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Jahar's World

He was a charming kid with a bright future. But no one saw the pain he was hiding or the monster he would become.

July 17, 2013 11:00 AM ET
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev boston bomber
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Illustration by Sean McCabe

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens. –THE EDITORS

Peter Payack awoke around 4 a.m. on April 19th, 2013, and saw on his TV the grainy surveillance photo of the kid walking out of the minimart. The boy, identified as "Suspect #2" in the Boston bombing, looked familiar, thought Payack, a wrestling coach at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. On the other hand, there were a million skinny kids with vaguely ethnic features and light-gray hoodies in the Boston area, and half the city was probably thinking they recognized the suspect. Payack, who'd been near the marathon finish line on the day of the bombing and had lost half of his hearing from the blast, had hardly slept in four days. But he was too agitated to go back to bed. Later that morning, he received a telephone call from his son. The kid in the photo? "Dad, that's Jahar."

"I felt like a bullet went through my heart," the coach recalls. "To think that a kid we mentored and loved like a son could have been responsible for all this death. It was beyond shocking. It was like an alternative reality."

People in Cambridge thought of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – "Jahar" to his friends – as a beautiful, tousle-haired boy with a gentle demeanor, soulful brown eyes and the kind of shy, laid-back manner that "made him that dude you could always just vibe with," one friend says. He had been a captain of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin wrestling team for two years and a promising student. He was also "just a normal American kid," as his friends described him, who liked soccer, hip-hop, girls; obsessed over The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones; and smoked a copious amount of weed.

Payack stared at his TV, trying to reconcile Dzhokhar, the bomber accused of unspeakable acts of terrorism, with the teenage boy who had his American nickname "Jahar" inscribed on his wrestling jacket. He'd worn it all the time.

That afternoon, Payack spoke with CNN, where he issued a direct appeal. "Jahar," he said, "this is Coach Payack. There has been enough death, destruction. Please turn yourself in."

At that precise moment, just west of Cambridge, in suburban Watertown, Jahar Tsarnaev lay bleeding on the floor of a 22-foot motorboat dry-docked behind a white clapboard house. He'd been wounded just after midnight in a violent confrontation with police that had killed his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan. For the next 18 hours, he would lie quietly in the boat, as the dawn broke on a gray day and thousands of law-enforcement officials scoured a 20-block area in search of him. He was found just after 6 p.m., though it would take nearly three more hours for FBI negotiators to persuade him to surrender.

The following morning, Payack received a text from one of the agents with the FBI's Crisis Negotiating Unit. He'd heard Payack's televised appeal, told him he'd invoked the coach's name while speaking with Jahar. "I think it helped," the agent said. Payack was relieved. "Maybe by telling Jahar that I was thinking about him, it gave him pause," Payack says. "Maybe he'd seen himself going out as a martyr for the cause. But all of a sudden, here's somebody from his past, a past that he liked, that he fit in with, and it hit a soft spot."

When investigators finally gained access to the boat, they discovered a jihadist screed scrawled on its walls. In it, according­ to a 30-count indictment handed down in late June, Jahar appeared to take responsibility for the bombing, though he admitted he did not like killing innocent people. But "the U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians," he wrote, presumably referring to Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I can't stand to see such evil go unpunished. . . . We Muslims are one body, you hurt one, you hurt us all," he continued, echoing a sentiment that is cited so frequently by Islamic militants that it has become almost cliché. Then he veered slightly from the standard script, writing a statement that left no doubt as to his loyalties: "Fuck America."

In the 12 years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there have been more than 25 plots to strike the United States hatched by Americans, most of which were ill-conceived or helped along by undercover operatives who, in many cases, provided their targets with weapons or other materials. A few – including the plots to blow up the New York subway system and Times Square – were legitimate and would have been catastrophic had they come to fruition. Yet none did until that hazy afternoon of April 15th, 2013, when two pressure-cooker­ bombs exploded near the marathon finish line on Boylston Street, killing three people, including an eight-year-old boy. Close to 300 more were injured by flying shrapnel, with many losing a leg, or an arm, or an eye; a scene of unbelievable carnage that conjured up images of Baghdad, Kabul or Tel Aviv.

