On Monday, April 15, Chechen-born Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother Dzhokhar placed and detonated two shrapnel-packed pressure cooker bombs near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three and hospitalizing over 200 others. As well, the two murdered a policeman, while trying to avoid capture. If the two had not been stopped when they were, according to the FBI, the brothers were headed for New York City to create further carnage. The motivation for the attacks were the brothers’ religious beliefs.
During preliminary interviews, following his arrest and the death of the older brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told authorities that the bombing had been carried out to “defend Islam,” which he said his brother believed was itself under attack by the United States. What brought the two former refugees to the point of plotting to brutally murder innocent civilians in their adopted country has been a matter of speculation. However, there are some relevant pieces of information that could be used as a basis to form a valid opinion on the matter.
On January 12, 2012, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, flew into Moscow, Russia and, from there, spent the next six months travelling to locations in Chechnya and Dagestan, two areas known for heavy militant Islamic activity and both home to terror cells. While in Dagestan, Tsarnaev was seen making six visits to a known militant at a mosque. Previously, in 2011, Russian authorities had asked the FBI to investigate Tsarnaev for possible links to extremist groups.
One month after arriving back in the States, Tamerlan created a YouTube page and began posting radical Islamic videos to it. The videos included ones associated with Imarat Kavkaz (IK or Caucasus Emirate), an al-Qaeda-linked organization that the U.S. State Department has labeled a Specially Designated Terrorist Group. Much like the Boston Marathon bombing, IK is notorious for targeting civilians, including with suicide attacks, one of the methods said to have been considered by the Tsarnaev brothers. Indeed, IK has its own suicide battalion.
Tsarnaev’s YouTube page also contains lectures made by Feiz Mohammed, an Australian Islamic leader who has, on numerous occasions, been reported for inciting violence. In his infamous “Death Series” DVD set, Mohammed curses non-Muslims and urges Muslim youth to be prepared to sacrifice themselves for their religion. On one of the DVDs, he states, “We want to have children and offer them as soldiers defending Islam. Teach them this: There is nothing more beloved to me than wanting to die as a mujahid (holy warrior). Put in their soft, tender hearts the zeal of jihad and a love of martyrdom.”
Over the last couple of years, Tamerlan and his wife, Katherine Russell (Tsarnaeva), had become religiously observant. Russell had converted to Islam in 2010, at the behest of Tsarnaev. She became pregnant with their daughter, dropped out of school, and began distancing herself from friends and family. Today, Russell can be found donning the female Islamic head covering. It’s a noticeable difference from her mug shot, when she had been arrested in June 2007 for shoplifting – a foreshadowing of her mother-in-law Zubeidat Tsarnaeva’s arrest for the same crime four years later.
According to his aunt in Dagestan, Patimat Suleimanova, whilst he was overseas, Tsarnaev would speak with his wife every day via the computer program Skype. And when he would lapse in his Islamic duties, according to Sueimanova, his wife would council him on how to observe properly. Though a number of people have claimed that she was verbally abused by Tamerlan, the two no doubt remained close. His aunt said that, prior to leaving, he had considered bringing Russell with him to Dagestan.
Russell is currently an FBI “Person of Interest” and as such has hired an attorney, Joshua Dratel, who specializes in terror-related cases, to defend her. Dratel handled the case of Lynn Stewart, the lawyer who was convicted of smuggling messages between her then-client, the spiritual leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Omar Abdel Rahman, and followers of an Egyptian terrorist group, and he represented Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks, who had attended an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.
Russell has claimed that she knew nothing of the marathon bomb plot, yet it was her and Tsarnaev’s less-than-sizeable Cambridge apartment where the bombs were built and where explosive residue was found throughout the residence, including in the kitchen and bathroom. It is in her personal computer, where the FBI found a downloaded copy of Inspire, an al-Qaeda publication which discusses how to build homemade bombs. It is she who phoned Tamerlan, following the attack, to inform him that he was “being watched.”
According to his uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, Tamerlan had become enamored with a religious leader in Cambridge, Massachusetts who, as suspected by Tsarni, succeeded in radicalizing both Tsarnaev and his younger brother. If there is any truth to what the uncle has said, that leader could very well have come from the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB), a Cambridge-based radical mosque frequented by both brothers.
The imam of ISB is Basyouny Nehela. On his bio, it says he has served as ISB’s imam for the past decade. The bio is found on the website of the Boston chapter of the Muslim American Society (MAS-Boston), where Nehela sits on its Board of Directors. From 2004 to 2008, Nehela served as the head of the MAS Tarbiyah (Education) Department. Nehela also teaches Islamic Studies and Comparative Religion at MAS’s Islamic American University (IAU), a Michigan-based institution chaired by the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
MAS and ISB are not exactly separate entities. MAS runs the ISB’s sister mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC), located in Roxbury Crossing. A big MAS logo is found on every page of the ISBCC website. All of this is daunting, given the terrorist ties of both MAS and ISB.
