Boston’s bombs will echo around the world

Many Russians watch with quiet satisfaction as the American saga unfolds about the two Chechen brothers turned Boston Marathon bombers.

Russians, who have long been targets of Chechen terror attacks, now see Americans walking a kilometer in their shoes. The minor difference is that Boston’s Chechens, the Tsarnaev brothers, apparently were driven not by separatist desires, but by Islamic fundamentalism.

But beyond the four dead and 282 wounded in the Boston bombings and shootings, the future collateral damage could be far wider.

Hardening American attitudes toward immigrants could stop a new immigration reform bill in Congress. That would close doors for an estimated 11 million illegal residents of the U.S. who hope to win U.S. citizenship. Included in this group undoubtedly are thousands of Russians who long ago overstayed their tourist visas.

As details tumble out daily, the Tsarnaev family seems to be cast for a comic book lampooning Washington’s “Swiss Cheese” immigration system.

First there is Dad, Anzor.

In April 2002, Anzor and his younger son, Dzhokhar, came to the United States on 90-day visas. Anzor soon applied for political asylum for his family of six.

Anzor cited fear of violence in Chechnya, a Russian republic where the family apparently never lived.

Although an ethnic Chechen, he was not coming to the U.S. from Chechnya, a Muslim majority republic then embroiled in a secessionist war with Moscow. The Tsarnaev family had lived in Kyrgyzstan, a newly independent Central Asian nation, and then made a one year stopover in Dagestan. Although Dagestan borders Chechnya, it was relatively peaceful in 2002.

Once in Boston, the asylum-seeking family was set up in public housing and public schools for their four children.

Fast forward a decade: the next we hear from Dad is that he is giving interviews to Russian TV…in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan. Today, Dagestan records the highest level of political violence in Russia. In wars between Islamic fundamentalists and moderates, barely a day goes by in Dagestan without a bomb going off or a policeman getting shot. Here are the Interfax headlines for today, April 24:

“IED goes off near mosque in Dagestan’s Buinaksk, no one harmed”


“Two Militants Eliminated in Dagestan – National Antiterrorist Committee”

Did Anzor return to Russia, and apply for refugee status from Boston’s harsh winters?

Located on the western shores of the Caspian Sea, Makhachkala is a city where snow never falls. Dagestan is a land blessed with such a balmy climate that the republic is famous for its table grapes.

Until recently, the only photo we had of Mom, Zubeidat, was a mug shot taken last June, after she was picked up for shoplifting at a Lord & Taylor store in Boston. That arrest seems to be at variance with neighbors’ reports that she embraced a strict version of Islam. She now lives with her husband in Makhachkala.

Then there is Dzhokhar the 19-year-old son, who now lies on a hospital bed in Boston.

He first arrived in Boston as an eight-year-old. Ten years later, he won American citizenship, pledging to honor and defend the U.S. Constitution at a group ceremony on Sept. 11, 2012.

Dzhokhar attended an elite public high school in Cambridge, was captain of the school wrestling team, and worked as a lifeguard at Harvard University. Friends say he was a well-adjusted, easygoing American teenager. Cambridge gave him a $2,500 scholarship to attend University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, a publicly funded university.

The pay back for Massachusetts taxpayers?

Police say that on Thursday night, just hours after police released wanted photos of Dzhokhar and his older brother Tamerlan, the Tsarnaev brothers shot and killed Sean Collier, a university policeman who was sitting in his patrol car.

Then there is Tamerlan, the older brother, who died in a shootout last week at age 26. This handsome boxer with the engaging smile undoubtedly will now have a posthumous career as the poster boy for the next conservative campaign for tighter immigration controls.

Tamerlan arrived in Boston at age 15.

Within a decade, he became the New England Heavyweight Golden Gloves Boxing champion, and married Katherine Russell, a nursing student from Rhode Island. He supervised her conversion to Islam, encouraged her to wear the hijab, and fathered a daughter, Zahara.

