of partying with them – he would smoke, and he would drink – and then sometime around 2008, they say he became very religious, and he stopped smoking, and he stopped drinking, and he stopped going out with them. And it was at that point that they say he demanded that Katherine also convert to Islam and cover herself.

    Russell’s friends and roommates also said in that interview that Tamerlan “started talking about being angry with the government, and he said that he felt that Islam was under attack.”  They described his views as having “an extremist point of view.”

    Russell’s family lives in Rhode Island, and released a statement Friday confirming her marriage to Tamerlan as well as the couple’s child, who is now three years old.  Neighbors indicated that they believe Katherine Russell had moved back with her family to Rhode Island with her child in recent months.

    It is not known if there were any issues in the marriage, or if it had any impact in the personal life of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

    An accomplished amateur boxer with visions of competing in the Olympics, Tamerlan strived to make boxing a more professional endeavor after he dropped out of school, but it was short lived.  He last registered with USA Boxing in 2010.  A former tutor described a crumbling dream for Tamerlan, “His back was in really bad shape and he couldn’t get into the Olympics, and that was the last thing he really worked hard at.”

    Tamerlan Tsarnaev: Religious and Political Views

    The FBI released a statement on Friday that a “foreign government” had requested information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011.

    The request stated that it was based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups.

    The FBI indicated that its search at the time yielded no remarkable activities.

    We now know from media reports that law enforcement officials identified that “foreign government” entity as the Russian FSB intelligence security service.

    As for Tamerlan’s religious and political views, interviews with various family members and friends of his have indicated a range of religious views.  Such information can be subjective at a time when parsing through facts is critical, so I will only provide examples that include direct statements from Tamerlan or other close individuals.

    Some of those contacts have said that Tamerlan changed quite a bit and became much more religious – to a point that it caused concern and even broke off at least one family relationship.  Others have said that he didn’t seem very political at all and while he was a devout Muslim, they didn’t see anything about his religious beliefs that seemed out of the ordinary.  Some have indicated that he made derogatory statements about America’s involvement in wars.

    In the detailed NPR report, friends and roommates of Tamerlan’s wife Katherine said that Tamerlan “started talking about being angry with the government, and he said that he felt that Islam was under attack.”  They described his views as having “an extremist point of view.”  They also describe a drastic change in Tamerlan around 2008 and said they became increasingly worried about Katherine, and remain worried, as she in turn became more withdrawn.

    These views differ from those Tamerlan held in earlier years, such as in 2004 when he told local The Sun newspaper of Lowell, Massachusetts, ‘‘I like the USA…America has a lot of jobs. That’s something Russia doesn’t have. You have a chance to make money here if you are willing to work.’’

    Again, there has been much discussion and speculation about potentially extremist materials having been posted and bookmarked from social media accounts, most specifically a YouTube account, that are presumed to be that of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.  However, with so much disinformation out on the internet disseminated through fake social media accounts, I am hesitant to address any of the social media material in detail until official confirmations have been made.

    Meanwhile, the nation awaits the results of official law enforcement investigations and an expected arrest of younger brother Dzokhar, who remains in serious condition in a hospital and unable to speak due to injuries to his throat.


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