BOSTON – Tamerlan Tsarnaev ranted at a neighbor about Islam and the United States. His younger brother, Dzhokhar, relished debating people on religion, “then crushing their beliefs with facts.”
Tamerlan “swaggered” through the family home like a “man-of-the-house type,” one visitor recalls, while Dzhokhar seemed “very respectful and very obedient” to his mother.
The brothers, now forever linked in the Boston Marathon bombing tragedy, in some ways seemed as different as siblings could be. But whatever drove them to allegedly set off two pressure-cooker bombs, their uncle is certain Dzhokhar was not the one pulling the strings.
“He’s not been understanding anything. He’s a 19-year-old boy,” Ruslan Tsarni said of his brother’s youngest child, who is in a Boston hospital after a gun battle with police. “He’s been absolutely wasted by his older brother. I mean, he used him. He used him for whatever he’s done. For what we see they’ve done. OK?”
Criminologist James Alan Fox says the uncle’s intuition is justified. In cases like this, he says, it is highly unusual for the younger participant — in this case, a sibling — to be the leader.
“I would be surprised,” says Fox, a professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Boston’s Northeastern University. “Very surprised.”
Officials said Dzhokhar was in serious condition Saturday, unable to communicate. So, at least for now, investigators and the public are left with only enigma.
The ethnic Chechen family came to this country in 2002, after fleeing troubles in Kyrgyzstan and then Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim republic in Russia’s North Caucasus. They settled in a working-class part of Cambridge, where the father, Anzor Tsarnaev, opened an auto shop.
He returned to Dagestan about a year ago.
Luis Vasquez went to high school with Tamerlan and later helped coach Dzhokhar’s soccer team at Cambridge Rindge and Latin. With the father gone, Vasquez said the older brother assumed a kind of paternal role, at least where the girls in the family were concerned.
“He was very protective of his (younger) sister, Bella,” Vasquez said. “He would keep an eye out, making sure she’s good, making sure she’s not having a hard time.”
David Mijares, who trained in boxing with Tamerlan in high school and later coached the younger brother in soccer, agreed that his friend felt pressure to take his father’s place.
“He had to be a man at a very early age,” says Mijares. “That would be, in my opinion, a huge reason for who he was, all serious and no nonsense.”
John Pinto said the pair were frequent patrons at his Midwest Grill, just a couple of blocks from their house. When they walked in, he said, Tamerlan was always in the lead.
“I think the big brother is more the command guy, boss,” Pinto said, puffing out his chest for emphasis.
That said, Dzhokhar was very much his own man. While he would tag along to Tamerlan’s boxing practices, the younger brother was into wrestling.
In one of his tweets, he complained that his mother was trying to arrange a marriage for him, as she’d done for his sisters.
“she needs to (hash)chillout,” he tweeted on July 12. “i’ll find my own honey.”
Tamerlan preceded his brother at the prestigious Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, which counts celebrities Matt Damon and Ben Affleck among its alumni. But he does not appear to have been a standout student and athlete whose reputation Dzhokhar would have felt pressure to live up to.
Anne Kilzer of Belmont would go to the Tsarnaev home for regular facials from the boys’ mother, Zubeidat.
In a blog entry, Kilzer’s daughter, Alyssa, suggested that the mother became increasingly religious as their acquaintance progressed. For instance, she began wearing a hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf.
She said the mother also expressed some rather strident views about the U.S. government. But it was difficult to know who was influencing whom in the household.
“During this facial session she started quoting a conspiracy theory, telling me that she thought 9-11 was purposefully created by the American government to make America hate Muslims,” Alyssa Kilzer wrote. “‘It’s real,’ she said. ‘My son knows all about it. You can read on the internet.’ “
Kilzer didn’t say to which son the mother was referring. Kilzer, who is studying in Scotland, could not immediately be reached.
Tsarni told The Associated Press from his home in Maryland that a deep rift opened between him and his sister-in-law, but that he tried to maintain a relationship with the boys. However, that effort began to fall apart several years ago, he said, when Tamerlan “started carrying all this nonsense associated with religion, with Islamic religion.”
When he asked his older nephew why he wasn’t in school, he said Tamerlan gave an enigmatic answer. “Oh, I’m in God’s business,” the young man replied.
Tamerlan would throw out foreign words like “jihad” and “Inshallah” — Arabic for “God willing” — without really understanding their meaning, he said. Though Tsarni is himself Muslim, he said he does not worship at a mosque. The uncle was surprised when he learned that Tamerlan had gotten married to an American woman — a “good Christian family girl,” who his nephew said was about to convert to Islam.
While his older brother was railing about religion and world politics, Dzhokhar seemed more interested in the HBO series “Game of Thrones” and other television shows.
“Breaking Bad taught me how to dispose of a corpse,” he tweeted on Jan. 16, referring to the popular AMC series about a dying chemistry teacher who turns to cooking methamphetamine to leave a nest egg for his family.
He did tweet about religion, but they were hardly the words of a hard-core zealot.
“This night deserves Hennessy a bad b—- and an o of weed,” he wrote on Nov. 17. “the holy trinity”
On Nov. 29, he wrote: “I kind of like religious debates, just hearing what other people believe is interesting and then crushing their beliefs with facts is fun.” And on Jan. 15: “I don’t argue with fools who say Islam is terrorism it’s not worth a thing, let an idiot remain an idiot.”
Fox, the criminologist, said it’s not unheard of for the younger person in a crime team to be the dominant personality. But he said it’s rare.
“In this case, the older brother is the one that seems to have become religious and drawn to Islam,” Fox said. “The older brother dropped out of school … whereas the younger brother, it was all positives.”
But, he said, “the age factor is critical here.”
Tamerlan once said he had no American friends. His brother had lots of them, but fellow students at UMass-Dartmouth say he had increasingly taken to hanging out with other Russians.
If Tamerlan recorded his thoughts, they have not yet surfaced — at least publicly. His bother left a trail on the Internet, although in an Aug. 7, 2012 tweet, he called himself a “heavy sleeper and a great liar”
In March, Dzhokhar tweeted: “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.” A week and a half earlier, he reminded his followers, “Never underestimate the rebel with a cause.”
The day of the bombing, he wrote: “There are people that know the truth but stay silent & there are people that speak the truth but we don’t hear them cuz they’re the minority”