Alexander Tikhomirov's life illustrates challenge radical Islam poses in Russia

A train passes by the flowers laying at the Lubyanka Subway station's platform, which was hit by an explosion, Moscow, March 29, 2010.
A train passes by the flowers laying at the Lubyanka Subway station's platform, which was hit by an explosion, Moscow, March 29, 2010. (Sergey Ponomarev - AP)
By Philip P. Pan
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

MOSCOW -- He had been a bright but lonely child from a sleepy city near the Mongolian border, in a Buddhist region of Russia far from the nation's Muslim centers. But by the time he was killed last month, thousands of miles away in the volatile North Caucasus, Alexander Tikhomirov had become the face of an Islamist insurgency.

After two young women blew themselves up on the Moscow subway last week, killing 40 people in the city's worst terrorist attack in years, investigators said they suspected that Tikhomirov had recruited and trained them, and perhaps dozens of other suicide bombers.

How the schoolboy whom neighbors called Sascha became the tech-savvy militant known as Sayid Buryatsky remains a question wrapped in rumor and speculation. But the outline of Tikhomirov's journey from the Siberian steppes to the mountains of Chechnya provides a sense of the challenge that radical Islam poses in Russia and the speed with which the insurgency in the nation's southwest is changing.

In less than two years with the rebels, Tikhomirov became their most effective propagandist, drawing in young Muslims with his fluent Russian, colloquial interpretations of Islam and mastery of the Internet. When security forces gunned him down last month at age 27, the guerrillas immediately cast him as a martyr.

Even in death, he remains influential. The rebel leader Doku Umarov has vowed fresh attacks in the Russian heartland by the brigade of suicide bombers that Tikhomirov helped revive. And he remains a digital legend, with his writings and videos preserved on the Web and his DVDs sold outside mosques across the former Soviet Union.

Neighbors in Ulan Ude, capital of the Siberian province of Buryatia, remember Tikhomirov as an awkward boy from a troubled family. His father was Buryat, an ethnic minority related to Mongols, and died soon after he was born. His mother, said to be an ethnic Russian, struggled to make ends meet at a local market.

One resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of police scrutiny, said Tikhomirov's interest in Islam came after he was forced to drop out of high school and attend vocational school. Others traced it to a stepfather from the Caucasus.

But in a letter posted on a rebel Web site, Tikhomirov's mother said he was simply drawn in by a library copy of the Koran when he was 17. "That same year, he started to search for people who could tell him anything about Islam," she wrote.

Tikhomirov may have had an early brush with Islamic extremism and Russia's heavy-handed efforts to stamp it out. An Uzbek preacher named Bakhtiyar Umarov moved to his city about the time he converted, and Tikhomirov studied with him, acquaintances said. After Umarov caused a stir by trying to build a mosque, Russia deported the preacher to Uzbekistan, where he was jailed on charges of "terrorist propaganda." But his defenders insist that he is a moderate and could not have radicalized Tikhomirov.

In his late teens, Tikhomirov moved to Moscow, where he attended an Islamic college that the authorities later closed in a crackdown on suspected extremism. He then traveled to Cairo, where he studied Arabic and attended lectures by Muslim scholars, one of whom he cited years later to justify violence in the name of Islam.

In 2003, he returned to Moscow, telling friends that the Egyptian authorities had kicked him out for his religious activities. He took the Muslim name Sayid, calling himself Sayid Buryatsky.

But he seemed far from ready to join the rebels in the North Caucasus. Investigators say he took a job as a low-level assistant to the Russian Council of Muftis, which unites the nation's Muslim spiritual boards.

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