Jahar never denied he was a Muslim, though he sometimes played it down. He fasted during Ramadan, which included giving up pot – an immense act of self-control, his friends say. "But the most religious thing he ever said was, 'Don't take God's name in vain,'" says Alyssa, who is Jewish. "Yeah," says Jackson, "he might have been religious, but it was the type of thing where unless he told you, you wouldn't know."
A few years ago, one Rindge wrestler, another Muslim, attended an informal lunchtime high school prayer group, where he spotted Jahar. "I didn't know he was Muslim until I saw him at that Friday prayer group," he says. "It wasn't something we ever talked about."
His friend Theo, who also wrestled with Jahar, thinks somewhat differently. "I actually think he had a real reverence for Islam," he says. There was one occasion in particular, a few years ago, when Jahar became visibly uncomfortable when James, the friend who'd converted, began speaking casually about the faith. "He didn't get mad, but he kind of shut him down," Theo recalls. "And it showed me that he took his religion really seriously. It wasn't conditional with him."
Yet he "never raised any red flags," says one of his history teachers, who, like many, requested anonymity, given the sensitivity of the case. Her class, a perennial favorite among Rindge students, fosters heated debates about contemporary political issues like globalization and the crises in the Middle East, but Jahar, she says, never gave her any sense of his personal politics, "even when he was asked to weigh in." Alyssa, who loved the class, agrees: "One of the questions we looked at was 'What is terrorism? How do we define it culturally as Americans? What is the motivation for it – can we ever justify it?' And I can say that Jahar never expressed to us that he was pro-terrorism at all, ever."
Except for once.
"He kind of did, one time to me, express that he thought acts of terrorism were justified," says Will. It was around their junior year; the boys had been eating at a neighborhood joint called Izzy's and talking about religion. With certain friends – Will and Sam among them – Jahar opened up about Islam, confiding his hatred of people whose "ignorance" equated Islam with terrorism, defending it as a religion of peace and describing jihad as a personal struggle, nothing more. This time, says Will, "I remember telling him I thought certain aspects of religion were harmful, and I brought up the 9/11 attacks."
At which point Jahar, Will says, told him he didn't want to talk about it anymore. Will asked why. "He said, 'Well, you're not going to like my view.' So I pressed him on it, and he said he felt some of those acts were justified because of what the U.S. does in other countries, and that they do it so frequently, dropping bombs all the time."
To be fair, Will and others note, Jahar's perspective on U.S. foreign policy wasn't all that dissimilar from a lot of other people they knew. "In terms of politics, I'd say he's just as anti-American as the next guy in Cambridge," says Theo. Even so, Will decided not to push it. "I was like, 'Wow, this dude actually supports that? I can't have this conversation anymore.'"
They never brought it up again.
In retrospect, Jahar's comment about 9/11 could be seen in the context of what criminal profilers call "leakage": a tiny crack in an otherwise carefully crafted facade that, if recognized – it's often not – provides a key into the person's interior world. "On cases where I've interviewed these types of people, the key is looking past their exterior and getting access to that interior, which is very hard," says Tom Neer, a retired agent from the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit and now a senior associate with the Soufan Group, which advises the government on counterterrorism. "Most people have a public persona as well as a private persona, but for many people, there's a secret side, too. And the secret side is something that they labor really hard to protect."
There were many things about Jahar that his friends and teachers didn't know – something not altogether unusual for immigrant children, who can live highly bifurcated lives, toggling back and forth between their ethnic and American selves. "I never saw the parents, and didn't even know he had a brother," says Payack, who wondered why Jahar never had his family rooting for him on the sidelines, as his teammates did. "If you're a big brother and you love your little brother, why don't you come and watch him in sports?"
Theo wondered, too. "I asked him about that once, and he told me that he'd boxed when he was younger, and he'd never lost a boxing match, so he didn't want his dad to see him lose." It sounded plausible: Jahar had an innate ability as a wrestler, but he never put in the time to be truly great. "It wasn't really on his list," says Theo. On the other hand, losing didn't seem to bother him, either. "Other kids, when they lose they get angry – they think the ref made a bad call, and maybe they'll throw a chair. Or they'll cry, or sulk in a corner," says Payack. Jahar would simply walk off the mat with a shrug. "He'd just kind of have this face like, 'Oh, well, I tried.'"
On Senior Night, the last home match of the season, every Rindge senior wrestler is asked to bring a parent or relative to walk them onto the gym floor to receive a flower and have their picture taken. Jahar brought no one. "We had one of the coaches walk him out to get his flower," says Payack. This, too, didn't seem to bother Jahar – and even if it did, he never mentioned it. "With our friends, you don't need to confide in them to be close to them," says Jackson.
