May 2, 2013

Boston bombing investigation leads to heart of Russia's war on terror

By Ilya Arkhipov and Henry Meyer / Bloomberg News

MAKHACHKALA, Russia — Six blocks from the Caspian Sea, on Kotrova Street in central Makhachkala, sits a mosque being watched by undercover Russian agents charged with preventing acts of terror.

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Police and forensic experts examine the site of an explosion in downtown Makhachkala, Dagestan on Wednesday. Russian police say a bomb exploded in a busy shopping area in the capital of the restive republic of Dagestan, killing at least two people. Dagestan is plagued by Islamic insurgents who frequently mount small attacks on police.

The Associated Press

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As worshipers spill out into the streets, American investigators are watching now, too, as they try to reconstruct the events that led to the most high-profile terrorist assault in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001.

It's here that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the man U.S. authorities say masterminded the Boston Marathon bombings, went to worship during a six-month trip to Russia's Dagestan region last year, according to his father. Since President Vladimir Putin tamed Tsarnaev's ancestral homeland Chechnya, where federal forces fought two wars against Islamic militants, neighboring Dagestan has emerged as the center of separatist violence on the Russian side of the Caucasus Mountains.

"We know there were militants who started their path to Islam at this mosque," Rezvan Kurbanov, a former deputy premier of Dagestan who oversaw security in the region in 2010 and 2011, said in an interview in Moscow. "We've had our eye on this mosque for a long time."

Hundreds of mainly young men took to the street for afternoon prayers last Friday, halting traffic around the mosque because they were unable to squeeze into a building designed to hold 1,800. They knelt on sheets of cardboard, carpets and plastic bags and prayed along the dusty road.

About 3,000 thousand people attend Friday prayers at the mosque on average, said Ziyavudin Uyvasov, a representative of the community and a lawyer whose clients include men suspected of religious extremism.

"All kinds of people come here from many countries, but we don't ask for passports," Uyvasov said in an interview in Makhachkala, about 210 miles up the Caspian coast from Azerbaijan's capital, Baku. "Some people express quite radical views and keep asking others what they think about jihad. They are provocateurs. We don't talk to them."

FBI agents are trying to uncover any link Tsarnaev may have had with extremist groups, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC News's "This Week" on April 28. Investigators have persons of interest in Russia, he said.

Dagestan, which is almost twice the size of Massachusetts and less than half as populous, is the most violent region in Russia, with 53 bombings last year, according to the Caucasian Knot, a Moscow-based research group. There were also 405 violent deaths, including 110 troops and 231 extremists.

The Kotrova mosque adheres to the Salafist branch of Sunni Islam and its community is opposed to the Sufis who are backed by the Putin-appointed government, according to Uyvasov, the lawyer.

Several Muslim leaders loyal to authorities have been murdered in Dagestan in recent years, including Said Afandi al-Chirkawi, a 74-year-old Sufi scholar with 100,000 followers who was killed by a suicide bomber at his home last August, according the Interior Ministry.

The attacker was an ethnic Russian woman who gave up an acting and dancing career to convert to Islam before marrying an insurgent, the local Investigative Committee said at the time. She lived at Kotrova 124, down the street from the mosque, according the Interior Ministry.

Tsarnaev's father, Anzor, said there was nothing sinister about the visits he and Tamerlan, 26, made to the mosque.

"If it's seen as a radical place, it should be fully monitored, who goes there, whom they speak with," the elder Tsarnaev told reporters in Makhachkala last week.

Tsarnaev started getting "serious" about Islam three years ago and spent most of his time in the Dagestani capital reading the Koran, according to Patimat Suleimanova, one of his aunts. A YouTube page in his name included videos by radical Australian cleric Feiz Mohammad.

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