Did he find someone or something in this southern Russia region that might have made him turn to terrorism? That question brought crowds of journalists to Makhachkala in the past week, and it has been put to relatives, policemen, imams and government officials.
They came to the wrong place, say Dagestanis, who understand why bombs go off with terrifying regularity here. Sometimes it’s the corrupt, battling greedily among themselves for control. Other times poverty and deprivation offer an explanation. Despairing young men turn to Islamic fundamentalism, and some to violence, looking for a way out.
But Tamerlan Tsarnaev had a way out.
His great-aunt, Patimat Suleimanova, paced around the courtyard of her apartment building last week, angry and frustrated that the questions kept coming and no one seemed to be listening to her answers.
“I told you,” she said, “these guys are so nice, so good. America gave them shelter. America gave them education. America gave them the possibilities to make their careers.
“Why would they be so ungrateful to America and blow up people? Where is the logic? Explain it to me.”
She tried to march off, a slight woman, wearing a long dress, her hair covered by a scarf, but she could not go until the Americans listened.
“The children grew up creators, not destroyers. They had everything in life. They didn’t have to die. They led a wonderful life there. So did the parents. That country accepted them, and now they are called terrorists and the parents are covered with dirt.”
There was no explaining it, she said, so it could not be true.
“They blow us up here a lot,” she said, “and no one tells the whole world about it. Why is it so interesting when they blow something up in America?”
Makhachkala is a haphazard city of 800,000. Cars dodge each other wildly at some busy intersections, free of interference from cops or traffic lights, while police wearing camouflage and bulletproof vests and carrying submachine guns set up roadblocks on the outskirts, searching random motorists, looking for terrorists.
The day of the Boston bombings, the deputy head of Dagestan’s forestry agency was shot dead outside his office. For two days before that, the village of Gimry, home to 5,000 people, was overrun by masked commandos battling militants. Residents fled, without food or shelter for more than two days, while the battle raged from armored vehicles and helicopters. Four militants were killed. Police said two other militants were killed in another village Sunday, after a shootout with automatic weapons.
One policeman is killed nearly every week in Dagestan, which has about 3 million residents. Moderate Sufi imams — who represent the traditional Islam of Dagestan — are frequent targets. Fundamentalists who police say have turned to militancy are regularly cut down in gun battles.
Suleimanova said Tamerlan did nothing more sinister when he was in Dagestan than visit relatives and talk. He has many relatives in nearby Chechnya, his father’s homeland, and many in Dagestan, where his mother grew up.
“We talked about everything,” she said. “Life, religion. For us it was interesting that he adopted Islam in America. ‘Is it allowed?’ we asked. ‘Forbidden?’”
There was no more to say. “How often did we talk? What else did he do? I am not the FBI. I didn’t know it was so important that you would some day be asking me about every minute of his life.”
Over the weekend, a local Russian security official gave hints of how Tamerlan had caught the eye of the FSB. The Russian intelligence agency had noticed Tamerlan Tsarnaev in April 2012 in the company of Mahmoud Mansour Nidal, 18, a man the agency monitored and believed was a recruiter for local extremists, the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported. Nidal was killed the following month by Russian security services, according to local news accounts at the time.
The FSB also suspected Tamerlan of contact with William Plotnikov, Novaya Gazeta reported. Plotnikov, an ethnic Russian, was a Canadian boxer and convert to Islam who visited Dagestan, joined a militant group there and was killed in a gun battle with Russian security forces in July. Days after that, Tamerlan returned to the United States.
The mosque on Kotrova Street has a reputation for conservatism, attractive to fundamentalists, and bearded young men are at work expanding it, the noise of their hammers and saws punctuated by a rooster crowing in the neighborhood.
“Many people come here,” Imam Gassan Gassanaliev said, “and nobody knows anything about each other.” No one remembers Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he said.
“What are you looking for?” he asked. “What are you trying to find?”
If something changed Tamerlan, said Habib Magomedov, a member of the Dagestan government anti-terrorism committee, surely it happened in America. “I can only say that whatever happened in Boston had nothing to do with Dagestan.”
As for the accusations against Tamerlan — they defy understanding.
“He had a good life,” Magomedov said, “where he could have coffee and chocolate for breakfast.”
Did Tamerlan seek out militants here?
“Why can’t you hear what we are saying?” Suleimanova said. “You ask questions trying to catch me out, questions I don’t know the answers to. Did he talk to underground people when he was here? Do they have a sign on their foreheads saying who they are when they blow us up?”
Finally, she was left with questions of her own.
“I feel this pain myself when they blow up our policemen, when they blow up people near the mosque,” she said. “No one talks about it. Why does no one hear about this?”