Suspects described as brothers from Russian Caucasus

Posted at 7:25 AM, Apr 19, 2013
and last updated 2013-04-19 13:06:30-04

by Deborah Feyerick and Tom Watkins


BOSTON (CNN) — The suspects involved in the Boston Marathon bombings were brothers from the Russian Caucasus who’d lived in the United States for several years, though one noted on a social media website that he didn’t “have a single American friend.”

The elder brother, identified by several sources as Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, studied engineering at Bunker Hill Community College but had taken off a year to train as a boxer.

A posting on a social media website under his name included the comment: “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them.”

He died at a hospital overnight after a gun battle with police, authorities said. A source briefed on the investigation said Tsarnaev was wearing explosives and an explosive trigger when his body was recovered.

Several sources identified the other brother, who remained on the lam, as Dzhokar Tsarnaev, 19.

Though the motive for the terrorist attack at the race is still unknown, the source briefed on the investigation added that it should not be assumed that the brothers were radicalized because of their origins in the Russian Caucasus.

The spokesman for Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said the brothers had not been connected with the Chechen Republic for many years, Russia’s semi-official Interfax news agency reported Friday.

“According to preliminary information, coming from the relevant agencies, the Tsarnaev family moved many years ago out of Chechnya to another Russian region,” press secretary Alvi Kamirov told Interfax. “After that they lived for some time in Kazakhstan, and from there went to the U.S. where the family members received a residence permit. Therefore the individuals concerned did not live as adults in Chechnya.”

Kadyrov said any blame must be shouldered by the United States. “It’s all America’s fault because these kids were brought up in America, not Chechnya,” he said, according to Kommersant newspaper.

An official in the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan told CNN that the brothers were Kyrgyz passport holders, and used those passports when applying for green cards in the United States.

Many refugees from the Caucasus conflict received passports or refugee status in surrounding countries.

The headmaster of the school in Dagestan where Dzhokar Tsarnaev attended 1st grade told Reuters that the family — which comprised two brothers and two sisters — arrived in 2001 from Kyrgyzstan as refugees.

“The whole family arrived together and left together,” said Emirmagomed Davydov, headmaster at School #1. “They attended the fifth and the eighth grades. The youngest (Dzhokar Tsarnaev), was admitted to the first grade, and without even finishing the first grade he along with his family left in spring, in March.”

Their uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, told reporters outside his home in Montgomery County, Maryland, that his brother’s family arrived in the United States in 2003 and was granted asylum. He said he had not seen them since December 2005 and last spoke with them in 2009.

Asked what might have motivated his nephews to carry out such an attack, he said: “Being losers; hatred to those who were able to settle themselves. These are the only reasons I can imagine.”

Though the family is Muslim, their religion played no role in the attacks, the uncle insisted. “Anything else to do with religion, with Islam, it’s a fraud, it’s a fake,” he said. He described the family as peace-loving, ethnic Chechens. “Somebody radicalized them, but it’s not my brother, who just moved back to Russia, who spent his life bringing bread to their table, fixing cars,” he said. “My family had nothing to do with that family. Of course, we’re ashamed, yes, we’re ashamed they’re children of my brother.”

Tsarni said he himself loves the United States. “This country gives chance to everybody else to be treated as a human being,” he said.

About his nephews, he said, “They put that shame on the entire ethnicity.”

Two sources told CNN Dzhokar Tsarnaev came to the U.S. as a tourist with his family in the early 2000s and later asked for asylum. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen on September 11, 2012. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was not a naturalized citizen. He came “a few years later” and was lawfully in the United States as a green-card holder.

A leader of the ethnic Chechen community in Kyrgyzstan told CNN that the Tsarnaev family left the republic more than a decade ago.

“There haven’t been any Tsarnaevs living here in 10 or 15 years,” said Adnan Djubrailov, in a phone call from Kyrgyzstan.

In a statement, the State Committee for National Security of Kyrgyzstan sought to distance itself from the family.

