Bombing suspect’s dark side, carefully masked
and IAN LOVETT
The New York Times | May 05,2013
FILE - This file photo provided Friday, April 19, 2013 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Tsarnaev's legal defense is in the hands of Miriam Conrad, the chief federal public defender for Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Conrad has asked a judge to appoint two additional lawyers with experience in death penalty cases. (AP Photo/Federal Bureau of Investigation, File)
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On the day after two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev tapped out an early-afternoon text message to a classmate at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.
Want to hang out? he queried.
Sure, his friend replied.
In Boston, the police and the FBI were mounting investigations that would end three days later with Tsarnaev’s capture and his brother’s death. On that Tuesday afternoon, however, he lounged in his friend’s apartment for a couple of hours, trying to best him in FIFA Soccer on a PlayStation. That night he worked out at a campus gym.
On Thursday afternoon, he ate with friends at a dormitory grill. By early Friday, he was the target of the largest dragnet in Massachusetts history.
To even his closest friends, Tsarnaev was a smart, athletic 19-year-old with a barbed wit and a laid-back demeanor, fond of soccer and parties, all too fond of marijuana. They seldom, if ever, saw his second, almost watertight life: his disintegrating family, his overbearing brother, the gathering blackness in his most private moments.
There were glimpses. But Tsarnaev was a master of concealment.
“I have had almost two weeks to think about it, and it still makes no more sense than the day I found out it was him,” Jason Rowe, Tsarnaev’s freshman roommate, said in an interview. “Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.”
Tsarnaev now lies in a prison medical facility, charged by federal authorities with using a weapon of mass destruction — the bombs, packed with explosives extracted from fireworks — that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others on April 15.
In the face of compelling evidence, many friends still find it hard to believe that the teenager they knew — the “cool guy,” the “great student” with a “heart of gold,” the kid who “would not provoke violence” — could willfully commit such an atrocity.
There were oblique signs, however, that the gulf between the private and the public person was widening. Between raunchy jokes and posts about girls and cars on Twitter, Tsarnaev described terrifying nightmares about murder and destruction. In the last year, he alluded to disaffection with his American life and the American mindset.
And as the date of the marathon drew close, he dropped cryptic hints of a plan of action, and the righteousness of an unspoken cause.
Thrived in America
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was born in July 1993 in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, the youngest of four children in a family that roamed for decades across the Caucasus and central Asia, looking for a stable home.
He spoke only broken English in 2002 when his father, Anzor, an ethnic Chechen, brought him to Massachusetts from the mostly Muslim region of Dagestan in Russia, eventually winning asylum by claiming political persecution.
By the time he entered Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in 2007, however, he spoke with barely a trace of an accent, blending seamlessly into a student body that was a melange of immigrants and American-born students of all colors.
By all accounts, he thrived there. Jahar, as his fellow students called him — the rough pronunciation of his Caucasian name, adopted as his nickname — became a star student, winning a $2,500 scholarship upon his graduation in 2011. He loved literature and world history, particularly studies of his former homelands.
In his sophomore year, he joined the school’s wrestling team as a novice and quickly grew so strong and skillful, one teammate said, that he could take down even coaches. His teammates say they looked up to him as a teacher and motivator.
“We’d be running stairs for hours,” said another, Zeaed Abu-Rubieh, now 21. “Every time I’d stop, when I was thinking about leaving, he’d push me forward, physically push me. And he was strong. He’d say: ‘Go on. Run. You can do it.’ He believed in people.”
His teammates eventually voted him captain. One of the coaches, Peter Payack, said he deserved it. Despite the draining four-hour daily practice and trips at sunrise to weekend meets, he said, Tsarnaev maintained his academic record and proved a model of good sportsmanship and steady temperament.
“You always see people’s personality traits over the course of a season,” he said. “If somebody is short-tempered, if they lose a match, maybe they throw a chair. There’s somebody who’s moody, or like a loner. He was none of those things.
“After a match, there’s a prime opportunity to be mad, to say the ref robbed you. He just accepted what was done. If he lost a match, he’d put his arms out: ‘Well, I tried my best.’ And when he won, he’d pump his fist, both fists at head level: ‘Yeah, I won!’ But it was never anything excessive.”
As with almost everyone, however, Payack’s relationship with Tsarnaev went so far, and no further.
Shared little about himself
Tsarnaev was a skilled deflector of curiosity about his personal affairs. He rarely talked about his background except to say that he was Chechen or had lived in Russia. He was popular — “he had a lot of girls hitting on him,” said Junes Umarov, 18, a close friend who is also of Chechen descent — but even other close friends could not say whether he had a girlfriend.
Almost no one knew anything about his family beyond a few brief sightings of his older brother, Tamerlan.
Umarov has known Tsarnaev since 2004, shortly after his family came to the United States. Young Dzhokhar sometimes stayed at his home for weeks during summers, goofing around with Junes and his siblings.
Visits to the Tsarnaev household were different. “Every time we went to Dzhokhar’s house, his brother would make us work, do a bunch of push-ups, get us in shape, because we were staying inside playing video games all day,” Umarov said. “His brother never gave him wrong advice. So he looked up to his brother.”
A second Chechen friend since boyhood, 18-year-old Baudy Mazaev, said that the older brother and their mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, “had a deep religious epiphany” about two or three years ago. At the time, Tamerlan’s new devotion only irritated Dzhokhar, he said.
During one visit about two years ago, he said, Tamerlan ordered him and Dzhokhar to sit and forced the two teenagers to read a book about the fundamentals of Islam and prayer. After that, he said, they began avoiding the apartment.
