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Aunt: Boston bombings suspect struggled with Islam

  • In this image taken from a video, Patimat Suleimanova, the aunt of USA Boston bomb suspects, speaks to The Associated Press in her home in the Russian city of Makhachkala, Monday April 22, 2013.  Suleimanova says Tamerlan Tsarnaev  struggled to find himself while trying to reconnect with his Chechen identity on a trip to Russia last year.  He "seemed to be more American" than Chechen and "didn't fit into the Islamic world," she said.(AP Photo/AP Television)

    In this image taken from a video, Patimat Suleimanova, the aunt of USA Boston bomb suspects, speaks to The Associated Press in her home in the Russian city of Makhachkala, Monday April 22, 2013. Suleimanova says Tamerlan Tsarnaev struggled to find himself while trying to reconnect with his Chechen identity on a trip to Russia last year. He "seemed to be more American" than Chechen and "didn't fit into the Islamic world," she said.(AP Photo/AP Television)

  • This June 2012 booking photo released by the Natick, Mass., police shows Zubeidat K. Tsarnaeva, mother of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two men who set off bombs near the Boston Marathon finish line Monday, April 15, 2013 in Boston. Zubeidat Tsarnaeva was arrested in June 2012 on a shoplifting charge at a Lord & Taylor store in Natick.  (AP Photo/Natick Police Department)

    This June 2012 booking photo released by the Natick, Mass., police shows Zubeidat K. Tsarnaeva, mother of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two men who set off bombs near the Boston Marathon finish line Monday, April 15, 2013 in Boston. Zubeidat Tsarnaeva was arrested in June 2012 on a shoplifting charge at a Lord & Taylor store in Natick. (AP Photo/Natick Police Department)

  • A flag flies at the blast site on Boylston Street between Dartmouth and Exeter Streets near the Boston Marathon finish line Monday, April 22, 2013 in Boston. Federal investigators formally released the finish line bombing crime scene to the city in a brief ceremony at 5 p.m. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

    A flag flies at the blast site on Boylston Street between Dartmouth and Exeter Streets near the Boston Marathon finish line Monday, April 22, 2013 in Boston. Federal investigators formally released the finish line bombing crime scene to the city in a brief ceremony at 5 p.m. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

  • In this image taken from a video, Patimat Suleimanova, the aunt of USA Boston bomb suspects, speaks to The Associated Press in her home in the Russian city of Makhachkala, Monday April 22, 2013.  Suleimanova says Tamerlan Tsarnaev  struggled to find himself while trying to reconnect with his Chechen identity on a trip to Russia last year.  He "seemed to be more American" than Chechen and "didn't fit into the Islamic world," she said.(AP Photo/AP Television)
  • This June 2012 booking photo released by the Natick, Mass., police shows Zubeidat K. Tsarnaeva, mother of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two men who set off bombs near the Boston Marathon finish line Monday, April 15, 2013 in Boston. Zubeidat Tsarnaeva was arrested in June 2012 on a shoplifting charge at a Lord & Taylor store in Natick.  (AP Photo/Natick Police Department)
  • A flag flies at the blast site on Boylston Street between Dartmouth and Exeter Streets near the Boston Marathon finish line Monday, April 22, 2013 in Boston. Federal investigators formally released the finish line bombing crime scene to the city in a brief ceremony at 5 p.m. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The elder suspect in the Boston bombings regularly attended a mosque and spent time learning to read the Quran, but he struggled to fit in during a trip to his ancestral homeland in southern Russia last year, his aunt said.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev seemed more American than Chechen and “did not fit into the Muslim life” in Russia’s Caucasus, Patimat Suleimanova said. She said when Tsarnaev arrived in January 2012, he wore a winter hat with a little pompom, something no local man would wear, and “we made him take it off.”

Tsarnaev and his younger brother are accused of setting off the two bombs at the Boston Marathon on April 15 that killed three people and wounded more than 180. Tsarnaev, 26, was killed in a gun battle with the police. His 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was later captured alive, but badly wounded.

Investigators are focusing on the six months Tsarnaev spent last year in the predominantly Muslim provinces of Dagestan and Chechnya to see whether he was radicalized by the militants in the area who have waged a low-level insurgency against Russian security forces for years.

The Tsarnaev family moved to the United States a decade ago, but the suspects’ parents are now living in Russia. Their father said he hopes to go to the United States this week to seek “justice and the truth.”

Suleimanova said her nephew prayed regularly and studied the Muslim holy book. “He needed this. This was a necessity for him,” she said.

Every day, using Skype, he spoke to his American-born wife, who had recently converted to Islam, and at times she instructed him on how to observe religious practices correctly when he lapsed, Suleimanova said Sunday from her home in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. She said her nephew was considering bringing his wife to Dagestan.

His parents insist he spent much of his time visiting relatives in his mother’s and father’s extended families in Dagestan and Chechnya, but details of his whereabouts are vague and contradictory. His father says Tsarnaev stayed with him in Makhachkala, regularly sleeping late.

His aunt, however, said neither of Tsarnaev’s parents was in Russia when he arrived. One reason his father came last year, Suleimanova said, was to make sure his elder son returned to the United States. It was not clear when his father or mother arrived. His mother was arrested in the U.S. in June on charges of shoplifting.

Tsarnaev’s father explained his son’s trip by saying he needed to get a new Russian passport. But an official with the federal migration service in Dagestan said yesterday that Tsarnaev had applied for a new passport in July but never picked it up, the Interfax news agency reported. Tsarnaev returned to the U.S. on July 17.

His mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, said that her son greatly enjoyed his time with her relatives but never traveled to her native village in a mountainous region of Dagestan, which is a hotbed of an ultraconservative strain of Islam known as Wahabbism. Wahabbism was introduced to the Caucasus in the 1990s by preachers and teachers from Saudi Arabia.

The mother said her relatives now all live in Makhachkala and the town of Kaspiisk. She refused to say which mosque her son frequented, but Tsarnaev’s parents and aunt firmly denied that he met with militants or fell under the sway of religious extremists.

The family said the suspects’ father, Anzor Tsarnaev, wants to bring Tsarnaev’s body back to Russia.

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