In a hospital bed at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is silent – sedated and with a bullet hole in his neck. Just one week ago, Dzhokhar and his older brother, Tamerlan, were walking through the crowds at the Boston Marathon, carrying the bombs that would kill three people and injure more than 183 others.
By all accounts, Dzhokhar (“Jahar”) was a peaceful, likable college student, eating cheeseburgers, watching HBO’s Game of Thrones, and quoting Eminem and 50-Cent – just another American kid. Meanwhile, his older brother was in a downward spiral, descending into religious extremism while confronting failure and violence.
Experts and media personalities are speculating on motive for the bombing, and it seems clear religious ideology played a role. Yet it is too simplistic to classify the Boston attack as just another example of Islamic terrorism, as CNN’s Jake Tapper prematurely said on Friday. As the world waits for the only living Boston bomber to speak, a closer look at available information suggests Dzhokhar was not following an extremist belief so much as he was following his brother.
Born into Chaos
On July 22, 1993, Zubeidat Tsarnaev and her husband, Anzor, celebrated the birth of their second son, Dzhokhar. Their first born son, Tamerlan, had been growing up in Dagestan, but when the First Chechen War broke out in 1994, the Tsarnaev family left for Kyrgyzstan to put greater distance between themselves and the violence. The war devastated Chechnya, resulting in direct Russian control, which ultimately created a jihadist opposition to Russian rule. In 1999, a Chechnya-based group, the Islamic International Brigade, seized villages in neighboring Dagestan, declaring war against Russia and kicking off the Second Chechen War.
The conflict in Chechnya and Dagestan cannot be boiled down to religious conflict. It is rooted in ethnic diversity and challenges to autonomy, and critically, these groups do not count the United States mainland among their targets. Amid the violence, the Tsarnaev family (which also included two daughters) sought asylum in the United States in 2002, building a new life in Cambridge, Mass. At the time, Dzhokhar was 8, and Tamerlan was 15.
Anzor was a lawyer, but in the United States, he worked as an auto mechanic. Tamerlan graduated high school and went on to study engineering at Bunker Hill Community College. He was also an accomplished athlete – a boxer. Tom Lee, South Boston Boxing Club President Tom Lee said, “He was one of those guys who could kind of train half-ass and still be good because he was naturally gifted.”
He could walk 50 yards on his hands, according to John Curran, Tamerlan’s coach for the 2009 Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in Salt Lake City. Curran called the promising boxer “a perfect physical specimen” who fought in a European style: “No bobbing and weaving, anything like that. He stood straight up and took the fight to the opponent.”
Tamerlan left his asylum legal status when he became a U.S. resident in 2007, a step toward citizenship. He also began dating Katherine Russell, from North Kingstown, R.I., who was attending Suffolk University in Boston; the two later married.