Radical Influence?

Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Friend & Teacher Misha, the Bombings’ Mystery Man

Zubeidat Tsarnaeva tells Anna Nemtsova investigators are asking her about an Armenian convert to Islam.

Misha. A new name has emerged in the Boston Marathon bombing case—one familiar to the family of the two young men accused of the atrocity and apparently of interest to the Russian and American security services as well. An uncle of the alleged bombers claims that Misha, an Armenian convert to Islam, had a huge influence on the elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev: “Somehow he just took his brain.” Under Misha’s influence, Tamerlan gave up boxing and music and withdrew into himself—classic signs of radicalization.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed last week in a shootout with police. His 19-year-old brother and alleged accomplice, Dzhokhar, lies in a Boston hospital with multiple bullet wounds. Misha’s whereabouts are unknown.

On Wednesday both Russian and American officials spent seven hours grilling Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, the alleged bombers’ mother, in the headquarters of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan.

“Nobody asked me unpleasant questions,” she tells The Daily Beast. “But they asked about Misha, who they suspect was the bad influence on my son.”

Zubeidat is herself a religious woman. Since her sons first emerged as suspects in the case, she has told reporters that they were innocent, or perhaps that they were “set up” by the FBI and the FSB. Now she defends Misha as well.

“Misha is a friend in Boston,” she says. “I hope he is healthy and sound. He is a young man. There is no negative.” Investigators are barking up the wrong tree, she said. “Misha is a crystal-clean young man, an Armenian, a Muslim with a red beard.” He is “a new believer” and “an intellectual.” (Armenian culture is Christian. A man with Armenian roots in the United States who converted to Islam might have his own issues of alienation.)

What Zubeidat did not say, and what reporters have not yet ascertained, is Misha’s last name or location. Apparently the family only knew this “crystal clean” man by his first name, if that is his first name.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, reportedly answering questions put to him by investigators in the hospital, has said he and his brother acted alone. He’s also reported to have told authorities that they carried out the attack in part because of Tamerlan’s anger over the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (This is now boilerplate for radicalized young men who identify with extremist forms of Islam. Often they are indoctrinated by other young men with videos and diatribes detailing the alleged, and sometimes all too real, atrocities committed in those conflicts.)

Zubeidat says the American and Russian investigators “asked me if my son or Misha were Salafis. I said, no, pure Muslims.”

In fact, the world of Islam in the Caucasus, and to some extent among the region’s emigrants and exiles in the West, has seen massive inroads by the radical Salafis who aspire to a pure form of Islam that they believe is close to that experienced by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers. Their ultra-fundamentalist interpretation of Islam—taken to its most extreme form by al Qaeda and other proponents of violent jihad—has been displacing the Sufi practice of the faith that is traditional in the Caucasus.

Zubeidat said that since last Friday crowds of reporters have chased her all over Makhachkala. The American and Russian investigators questioned her all day and night Tuesday and almost all day Wednesday. She has had her ups and downs, “but right now I am OK,” she says. “I have decided I will never live in America, as America caused me a lot of pain. I feel comfortable in my home, Dagestan, Russia.”

She also said investigators from the United States were very nice to her:

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“Are you tired, do you want a break, dear?” they asked her, she says. But as she was interrogated, there were many aspects of the case she had trouble understanding.

The FSB asked the FBI to look into Tamerlan’s activities in 2011, when he had not been in Russia for more than a decade. “Why would they report him?” she wondered.

Perhaps Misha knows the answer.