WASHINGTON — Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers accused in the deadly Boston Marathon bombings, was influenced by a mentor who espoused radical Islamist beliefs, according to one of the suspects' uncles.
Tsarnaev, 26, became acquainted with the mentor, an Armenian convert to Islam known as Misha, as early as 2007 while living in Cambridge, Mass., according to the uncle, Ruslan Tsarni. Tsarni described his now-deceased nephew's shift toward fundamentalist Muslim beliefs.
"He said, 'I'm now doing bigger things, Inshallah,' something like that," Tsarni said yesterday in an interview at his home in a Washington suburb, recalling a 2009 conversation with Tamerlan.
Authorities investigating the April 15 blasts are trying to determine a motive and examining whether the accused bombers had any support. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, Tamerlan's brother, has communicated to investigators that the pair acted alone in the attack, which killed three people and injured more than 260.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a gun battle with police on April 19 hours before his brother's capture, spent six months in Russia last year, visiting the republics of Dagestan and Chechnya, which have been roiled by Islamic separatist movements. U.S. investigators traveled Tuesday to the capital of Dagestan to interview the parents of the suspected bombers, an American Embassy official in Moscow said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with official policy.
Ruslan Tsarni said he'd never known his nephews to take much of an interest in religion, so when he reconnected with Tamerlan in 2009 after a family falling out a few years earlier, the young man's rhetoric about Islam left him uneasy. He said he learned more about Misha only recently, in talking with the ex- husband of one of the brothers' two sisters.
At the time of the 2009 conversation, Tsarni said, he didn't think his nephew posed a threat. He thought Tamerlan was acting like a disaffected young man struggling to assimilate in American society and unwilling to stick with college or start a career.
"Radicalized?" Tsarni said. "He sounded like a jerk, a person who didn't want to work. Hiding behind words."
Tsarni said his relationship with his brother, Anzor — the suspects' father — was strained several years ago, largely because of tensions with Anzor's wife, Zubeidat. He said that he had a falling out with Tamerlan after urging his nephew to stand up to his mother.
In an interview with CNN yesterday, Zubeidat Tsarnaev said her sons were being "killed just because they're Muslims" and that they were being framed in the bombing case.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faces federal charges that include using a weapon of mass destruction that resulted in death. He may face the death penalty if convicted.
Tsarni said the suspects' former brother-in-law, Elmirza Khozhugov, told him that the Islamist mentor Misha, who would be in his mid-30s now and was affiliated with a local mosque, had often preached in the family's home and claimed to be an exorcist. Khozhugov didn't respond to an email sent to an address provided by Tsarni.
Federal investigators believe Tamerlan may have learned how to build the devices by reading jihadist websites, including an online magazine affiliated with al-Qaida called Inspire, according to an official briefed on the investigation who asked not to be identified because of government policy.
Tamerlan, described as a talented piano player, abandoned plans to study music at an arts college, Tsarni said, because Misha told him that such a pursuit wasn't in the spirit of Islam. Tamerlan, a two-time New England Golden Gloves champion, also stopped boxing and became engaged in community work at Misha's direction, Tsarni said.
"He was pretty much occupied with this guy," Tsarni said, adding that he doesn't know the man's full identity. Efforts by Bloomberg reporters to track down Misha in the Boston area failed.
Over the same period of time, Zubeidat shifted her dress from Western clothes to wearing a hijab, a head covering worn by some Muslim womenTsarni said. He first noticed the change in pictures of her in 2007 and then saw her in person in 2009 in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
"Where was that coming from?" Tsarni said. "It was a tremendous change." He said he thinks his brother and his wife moved back to Dagestan from Massachusetts within the last year although he learned about their move after the fact.
Tsarni said it wasn't until after the Boston Marathon bombings that he began to piece together the possible influence that Misha, and the suspects' mother, might have had on his nephew's views.
Another of Tamerlan's uncles is in Massachusetts, preparing to make burial arrangements once authorities release his dead nephew's body, Tsarni said.
Tsarni said he's received almost two dozen letters written by people from across the U.S. in response to an impromptu news briefing he gave April 19, in which he professed his love for America, denounced his suspect-nephews as "losers" and urged the younger of the pair to surrender.
"You may get 'hate mail,' so please consider this 'love mail,' " read one letter, from Colorado Springs, Colo., that Tsarni showed to a reporter. "Thank you for your courage in coming forward."
_ With assistance from Henry Meyer in Moscow.