What did Tamerlan Tsarnaev do on his trip to Russia?

Details emerge about the dead Boston bombing suspect's connection with an Islamist organization in Dagestan

The parents of Tamerlan Tsarnaev say their son was only visiting family during a six month trip to Russia in 2012.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Ilkham Katsuyev)

In trying to piece together why two seemingly normal young men, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, would allegedly set off bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 others, a lot of focus has centered on Tamerlan's visit to the Dagestan region of Russia in 2012.

According to The New York Times, Tsarnaev's parents say he was just visiting family and reading novels. But Habib Magomedov, a member of Dagestan's anti-terrorism commission, told the Times that he believes Tsarnaev came to Dagestan looking to connect with militants: "My presumed theory is that he evidently came here, he was looking for contacts, but he did not find serious contacts, and if he did, they didn't trust him."

The Times also reports that officials are investigating the time Tsarnaev might have spent at a fundamentalist Salafi mosque in Makhachkala, the region's capital.

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Tsarnaev also spent time with a distant cousin named Magomed Kartashov, who was a leader of the Union of the Just, an organization that preaches non-violent methods for spreading sharia principles, reports Simon Shuster at TIME. Shuster says that the group "occupies a kind of middle ground in the ultra-conservative Salafi Muslim community in Dagestan," and that, according to interviews with the group's members, Tsarnaev might have already been radicalized when he arrived:

The picture that emerges from their accounts is of a young man who already carried a deep interest in Islamic radicalism when he went to Russia from his home in Massachusetts. But that curiosity evolved during his visit. The members of Kartashov's circle say they tried to disabuse Tsarnaev of his sympathies for local militants. By the end of his time in Dagestan, Tsarnaev's interests seem to have shifted from the local insurgency to a more global notion of Islamic struggle — closer to the one espoused by Kartashov's organization. [TIME]

There is at least some pushback to this view of Kartashov. The Times reports that Tsarnaev's aunt, Shakrizat Suleimanova, said Kartashov was "no kind of extremist, and spoke against any kind of killing."

Magomedov, the anti-terrorism official, told the Times that Tsarnaev might have tried to expand his network beyond the Union of the Just and join with violent militants, but "they refused." Tsarnaev returned to the United States in July 2012, where he wasn't flagged by authorities despite having been listed in a federal database of potential terrorists in 2011.