MAS was founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1993, including the former global head of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Mahdi Akef. The National Executive Director of MAS is currently Mazen Mokhtar. From 1992 through 1996, Mokhtar proudly used the Internet to announce his support for Hamas and suicide bombings. Prior to the September 11 attacks, Mokhtar served as a web designer for what was then the main website raising funds and recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Qoqaz.net. The site was a project of Azzam Publications, an organization named for Osama bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam.
ISB was co-founded by convicted terrorist Abdurahman Alamoudi. In March of 2003, Alamoudi became part of a Libyan plot to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. Alamoudi helped to recruit participants for the plot and assisted in the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars to be used to finance the operation. In July 2004, Alamoudi pled guilty to three federal offenses, which included terror-related charges. Later, he was sentenced to 23 years in prison.
This could very well be the reason why the imam of ISBCC, Suhaib Webb, was replaced as the representative for the Boston Muslim community with a little known individual, in a ceremony honoring the victims of the marathon attack, featuring an address made by President Barack Obama.
Another figure that had an effect on the Tsarnaev brothers was Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior leader of al-Qaeda, who was killed in a targeted drone strike in Yemen. Tamerlan and Dzokhar had spent time studying his teachings, teachings that had inspired a number of other terrorists, including Nidal Hasan, who took the lives of 13 servicemen at Fort Hood where he was stationed; the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who threatened to blow up a U.S. airliner; and Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to detonate a bomb in Times Square.
Had they not been discovered acting suspiciously in Boston on surveillance video, Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev might very well have succeeded where Shahzad had failed. According to Dzokhar, the two brothers had planned to, as well, carry out bombings in New York City’s Times Square following the Boston Marathon attack.
In April 2012, Dzokhar traveled to Times Square with a group of his friends. It has been speculated that this trip might have been a scouting mission for the future attack. A photograph from the trip depicts Dzokhar and four other individuals arm in arm. Two of those in the photo, Dias Kadyrbayev (who uploaded the photo to the web) and Azamat Tahayakov, Muslim foreign exchange students from Kazakhstan, have since been arrested for a crime related to the bombing.
Along with another individual, Robel Phillipos, after receiving a text message from Dzokhar advising them to take his possessions, the three allegedly entered Dzokhar’s dormitory room at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where they were all students, and plotted to get rid of evidence from the bombing. Kadyrbayev proceeded to remove from the room a backpack filled with firework shells that had been emptied of gunpowder, Dzokhar’s laptop computer, and a jar of Vaseline which he suspected was used to make the bombs. The three dumped the backpack and fireworks in the trash, though the materials were later recovered by authorities.
Dzokhar hung out at Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev’s apartment until midnight two days after the attack. One month prior to the bombing, Dzokhar had told Kadyrbayev and Tahayakov, who both drove around in a BMW with a front licence plate which read, “Terrorista #1,” that he knew how to make a bomb.
Kadyrbayev and Tahayakov, who had previously been arrested for violating their student visas, face up to five years in prison. Phillipos faces up to eight years in prison for lying about his involvement in the crime.
Another individual from the Times Square photograph, Ayat Abdussalamov, also from Khazakhstan and also a student at UM Dartmouth, had traveled to Times Square previously. In August 2011, Ayat visited the area with someone with the same last name as his, Ruslan Abdussalamov. The two took photos of each other alongside an ominous sign which read, “WELCOME 2 KHAZAKHSTAN.”
Ayat’s photo is currently the banner for his Facebook page. And Ruslan uploaded his (Ruslan’s) photo to his own Facebook page. Also on Ruslan’s Facebook are various photos of a two-year-old boy, who is his relation, possibly a younger brother. One of the photos has the boy dressed in Islamic garb praying. Another is of the boy carrying an assault rifle with scope mount. Next to the photo, one friend commented, “Boevik!” meaning Chechen militant or terrorist.
Undoubtedly, much of the above contributed to Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s extremist behavior. Their actions were evil to the core, yet in their minds, they were perpetrated for a perfectly legitimate reason – to defend their religion – which in their warped set of beliefs was somehow being endangered by Bostonians, New Yorkers and Americans in general.
While everyone now understands who al-Qaeda is, the Tsarnaev brothers brought to the public eye another strain of radical Islam, one that Russians recognize and Americans are quickly learning about. Tamerlan and Dzokhar were not Middle Eastern or South Asian. They weren’t Palestinian or Pakistani. They were Chechen. It’s the latest terror link that the United States needs to be on guard for – a link that proved that exposure to the American way of life is no antidote for Islamic-based terror.
Beila Rabinowitz, Director of Militant Islam Monitor, contributed to this report.
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