There were three important women in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s life—five, if you count his sisters—and each is a window into the culture to which he seemed to cling in the final years of his life.
First, there is his aunt, Maret Tsarnaeva, a Chechen refugee from Kyrgyzstan and now a resident of Toronto, by way of the U.S. In a press conference the day her nephew Dzhokhar was being hunted in the streets of suburban Boston, Maret, with her rust-colored hair and silvery manicured nails, gave a magnificent performance. She was brassy and assertive, commanding the attention of the reporters calling to her with questions. “I’m lawyer from back home,” she declared, exhorting the FBI to prove to her that her nephews were responsible for the bombing of the Boston marathon. “How difficult is that? Give me evidence!” she demanded, flicking her hand into the air as if peppering the press with her disdain. She talked about her nephews, but also about her youth in Kyrgyzstan, where the Tsarnaev brothers spent part of their childhoods. As a Chechen, Maret said she had to prove her mettle, to go over and above her Kyrgyz and Kazakh peers because, unlike them, “I was not in my land.” Asked about Tamerlan’s radicalization, Maret acknowledged that he did indeed turn to Islam in recent years. “He started praying five times a day, but I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” she said. “You just say words, gratitude to Creator.”
Maret is the old Chechnya: secular, Soviet, severed from its roots, paranoid and cynical in its knowledge, acquired painfully and firsthand, of what a government can do to its subjects. When Maret talked about her nephews being framed, she knew what she was talking about: “Lawyer from back home" actually meant state prosecutor, a key actor in a judicial system that was in practice a political bludgeon, one that actively invented charges against potential opponents. Maret also talked about Islam as a thing that is both native and foreign to her. Islam was something into which she was born, and which, to her, likely, is a set of pleasant traditions and holidays that give her a sense of belonging to an old history. For someone who had a Soviet upbringing, being born a Muslim was akin to being born Chechen; it was just another mark of ethnicity, and, towards the end of the Soviet experiment, didn’t mean much more than having a non-Slavic name.
Enter her sister-in-law, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, wife to her brother Anzor, mother to her nephews Tamerlan and Dzhokhar. You look at that old baby photo of Tamerlan from the late 1980s, and you see Zubeidat looking like a more sullen version of Maret. Her hair is uncovered and fashionably teased; her dress is secular, even stylish. At a press conference in Makhachkala, Dagestan, a quarter of a century later, she is a woman transformed, though the long, morose face is still the same. In between, she had moved from the wasteland that was nominally Buddhist Kalmykia, where Tamerlan had been born, to nominally Muslim Kyrgzystan, had another son, Dzhokhar, and two daughters, emigrated to America, gone to beauty school, married off her older son and daughters with uneven success, was arrested for shoplifting, divorced her husband, and moved back with him to her native Dagestan.
Somewhere along the way, Zubeidat found Islam in a way Maret never did.1 It is said that Zubeidat pushed Tamerlan toward the old faith when he started to lose his way, and it is also said that Mikhail Allakhverdov, the mysterious “Misha,” a Ukrainian-Armenian convert to Islam, had pushed Zubeidat or Tamerlan or both closer to Islam. And from there, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar seem to have moved on to more intense forms of the religion, including an interest in the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. It is something that seems to have percolated through the house and into Zubeidat’s newfound faith: She told one of her customers that the September 11 terrorist attacks were an inside job designed to turn the world against Muslims. “My son knows all about it,” Zubeidat is said to have claimed . “You can read on the Internet.”
Zubeidat is the new Chechnya, and the new Dagestan. At the Makhachkala press conference, she is dressed in a long-sleeved black caftan, her face framed tightly by a black and white hijab. Her mourning is expressive and theatrical, almost Middle Eastern. She talks about how she regrets moving to America— “why did I even go there?”—about how she expected America to keep her children safe, but instead “it happened opposite,” she says, weeping. “America took my kids away.” If the Tsarnaevs hadn’t emigrated, Zubeidat contends, “my kids would be with us, and we would be, like, fine.”
That, in the new Chechnya and the new Dagestan, is highly unlikely. While the Tsarnaevs were in Kyrgyzstan and America, the region began to change rather violently. After the First Chechen War ended in 1996, Chechnya became a mix of lawless wilderness rife with violence and kidnapping, and pockets ruled by fundamentalist warlords, like Aslan Maskhadov. After a second war between Russia and Chechnya broke out in 1999 and dragged on for years, Vladimir Putin installed Ramzan Kadyrov as president of Chechnya. Kadyrov was the son of a separatist mufti and led a vicious militia that switched to the Russian side early in the second war, and become allied with the FSB.