Jahar's family seemed to exist in a wholly separate sphere from the rest of his life. Jackson, who lived nearby, would occasionally see Anzor working on cars; several others knew of Jahar's sisters from their older siblings. And there were always stories about Tamerlan, who'd been a two-time Golden Gloves champion. But almost nobody met Tamerlan in person, and virtually no one from school ever went to the Tsarnaevs' house. "I mean never – not once," says Jackson. One friend of Jahar's older sister Bella would say that the apartment at 410 Norfolk "had a vibe that outsiders weren't too common."
There are a number of indications that the troubles in the Tsarnaev family went deeper than normal adjustment to American life. Anzor, who suffered from chronic arthritis, headaches and stomach pain, had an erratic temperament – a residual, he'd say, of the abuse he'd suffered in Kyrgyzstan – and struck one neighbor on Norfolk Street as a "miserable guy," who'd bark at his neighbors over parking spaces and even grab the snow shovels out of their hands when he felt they weren't shoveling the walk properly. Despite his demeanor, he was an intensely hard worker. "I remember his hands," says Baudy. "He'd be working on cars in the Boston cold, no gloves, and he'd have these thick bumps on his knuckles from the arthritis. But he loved it. He saw his role as putting food on the table."
Zubeidat, an enterprising woman, worked as a home-health aide, then switched to cosmetology, giving facials at a local salon and later opening a business in her home. "She never wanted to commit," says Baudy, who liked Jahar's mother but saw her as a typical striver. "She was trying to get rich faster – like, 'Oh, this is taking too long. We'll try something else.'"
But the money never came. By 2009, Anzor's health was deteriorating, and that August, the Tsarnaevs, who hadn't been on public assistance for the past five years, began receiving benefits again, in the form of food stamps and cash payouts. This inability to fully support his family may have contributed to what some who knew them refer to as Anzor's essential "weakness" as a father, deferring to Zubeidat, who could be highly controlling.
A doting mother, "she'd never take any advice about her kids," says Anna. "She thought they were the smartest, the most beautiful children in the world" – Tamerlan most of all. "He was the biggest deal in the family. In a way, he was like the father. Whatever he said, they had to do."
Tamerlan's experience in Cambridge was far less happy than Jahar's. Already a teenager when he arrived in America, Tamerlan spoke with a thick Russian accent, and though he enrolled in the English as a Second Language program at Rindge, he never quite assimilated. He had a unibrow, and found it hard to talk to girls. One former classmate recalls that prior to their senior prom, a few of Tamerlan's friends tried to find him a date. "He wasn't even around," she says, "it was just his friends asking girls to go with him." But everyone said no, and he attended the prom alone.
After graduating in 2006, he enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College to study accounting, but attended for just three semesters before dropping out. A talented pianist and composer, he harbored a desire to become a musician, but his ultimate dream was to become an Olympic boxer, after which he'd turn pro. This was also his father's dream – a champion boxer himself back in Russia, Anzor reportedly pushed Tamerlan extremely hard, riding behind him on his bicycle while his son jogged to the local boxing gym. And Tamerlan did very well under his father's tutelage, rising in the ranks of New England fighters. One of the best in his weight class, Tamerlan once told a fighter to "practice punching a tree at home" if he wanted to be truly great. But his arrogance undermined his ambitions. In 2010, a rival trainer, claiming Tamerlan had broken boxing etiquette by taunting his fighter before a match, lodged a complaint with the national boxing authority that Tamerlan should be disqualified from nationwide competition as he was not an American citizen. The authorities, coincidentally, were just in the process of changing their policy to ban all non-U.S. citizens from competing for a national title.
This dashed any Olympic hopes, as Tamerlan was not yet eligible to become a U.S. citizen. His uncle Ruslan had urged him to join the Army. It would give him structure, he said, and help him perfect his English. "I told him the best way to start your way in a new country – give something," Ruslan says. But Tamerlan laughed, his uncle recalls, for suggesting he kill "our brother Muslims."
Tamerlan had discovered religion, a passion that had begun in 2009. In interviews, Zubeidat has suggested it was her idea, a way to encourage Tamerlan, who spent his off-hours partying with his friends at local clubs, to become more serious. "I told Tamerlan that we are Muslim, and we are not practicing our religion, and how can we call ourselves Muslims?" she said. But Anna suspects there was something else factoring into the situation. Once, Anna recalls, Zubeidat hinted that something might be wrong. "Tamerlan told me he feels like there's two people living in him," she confided in her friend. "It's weird, right?"