Tamerlan also attended a publicly funded university, but dropped out. He enjoyed cruising Boston in his wife’s white Mercedes. But holding a job did not seem to fit his lifestyle. To support the family, his wife Katherine, the daughter of a physician, worked 70 to 80 hours a week as a home health aide.

According to Katherine Russell Tsarnaev’s lawyer, Tamerlan was the home husband, caring for their three-year-old.

Given the bomb-making arsenal found in their apartment, one can only imagine Tamerlan parking three-year-old Zahara in front of the TV, while he experimented with pressure cooker bombs in the kitchen. This week Dzhokhar told police from his hospital bed that his brother learned techniques from Inspire, an online English language magazine of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. One recipe: “How to Make a Bomb in Your Mom’s Kitchen.”

Tamerlan seems to have placed his bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line to maximize the media impact.

But he is also known to have disapproved of women who bare their arms and legs in public. Before he got married, he reportedly shouted at a girlfriend that she was a slut and a prostitute for not covering her arms and legs.

In that light, the Boston Marathon probably qualifies as New England’s largest annual gathering of uncovered women’s legs. Largely because the two pressure cooker bombs were carefully packed with shrapnel, about 13 Marathon attendees are now amputees.

The day after the Boston Marathon bombing, the Tsarnaev brothers came to the garage of their Brazilian mechanic to pick up Katherine Tsarnaev’s white Mercedes. Apparently, they feared that Dzhokhar’s green Honda was in a police data base. Police had run a warrant check on him last year in connection with an underage drinking party.

The mechanic told The New York Times that Dzhokhar was chewing on his fingers and had weak knees, leading the mechanic to conclude later that Dzhokhar had been smoking marijuana. Other friends told reporters that Dzhokhar liked to drink alcohol and smoke weed.

The drug connection may give the Tsarnaev saga an even more gothic twist.

On 9/11/2011, three men, all Jews, were found slashed to death, virtually decapitated, in an apartment in Waltham, a Boston suburb. A Waltham police investigator reported: “Their throats were slashed right out of an al Qaeda training video.” Marijuana had been sprinkled over their bodies.

There was no sign of forced entry, leading police to believe that the men had let in the killer as a friend. One man, Brendan Mess, was a close friend and boxing partner of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Friends found it odd that Tamerlan did not attend the funeral.

Four months later, Tamerlan flew to Dagestan where he lived for six months. Tamerlan’s father found it odd when he announced that he was thinking of working in Dagestan and bringing his wife and child there. Unemployment rates in the southern Caucasus run as high as 48 percent. Russia’s most impoverished region exports people to find work elsewhere.

Near Boston this week, prosecutors announced that they were reopening the murder case, looking at possible connections with the Tsarnaev brothers. On April 23, ABC News reported that authorities now believe Tamerlan may have been responsible for the triple homicide.

Boston, one of North America’s oldest cities, has weathered its share of political violence over the centuries, most notably the Boston Massacre. In that bloodletting, British Army troops killed five civilians in 1770.

More relevant is the case of Ferdinand Nicola Sacco and Bartolommeo Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists who were tried for the 1920 murder of two men in the armed robbery of a shoe factory near Boston. After a series of trials, the men were ultimately convicted and executed in 1927.

With anarchist bombings a regular occurrence in the 1920s, the Sacco and Vanzetti case gripped the United States. An anti-immigration backlash grew, and Congress responded, first with the Quota Act of 1921, then with the National Origins Act of 1924. The new laws sharply limited immigration overall, and from Italy in particular.

Almost a century later, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was charged Monday with using “a weapon of mass destruction.” Conviction on that charge can lead to execution.

But beyond Dzhokhar’s personal fate, the shock waves from the April 15 2013 Boston Marathon bombing may well reverberate for years to come, affecting the destinies of millions of other people, not only in the United States but also around the world.






James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.