“The Tsarnaev family lived in the town of Tokmok and 12 years ago it moved to live in the Republic of Daghestan in the Russian Federation, from where it emigrated to the USA,” it said.

“Given that the suspects left the republic at the ages of 8 and 15, the State Committee for National Security of Kyrgyzstan considers it inappropriate to link them to Kyrgyzstan.

Dzhokar Tsarnaev often had to correct his friends who mistook him for Russian, his college classmate and friend, Giovanni, told CNN’s sister network HLN on Friday.

“He used to tell us he’s the only Chechnyan (sic) … we’d ever come across,” said Giovanni, who did not want his last name published. “Sometimes they’d call him Russian and he’d always correct me.”

Giovanni said he learned of the brothers’ suspected involvement in the bombings when he turned on the news to find out why the trains in the Boston area weren’t running. He said he didn’t know the older brother.

He said Dzhokar Tsarnaev was posting jokes on Twitter on Wednesday — two days after the attacks.

“He posted a Tweet of himself about a joke, like how he had like a dream about eating a cheeseburger and then he was like, ‘And the next day, what did I have next?’ And I responded (on Twitter) in a joking way, ‘A hot dog?’

“And here I am, like, having a conversation with this guy, not knowing what he was doing or what he did.”

Giovanni, who said he met Dzhokar Tsarnaev a year ago, said they played video games together, but had not seen each other since January. He said his friend had told him he was engaged, and sent to his phone a photograph of the woman he said he planned to marry.

“He was always just quiet, quiet in a nice (way),” Giovanni said. “You just wouldn’t suspect that he’d do something so messed up.”

Giovanni said he was shocked to learn his friend was suspected in Monday’s bombings.

“I had no idea I’d be friending such a messed-up person. You just think, oh he seems nice, he seems innocent.”

Dzhokar Tsarnaev had worked as a lifeguard at a pool at Harvard University, said George McMasters, who hired him about two and a half years ago and said he was impressed with his work ethic. “He showed up on time, he watched the water, he rotated from position to position fine, got along well with others.”

McMasters, who is the aquatic coordinator, said Tsarnaev gave no clue to a violent side. “He seemed like a very quiet, unassuming young man,” he said. “It is very surprising and shocking to see the destruction that he has brought to the city.”

Last year, McMasters was deployed to Afghanistan with the Army National Guard and, when he returned to the job in August, Tsarnaev was no longer on the staff or the schedule, he said.

Dzhokar Tsarnaev attended Cambridge Rindge & Latin, a public high school, said friend Eric Mercado, who graduated a year behind the suspect.

“We hung out; we partied; we were good high school friends,” Mercado told CNN.

“We’re all, like, in shock. We don’t really understand. There were no telltale signs of any kind of malicious behavior from Dzhokar. It’s all coming as a shock, really.”

Mercado said he lived a block away from the suspect and had not known his older brother.

“To think that he’s capable of something like this is beyond belief,” Mercado said.

The younger brother was registered at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, which ordered its campus evacuated on Friday. The school is located 65 miles south of Cambridge, just west of New Bedford.

Larry Aaronson, a former teacher at Cambridge Rindge & Latin who lives near Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s residence in Cambridge, said he had taken pictures of the younger brother wrestling. “There is nothing in his character, in his deportment, in his demeanor that would suggest anything remotely capable of any of these things that he is now suspected of doing,” Aaronson told CNN.

“He was so grateful to be here, he was so grateful to be at the school,” he said. “He was compassionate, he was caring, he was jovial.”

He described the suspect, whom he last ran into in the neighborhood a few weeks ago, as “a lovely, lovely kid.”

In 2011, Dzhokar Tsarnaev was one of 45 high school seniors awarded a $2,500 scholarship by the City of Cambridge.

The other brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was listed as a participant in the 201-pound class in a Salt Lake City 2009 Golden Gloves event. He lost in the first round.

CNN’s Tricia Escobedo, Clare Sebastian in London and Ivan Watson contributed to this report

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