Anna, who wondered if Tamerlan might be developing a mental illness, suggested Zubeidat take him to a "doctor" ("If I said 'psychiatrist,' she'd just flip," she says), but Zubeidat seems to have believed that Islam would help calm Tamerlan's demons. Mother and son began reading the Koran – encouraged, Zubeidat said, by a friend of Tamerlan's named Mikhail Allakhverdov, or "Misha," a thirtysomething Armenian convert to Islam whom family members believe Tamerlan met at a Boston-area mosque. Allakhverdov has denied any association with the attack. "I wasn't his teacher," he told the New York Review of Books. "If I had been his teacher, I would have made sure he never did anything like this." But family members have said Allakhverdov had a big influence on Tamerlan, coming to the house and often staying late into the night, talking with Tamerlan about Islam and the Koran. Uncle Ruslan would later tell The Daily Mail that Allakhverdov would "give one-on-one sermons to Tamerlan over the kitchen table, during which he claimed he could talk to demons and perform exorcisms."
Zubeidat was pleased. "Don't interrupt them," she told her husband one evening when Anzor questioned why Allakhverdov was still there around midnight. "Misha is teaching him to be good and nice."
Before long, Tamerlan had quit drinking and smoking pot, and started to pray five times a day, even taking his prayer rug to the boxing gym. At home, he spent long hours on the Internet reading Islamic websites, as well as U.S. conspiracy sites, like Alex Jones' InfoWars. He told a photographer he met that he didn't understand Americans and complained about a lack of values. He stopped listening to music. "It is not supported by Islam," Tamerlan said. "Misha says it's not really good to create or listen to music." Then, in 2011, he decided to quit boxing, claiming it was not permitted for a Muslim to hit another man.
Zubeidat, too, had become increasingly religious – something that would get in the way of her marriage as well as her job at an upscale Belmont salon, where she broke for daily prayers and refused to work on male clients. She was ultimately fired, after which she turned her living room into a minisalon. One of her former clients recalls her wearing "a head wrap" in the house, and a hijab whenever she went outside. "She started to refuse to see boys who'd gone through puberty," recalls the client. "A religious figure had told her it was sacrilegious."
What really struck her client, beyond Zubeidat's zeal, were her politics. During one facial session, she says, Zubeidat told her she believed 9/11 was a government plot to make Americans hate Muslims. "It's real," she said. "My son knows all about it. You can read on the Internet."
It was during this period that Jahar told his friend Will that he felt terrorism could be justified, a sentiment that Tamerlan apparently shared. Whether or not Jahar truly agreed with his brother, their relationship was one where he couldn't really question him. In Chechen families, Baudy says, "Your big brother is not quite God, but more than a normal brother." When they were kids, Baudy recalls, Tamerlan used to turn off the TV and make them do pushups. Now he urged them to study the Koran.
"Jahar found it kind of a nuisance," says Baudy, and tried to shrug it off as best as he could. But he couldn't do much. "You're not going to get mad at your elders or tell them to stop doing something, especially if it's about being more religious." During one visit a few years ago, Baudy recalls, Tamerlan interrupted them on the computer to say that if they were going to be surfing the Internet, they should focus on their faith. He gave them a book – Islam 101 – and instructed them to read. He gave the same book to James, the high school convert who, as a new Muslim, was one of the very few of Jahar's friends who came to the house. Tamerlan also taught James how to pray. "I guess they'd sit there for hours," says Sam, who would hear about it afterward. Sam couldn't figure it out. "It was crazy because back a few years ago, Timmy was so like us, a regular dude, boxing, going to school, hanging out, partying all the time. But then he changed and became anti-fun."
By 2011, all remnants of "Timmy" seemed to be gone. When his close friend and sparring partner Brendan Mess began dating a nonpracticing Muslim, Tamerlan criticized Mess' girlfriend for her lack of modesty. And he also reportedly criticized Mess for his "lifestyle" – he was a local pot dealer. On September 11th, 2011 – the 10th anniversary of 9/11 – Mess and two of his friends were killed in a grisly triple murder that remains unsolved. Since the bombing, authorities have been vigorously investigating the crime, convinced that Tamerlan had something to do with it, though so far there's no hard evidence.
"All I know is Jahar was really wary of coming home high because of how his brother would react. He'd get really angry," says Will. "He was a really intense dude."
"And if you weren't Muslim, he was even more intense," says Sam, who notes that he never met Tamerlan in person, though he heard stories about him all the time from Jahar. "I was fascinated – this dude's, like, six-three, he's a boxer – I wanted to meet him," says Sam. "But Jahar was like, 'No, you don't want to meet him.'"
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