“He’d say: ‘Let’s not go to my house. Tamerlan will just make us read,’” he said. “And he was a big dude, so we kind of had to listen to him.”
During one exchange of text messages, he said, Dzhokhar indicated that Tamerlan was in the apartment with him. When Mazaev was slow to reply, he added: “Hey, stop ignoring me. Come back. Don’t make me suffer alone.”
Yet the conversion did not seem to diminish him in his younger brother’s eyes. “I know he respected him as the elder, especially once his father went to Russia,” Mazaev said. “He was his older brother and the only male of the house, so he was more dependent on him.”
While the younger brother prayed daily during lunch breaks at Rindge and Latin, and at least on occasion in his university dormitory, he never appeared especially devout, even telling one teacher, “I’m really not into that.” Up to his arrest, he drank and smoked marijuana — more marijuana than most high school or college students, friends said — despite what he said was Tamerlan’s clear disapproval.
Things were changing
The Dzhokhar that Mazaev and Umarov were allowed to see — in Umarov’s case, as recently as March — was the same Dzhokhar they had known for a decade.
Inside, however, some things were changing.
In February 2011, roughly when the boys’ mother embraced Islam, she separated from her husband, Anzor, a tough man trained in the law in Russia who was reduced in Cambridge to fixing cars in a parking lot. The two divorced that September, and Anzor returned to Russia, followed later by his ex-wife.
Tamerlan filled the void as head of the family’s American branch. On Twitter, Dzhokhar wrote that he missed his father.
That and other comments on his Twitter account, opened in October 2011 shortly after he arrived as a freshman at the University of Massachusetts, sometimes revealed a young man more troubled and blunt-spoken than he seemed in person.
In college Tsarnaev’s grades plummeted, even as he boasted online of skipping classes and receiving a test “with all the answers on it.” He wrote of plagues of nightmares, three “zombie apocalypse” dreams in July and two in December, one of which depicted the end of the world. In February, he wrote, “I killed Abe Lincoln during my two hour nap (HASHTAG)intensedream.”
‘I want out’
He gained U.S. citizenship on Sept. 11, 2012, “and he was pretty excited about it,” said his first-year dorm mate, Rowe. Yet the previous March, he had written “a decade in america already, I want out,” followed in April by “how I miss my homeland (HASHTAG)dagestan (HASHTAG)chechnya.” And days before his citizenship ceremony, he expressed wonder at why more people did not realize that the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center “was an inside job.”
That and other comments hint at a defensiveness about the confluence of Islam and terrorism that was odd for a young man who earlier had said he was “not into that.” Yet both those and later, darker posts — “If you have the knowledge and inspiration all that’s left is to take action,” he wrote a week before the bombings — look foreboding only in retrospect.
As does Tsarnaev.
Just a year ago, he had been hoping to become an engineer and worried about his grades, according to Sanjaya Lamichhane, who was on the wrestling team with Tsarnaev in high school and also attended college with him before transferring.
In the weeks before the bombing, however, Tsarnaev was apparently declaring that he no longer cared about his schoolwork. Lamichhane said that after Tsarnaev emerged as a suspect in the bombing, a mutual friend from the University of Massachusetts recounted his last conversation with Tsarnaev, two weeks before the marathon.
Tsarnaev had told their friend: “God is all that matters. It doesn’t matter about school and engineering,” Lamichhane said. “He said, ‘When it comes to school and being an engineer, you can cheat easily, but when it comes to going to heaven you can’t cheat.’”
Payack, the wrestling coach, has run 12 Boston Marathons. His love of the race is a given among his wrestlers.
Early this year, Tsarnaev unexpectedly returned to his high school, wrestling shoes in hand, to grapple with the team.
“We’re all laughing; everyone’s pulling his hair and saying, ‘You ought to do cornrows,’” Payack said. “Eight weeks later, he blows up the marathon. Why would he embrace us if he wants to blow us up?”
On April 15, Payack was more than a block from the finish line, hurrying to watch his son complete the race when the first bomb went off. He still has difficulty hearing in one ear.
One night, exactly one month before that, Tsarnaev appeared at Umarov’s home in Chelsea, not far from Cambridge, with a friend. They carried a load of fireworks. The three chatted about college over burgers at a Five Guys restaurant and then headed for Admiral’s Hill, a former Navy barracks on the waterfront, to set off the fireworks: pinwheels, Roman candles and other largely innocuous types.
Then they went home. “That’s the last time I saw Dzhokhar,” Umarov said.
The afternoon of April 15, Tsarnaev’s other Chechen friend Mazaev received a text message from him. The marathon had been bombed, and the city was in chaos.
“Yo buddy are yu ok man?” Tsarnaev asked.
“Two bombs went off,” Mazaev replied. “People losing limbs.”
“Yeah man we good mashallah,” Tsarnaev wrote back, using an Arabic phrase often spoken upon hearing good news. “I automatically thought of yu man Boston and what not.”
Mazaev replied, “It’s crazy I was bouta go watch that with friends but slept through it today.”
The response: “Alrighty man stay safe my man, keep in touch.”
Four days later, with Tamerlan dead and Dzhokhar on the run, Mazaev tapped out another message on his iPhone: “Jahar man if u can read this just turn urself in for the sake of ur parents. Ull be so much safer there’s no reason for all of this just do it for everyone’s sake,” it read in part. “DON’T MAKE IT ANY WORSE.”
Tsarnaev never replied.