Weeks later, Boston bombing suspect still a riddle
BY MICHAEL WINES and IAN LOVETT, New York Times
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- On the day after two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev tapped out an early-afternoon text message to a classmate at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. Want to hang out? he queried. Sure, his friend replied.
In Boston, the police and the FBI were mounting investigations that would end three days later with Tsarnaev's capture and his brother's death. On that Tuesday afternoon, however, he lounged in his friend's apartment for a couple of hours, trying to best him in FIFA Soccer on a PlayStation. That night he worked out at a campus gym.
On Thursday afternoon, he ate with friends at a dormitory grill. By early Friday, he was the target of the largest dragnet in Massachusetts history.
To even his closest friends, Tsarnaev was a smart, athletic 19-year-old with a barbed wit and a laid-back demeanor, fond of soccer and parties, all too fond of marijuana. They seldom, if ever, saw his second, almost watertight life: his disintegrating family, his overbearing brother, the gathering blackness in his most private moments.
There were glimpses. But Tsarnaev was a master of concealment. "I have had almost two weeks to think about it, and it still makes no more sense than the day I found out it was him," Jason Rowe, Tsarnaev's freshman roommate, said in an interview. "Nothing seemed out of the ordinary."
Tsarnaev now lies in a prison medical facility, charged by federal authorities with using a weapon of mass destruction -- the bombs, packed with explosives extracted from fireworks -- that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others on April 15. In the face of compelling evidence, many friends still find it hard to believe that the teenager they knew -- the "cool guy," the "great student" with a "heart of gold," the kid who "would not provoke violence" -- could willfully commit such an atrocity.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was born in July 1993 in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, the youngest of four children in a family that roamed for decades across the Caucasus and central Asia, looking for a stable home.
He spoke only broken English in 2002 when his father, Anzor, an ethnic Chechen, brought him to Massachusetts from the mostly Muslim region of Dagestan in Russia, eventually winning asylum by claiming political persecution. By the time he entered Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in 2007, however, he spoke with barely a trace of an accent, blending seamlessly into a student body that was a melange of immigrants and American-born students of all colors.
By all accounts, he thrived there. Jahar, as his fellow students called him -- the rough pronunciation of his Caucasian name, adopted as his nickname -- became a star student, winning a $2,500 scholarship upon his graduation in 2011. He loved literature and world history, particularly studies of his former homelands.
In his sophomore year, he joined the school's wrestling team as a novice and quickly grew so strong and skillful, one teammate said, that he could take down even coaches. His teammates say they looked up to him as a teacher and motivator.
His teammates eventually voted him captain. One of the coaches, Peter Payack, said he deserved it. Despite the draining four-hour daily practice and trips at sunrise to weekend meets, he said, Tsarnaev maintained his academic record and proved a model of good sportsmanship and steady temperament.
Tsarnaev was a skilled deflector of curiosity about his personal affairs. He rarely talked about his background except to say that he was Chechen or had lived in Russia. He was popular -- "he had a lot of girls hitting on him," said Junes Umarov, 18, a close friend who is also of Chechen descent -- but even other close friends could not say whether he had a girlfriend. Almost no one knew anything about his family beyond a few brief sightings of his older brother, Tamerlan.
Umarov has known Tsarnaev since 2004, shortly after his family came to the United States. Young Dzhokhar sometimes stayed at his home for weeks during summers, goofing around with Junes and his siblings.
Visits to the Tsarnaev household were different. "Every time we went to Dzhokhar's house, his brother would make us work, do a bunch of push-ups, get us in shape, because we were staying inside playing video games all day," Umarov said.
A second Chechen friend since boyhood, 18-year-old Baudy Mazaev, said that during a visit about two years ago, Tamerlan ordered him and Dzhokhar to sit and forced the two teenagers to read a book about the fundamentals of Islam and prayer. After that, he said, they began avoiding the apartment.
While the younger brother prayed daily during lunch breaks at Rindge and Latin, and at least on occasion in his university dormitory, he never appeared especially devout, even telling one teacher, "I'm really not into that." Up to his arrest, he drank and smoked marijuana -- more marijuana than most high school or college students, friends said -- despite what he said was Tamerlan's clear disapproval.
In February 2011, roughly when the boys' mother embraced Islam, she separated from her husband, Anzor, a tough man trained in the law in Russia who was reduced in Cambridge to fixing cars in a parking lot. The two divorced that September, and Anzor returned to Russia, followed later by his ex-wife.
Tamerlan filled the void as head of the family's American branch. On Twitter, Dzhokhar wrote that he missed his father.
That and other comments on his Twitter account, opened in October 2011 shortly after he arrived as a freshman at the University of Massachusetts, sometimes revealed a young man more troubled and blunt-spoken than he seemed in person.
He wrote of plagues of nightmares, three "zombie apocalypse" dreams in July and two in December, one of which depicted the end of the world. In February, he wrote, "I killed Abe Lincoln during my two hour nap #intensedream."
He gained U.S. citizenship on Sept. 11, 2012, "and he was pretty excited about it," said his first-year dorm mate, Rowe. Yet the previous March, he had written "a decade in america already, I want out," followed in April by "how I miss my homeland #dagestan #chechnya." And days before his citizenship ceremony, he expressed wonder at why more people did not realize that the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center "was an inside job."
That and other comments hint at a defensiveness about the confluence of Islam and terrorism that was odd for a young man who earlier had said he was "not into that." Yet both those and later, darker posts -- "If you have the knowledge and inspiration all that's left is to take action," he wrote a week before the bombings -- look foreboding only in retrospect.