An uneasy panic settled over Boston when it was revealed that the Tsarnaev brothers were not, as many assumed, connected to a terrorist group, but young men seemingly affiliated with no one but themselves. Russian émigrés, they had lived in America for a decade – and in Cambridge, a city so progressive it had its own "peace commission" to promote social justice and diversity. Tamerlan, known to his American friends as "Tim," was a talented boxer who'd once aspired to represent the United States in the Olympics. His little brother, Jahar, had earned a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and was thinking about becoming an engineer, or a nurse, or maybe a dentist – his focus changed all the time. They were Muslim, yes, but they were also American – especially Jahar, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen on September 11th, 2012.

Since the bombing, friends and acquaintances of the Tsarnaevs, as well as the FBI and other law-enforcement officials, have tried to piece together a narrative of the brothers, most of which has focused on Tamerlan, whom we now know was on multiple U.S. and Russian watch lists prior to 2013, though neither the FBI nor the CIA could find a reason to investigate him further. Jahar, however, was on no one's watch list. To the contrary, after several months of interviews with friends, teachers and coaches still reeling from the shock, what emerges is a portrait of a boy who glided through life, showing virtually no signs of anger, let alone radical political ideology or any kind of deeply felt religious beliefs.

At his arraignment at a federal courthouse in Boston on July 10th, Jahar smiled, yawned, slouched in his chair and generally seemed not to fully grasp the seriousness of the situation, while pleading innocent to all charges. At times he seemed almost to smirk – which wasn't a "smirk," those who know him say. "He just seemed like the old Jahar, thinking, 'What the fuck's going on here?'" says Payack, who was at the courthouse that day.

It had been the coach who'd helped Jahar come up with his nickname, replacing the nearly impossible-to-decipher Dzhokhar with a simpler and cooler-sounding rendering. "If he had a hint of radical thoughts, then why would he change the spelling of his name so that more Americans in school could pronounce it?" asks one longtime friend, echoing many others. "I can't feel that my friend, the Jahar I knew, is a terrorist," adds another. "That Jahar isn't, to me."

"Listen," says Payack, "there are kids we don't catch who just fall through the cracks, but this guy was seamless, like a billiard ball. No cracks at all." And yet a deeply fractured boy lay under that facade; a witness to all of his family's attempts at a better life as well as to their deep bitterness when those efforts failed and their dreams proved unattainable. As each small disappointment wore on his family, ultimately ripping them apart, it also furthered Jahar's own disintegration – a series of quiet yet powerful body punches. No one saw a thing. "I knew this kid, and he was a good kid," Payack says, sadly. "And, apparently, he's also a monster."

 

Though Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was raised largely in America, his roots are in the restive North Caucasus, a region that has known centuries of political turmoil. Born on July 22nd, 1993, he spent the first seven years of his life in the mountainous Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, where his father, Anzor, had grown up in exile. Anzor is from Chechnya, the most vilified of the former Soviet republics, whose people have been waging a near-continuous war since the 18th century against Russian rule. Dzhokhar's mother, Zubeidat, is an Avar, the predominantly Muslim ethnic group of Chechnya's eastern neighbor, Dagestan, which has been fighting its own struggle for independence against the Russians since the late 1700s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chechen nationalists declared their independence, which resulted in two brutal wars where the Russian army slaughtered tens of thousands of Chechens and leveled its capital city, Grozny. By 1999, the violence had spread throughout the region, including Dagestan.

Though Islam is the dominant religion of the North Caucasus, religion played virtually no role in the life of Anzor Tsarnaev, a tough, wiry man who'd grown up during Soviet times, when religious worship in Kyrgyzstan was mostly underground. In Dagestan, where Islam had somewhat stronger footing, many women wear hijabs; Zubeidat, though, wore her dark hair like Pat Benatar. The couple met while Anzor was studying law and were married on October 20th, 1986. The next day, their first child, Tamerlan, was born. Three more children would follow, all of them born in Kyrgyzstan, where Anzor secured a job as an investigator in the prosecutor's office in the nation's capital, Bishkek.

It was a prestigious position, especially for a Chechen, but Anzor had larger ambitions. He hoped to take his family to America, where his brother, Ruslan, an attorney, was building an upper-middle-class life. After Russia invaded Chechnya in 1999, setting off the second of the decade's bloody wars, Anzor was fired from his job as part of a large-scale purge of Chechens from the ranks of the Kyrgyz government. The Tsarnaevs then fled to Zubeidat's native Dage­stan, but war followed close behind. In the spring of 2002, Anzor, Zubeidat and Jahar, then eight, arrived in America on a tourist visa and quickly applied for political asylum. The three older children, Ailina, Bella and Tamerlan, stayed behind with relatives.

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