The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Prosecutors’ focus on Tsarnaev’s radicalization gets lost in translation

As the prosecution begins to wrap up its case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it is trying to project a coherent narrative of the radicalization of both of the Tsarnaev brothers: testimony is focusing on the details of bomb-building, which involved buying parts as long as two and a half months before the bombing, and on beliefs the brothers expressed in conversations, tweets, and even notes jotted down on scraps of paper. The defense is deploying a two-pronged approach: it is trying to demonstrate that the government’s witnesses don’t know what they are talking about and that the coherence of the narrative they have constructed is false.

Bill Fick, an attorney with the public defender’s office who once lived and worked in Russia, made a government witness look incompetent on Wednesday. Olga LaFond, a linguist employed by the FBI, was on the stand to testify about some Russian-language documents discovered among the brothers’ possessions. But Fick questioned her about some tweets of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s that she had apparently translated. One was a poetic line, which LaFond confessed she had tried to rhyme in her translation but failed and rendered in prose. It translates roughly as, “If your hardened heart only knew how a hooligan can love.” What LaFond also failed to do is recognize it as a signature line of Sergei Yesenin, one of Russia’s greatest 20th-century poet whose verse is memorized by every schoolchild. As Fick pointed out, she also failed to research the line. Had LaFond entered the line into the Russian-language search engine Yandex, she would have drawn millions of hits, including over 3,000 videos of the poem being recited.

Another line LaFond failed to recognize as a quote was, in Russian, spelled, “Budu pogibat’ malodym.” Asked what the last word meant, LaFond said it was “young, with two mistakes” — which was odd, because the word contained only one spelling mistake, and it was intentional. Translated by LaFond as “I will die young,” the line was actually a quote from not one but two rap songs by two different Russian artists, both of whom chose to misspell the word for reasons that are not entirely clear – most likely, simply in keeping with a fashion for so-called “lowlife spelling” that dominated the Russian Internet in the early aughts. Fick suggested that by misspelling the word, the rappers were trying to break it into two parts, which mean “little” (malo) and “smoke” (dym).

“It doesn’t make any sense,” objected LaFond, who speaks with a distinct Russian accent. “The word ‘breakfast’ breaks into two parts, but you don’t ‘break fast’ in the morning, you have breakfast – you don’t break the word apart.” Her spontaneously chosen example hardly bolstered her case, since it actually made more sense than Fick’s “little-smoke” hypothesis.

The document for which the government had actually put LaFond on the stand was in fact much more interesting. It was a book called “Ways of applying a handgun,” a manual apparently compiled by SMERSH, an acronym for a number of different counter-espionage organizations formed in the Soviet Union during World War II. According to the document, the manual was reprinted in Moscow in 2000 and the scans were posted on a Web site hosted in Ukraine, which is where one of the Tsarnaev brothers must have found it.

Presumably, the brothers used the book to try to teach themselves to use a handgun. They didn’t succeed: according to the prosecution’s case, during the April 19 gunfight with police in Watertown, Tamerlan fired 56 rounds with a 9mm handgun at close range but kept missing – until he ran out of ammunition and threw the gun at an officer, finally hitting him. It’s curious, though, that the brothers would have used a Russian-language manual, especially one published by and for the secret police that has been terrorizing young Muslims in the Caucasus for as long as they can remember.

But the choice of the manual is consistent with the picture that is emerging from witness testimony: far from telling a story of the brothers’ following a single radical Islamic group or philosophy, it shows them as being omnivorous in their choice of political and technical inspiration. In a text message shown on Wednesday, Dzhokhar wrote, in November 2012: “Elections are whatever, I want the lesser of two evils to win which would be Obama but either way they’re shaytan [satan in Arabic] ass niggas, puppets of the system, killing Muslims is the only promise they will fulfill.” The statement sounds radical, to be sure, but a rather different sort of radical than the prosecution has been suggesting – more homegrown-nihilist than radical-Islam.

Another prosecution witness, FBI agent Heidi Williams, was engaged by a prosecutor in a dramatic reading of Tsarnaev’s text messages. On Christmas Day 2012 an unidentified texter bombarded Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with questions: “What’s your plan?” “Stay at Dartmouth or transfer out?” “Yale?” “MIT?” “Harvard?”

Tsarnaev finally responded: “One more semester and I’m prolly gonna transfer.” Then he corrected himself: “Not prolly most definitely.” He didn’t mention he was actually failing out.

The interlocutor kept pressing to find out Tsarnaev’s plan. Was he going to get married? Tsarnaev demurred. Was he going to join the Jihad? The texter got excited: “I really am down with that Jihad life though.” And, without waiting for a response from Tsarnaev: “I’ve been thinking about that lately.”

Tsarnaev was cautious: “Don’t be hot over the phone.”

Who was the other texter? It was not Tamerlan – the prosecution stipulated as much. Nor was it any of the four friends of Tsarnaev’s who are awaiting sentencing on charges connected with the case. No one else has been identified as an accomplice. So who was egging the younger Tsarnaev on four months before the bombing?

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