Kadyrov, who now posts photographs of his devout family at play or going on Muslim pilgrimages on his Instagram account, is accused of grotesque human rights violations. He now rules Chechnya with a mix of terror and a torrent of money from Moscow. He has led Chechnya down the path of increasing Islamization. Women are now required to cover up, lest they be harassed by the authorities or, worse, subject to paintball attacks by Kadyrov’s modesty vigilantes. Kadyrov has also voiced his support of honor killings, a rather stark turn for the once secular republic. “Now Chechen women must wear hijab and long dress with long sleeves to go anywhere out of home. There have been many situations of the public humiliation of those who tried to resist,” a Chechen woman told me. She asked to remain anonymous for fear for her family’s safety. “The previous generation was under the radicalization of Wahhabi regime during 1996-1999, but the Wahhabis lost, they didn’t achieve the goal to cover all Chechen women with hijab. But now the government has achieved that goal. This young generation of radicalized girls and boys might be a real threat to the society in the nearest future.”
Even before this policy had firmly taken root, the region became a source of unique terrorism: the female suicide bomber. The first woman to detonate herself was 22-year-old Khava Baraeva, who, in 2000, drove a truck packed with explosives into a local Russian military base, killing three. She was going after the commander who had killed her husband. Other Chechen and Dagestani women followed her lead, blowing up military posts as well as civilian targets inside Russia. Two women, for example, simultaneously brought down two Russian airliners in 2004, killing 89, and two young Dagestani women blew themselves up in the Moscow metro, in March 2010, killing 40. Half of the terrorists who seized the Dubrovka theater in Moscow in 2002 were women, strapped with explosives. Experts estimate that up to 40 percent of suicide bombings originating in the region are perpetrated by women.
The women have come to be known in Russia as “Black Widows.” At home they are known as shakhikdi, the Russianized feminine form shakhid, or martyr. “A lot of the women in these radical Islamic groups, for example, in Indonesia, they don’t get personally involved in frontline warfare but they raise their sons so that if their father is killed, they can step right away into his shoes,” says Mia Bloom, a scholar at Penn State’s International Center for the Study of Terrorism, and author of Bombshell, a book about women suicide bombers. “Women act as the glue within the terrorist cell,” she explains. “The daughter of one cell leader will marry a cell leader in another area to create linkages, like in 15th century European courts. And the women are to make sure that their men stayed fierce.” Bloom adds that, though it’s hard to do this in the U.S., in conflict zones “the mothers will convey a certain ideology or worldview to the children.” Others, like Mariam Farhat, a Hamas activist, encouraged her sons to go on suicide missions, and publicly bemoaned the fact that she didn’t have more sons to send into battle.
Chechen and Dagestani women took it one step further; they went into battle themselves. It is a stunning paradox, given that at home they live in what Bloom calls “an extraordinarily patriarchal society—so much so that the women at the Dubrovka theater were wearing explosive belts, they were not the ones with the detonators.” The man is the means and the ends of a Chechen home. When a Chechen woman is married, she is not allowed to speak at the wedding. Often, her relatives can’t even come. It is a celebration of the man’s acquisition. “In a Caucasian family, where the man dominates, woman is raised to take care of the man and to sacrifice for the man,” the Chechen woman told me. “The Caucasian code of ethics requires the woman to be modest and quiet. But during the war in Chechnya I have witnessed so many times how Chechen women would step before tanks and armed soldiers, aiming weapons at them, if their men were in danger of being captured or killed. So, this socially required behavior changes when it comes to a life and death issue. Mothers are ready to sacrifice for their sons, sisters for their brothers, wives for husbands, and so on.”
Though Zubeidat refuses to accept her sons’ guilt—“No, never,” she said that day in Makhachkala—and though a Russian wiretap caught her talking with Tamerlan about jihad, it seems unlikely that she would strap herself with explosives and charge forth against the enemy. Chechen and Dagestani mothers usually don’t. And that’s where Katherine Russell comes in, especially after a woman’s DNA was said to have been found on a fragment of the bomb.
Russell, the daughter of a Rhode Island doctor, met Tamerlan at a night club, converted to Islam, and, after marrying the elder Tsarnaev brother, reportedly became more observant and began to pull away from her family. She went to work while her husband stayed home. According to her friends, he was often abusive, calling her a “prostitute” and hurling furniture at her. This too is unfortunately common in the culture: Tamerlan’s naturalization was held up when he faced charges for slapping his girlfriend; his father, in an interview with The New York Times, wondered aloud at the strangeness of this country, where “you can’t touch a woman.”
But unlike a black widow, and unlike Zubeidat and Maret, when her husband was accused of blowing up the Boston Marathon and then died in a shoot-out with police, Russell, the American, did not pick up arms, verbal or physical, to avenge her man. She walked away. His violent attack on the state did not bond her to him; rather, it seemed to rip her out of his orbit, to shame and terrify her where, had Tamerlan been a radical in Dagestan, it may have brought her a certain grief-tinged honor. Instead, Russell issued statements in which she expressed her ignorance of the plot—the DNA was found not to be hers—as well as her shock and her family’s grief for the victims of the bombing. Most tellingly, she declined to claim Tamerlan’s body. Instead, it was claimed by his sisters, who though Americanized and horrified by Tamerlan’s act, said they would give their brother a proper Muslim burial.
Tsarnaeva is not Chechen but Avar, one of the scores of ethnicities in Dagestan.