Exclusive: Imam of Mosque Visited by Bombing Suspect Speaks to TIME

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Worshippers at the Central Dzhuma Mosque in Makhachkala, May 14, 2003.

The old imam cringes at the sound of that name — Tamerlan Tsarnaev — furrowing his brow into a bed of creases as he sighs and looks away. There is about half an hour left until the next call to Friday prayers, and he is seated in the third-floor office of his mosque in the city of Makhachkala in southern Russia. At last he indulges the question: “None of our men, not a single person, has ever known him or ever seen him.”

It is a mantra that Imam Khasan-Khadzhi Gasanaliev has had to repeat for journalists many times this week, ever since it emerged that Tsarnaev, the suspected bomber of the Boston Marathon, had attended services at the mosque on Kotrova Street. The mosque upholds a more fundamentalist version of Islam compared with others in the region of Dagestan, and it has been known as a place of worship for suspected terrorists in Russia. On Thursday, Tsarnaev’s father Anzor admitted that his son had gone there for services during a six-month visit he made to Dagestan last year. “He went with me,” the elder Tsarnaev told a press conference on Thursday in Makhachkala. “We went wherever there was space. There was not always space on Kotrova. It’s small.” He added, “But he had no friends there. You don’t make friends that fast around here.”

Investigators have not revealed any links between Tamerlan and any Islamist groups, nor have they explained his alleged motives. But his acquaintances and members of his family have said that he became an adherent of fundamentalist Islam in the years before the bombings. The other suspect in the Boston attacks, Tamerlan’s younger brother Dzhokhar, told investigators from his hospital bed this week that he and his brother were motivated by the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a report in the Washington Post that cited U.S. officials familiar with the investigation.

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The officials told the Post that the Tsarnaev brothers were “self-radicalized,” meaning that their views were shaped by what they saw online and knew of U.S. actions in the Muslim world. But judging by the opinion of the U.S. that Gasanaliev expressed to TIME, Tamerlan’s alleged politics would at least have been reinforced by the views upheld at the mosque on Kotrova Street.

“America will soon collapse. It will disappear,” Gasanaliev said matter-of-factly after sitting down with TIME for an exclusive interview. “How many years did the Arabic Caliphate rule? For hundreds of years, the world was ruled by the Arabic Caliphate. And it was a wonderful ruler. Now America is the great power. But tomorrow it will fall apart, a few more hurricanes, a few more of something else.” Pausing for a moment, he switches to a different tone: “But today, we must all look each other in the eyes honestly, wish each other well, respect each other and love each other. There should be no violence.”

Last week’s violence in Boston confuses him not because it was indiscriminate, but because it has caused such an uproar, bringing a pack of journalists to Dagestan with questions for him and his mosque. “Somebody from somewhere was killed, or something was fabricated, and so much noise because of this,” he says with bewilderment. “How much has America done in Vietnam, in all its wars everywhere. Right now it is turning the entire Arab world upside down. They kill hundreds, thousands, millions of people and nobody is interested. But over there someone does something, blows something up, someone is killed, and because of this they send so many people [journalists] here. They are surprised by this.”

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He is adamant that his mosque, a bastion of conservative Salafi Islam in Dagestan, had nothing to do with Tamerlan’s turn to radicalism or with the Boston bombings. “There is no politics here,” he says. “Our sermons are clean.” And indeed, the sermon he gave at Friday prayers this week avoided politics completely, focusing on the need for piety, for all Muslims to stay on the “straight path” set out by Allah. “Do not fear, and do not despair, but rejoice in the paradise that has been promised to you,” he proclaimed to the congregation of men, whose numbers packed the mosque and spilled out into the courtyard. Even amid the steel bars and bricks being used for the mosque’s reconstruction, they laid down prayer rugs and took in the sermon. The vast majority were between the ages of 20 and 30.

Few of them would speak openly to a reporter afterward, but some of those who did said they appreciated the mosque on Kotrova Street for not shying from political and social issues. “He tells it straight,” a worshipper named Magomedgadzhi said of the imam, declining to give his surname. “He can criticize the people in power if they deserve it. You don’t really hear that anywhere else.”

(MORE: Older Boston Suspect Made Two Trips to Dagestan, Visited Radical Mosque, Officials Say)

The Salafi movement’s confrontations with the state are well known throughout this region of Russia. The movement acts as an alternative to the more mainstream Sufi mosques, which are sanctioned and supported by the state. “They have not given a single kopeck to help our mosque,” Gasanaliev says of the Sufis and their friends in government. “They accuse us of being Wahhabis,” he says, referring to an ultra-conservative brand of Sunni Islam that is synonymous in Russia with terrorism.

Although he does try to dislodge that reputation and cooperate with the authorities — Gasanaliev is deputy mufti of Dagestan, a role that grants him some clout with regional authorities — his mosque is watched by the security services with a magnifying glass. Two sources close to the local branch of the FSB, Russia’s version of the FBI, told TIME on Monday that associating with the Salafi movement is enough to get on a counterterrorism watch list in Russia. That was the case with Tamerlan during his time in Dagestan, where he was flagged by the FSB as a potential extremist, the sources said.

Gasanaliev said no security services have visited the mosque since the Boston bombings. But in the past, the scrutiny of the FSB has been nearly constant, and it is little wonder why. Congregants at the mosque on Kotrova Street have often been killed in shootouts with Russia’s counterterrorism forces, and the Salafi bookstore across the street offers literature that has been blacklisted by the state. Tucked in among copies of the Koran and video lectures on such topics as courtship and divorce, there are the tracts of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic political party that operates freely in the West but is banned in Russia as an extremist organization, as well as in other former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

Asked the reason for the state’s attention to his mosque, Gasanaliev smiles and waves his hands dismissively. “They are making elephants from flies,” he says. What matters to him is that his mosque is open to all comers, whatever their views or denominations. “We have no politics here,” he says. “Our law is Shari‘a. You come here to pray and you leave. Anyone can come here. Nobody will ask you who you are. That is part of Shari‘a.” And what his congregants do from there is none of his responsibility.

MORE: How We Talk About the Boston Marathon Bombing — and Why It Matters


Of course no affiliation does he think we are fools or something by admitting it? What a tool.


Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the building in Oklahoma city because  they were motivated by a hatred of the federal government and angered by what he perceived as its mishandling of the Wacko seige (1993).

In the Ruby Ridge incident (1992), Andrew Joseph Stack III flew his plane into a IRS building because he thought the IRS was greedy,.

Ted Katcynski sent bombs to all kinds of people because he thought his bombings were extreme but necessary to attract attention to the erosion of human freedom necessitated by modern technologies requiring large-scale organization. 

FBI statistics show that, from 1980 through 1985, there were 18 terrorist attacks in the U.S. committed by Jews; 15 of those by members of the JDL 

  The Centennial Olympic Park bombing was a terrorist bombing on July 27, 1996 in Atlanta Georgia by Eric Rudolph a Christian Terrorist motivated by his anti abortion and homophobic views (why no calls to investigate his church and young white christian males as a group to understand why white christian males would do this kind of thing?)

Based on the above, why is is so hard to understand that these guys might have self radicalized much the same way the above individuals did.  Like everyone above, they thought that percieved wrongs against them or people like them were enough to justify causing death and pain to others who had never harmed them.

They are just as crazy and just as wrong.  

I wonder if the media will ever take a step back and wonder if their response (the blanket assumption that there is something inherently different about fanatics who happen to be Muslim, than other fanatics), the ease of misidentifying people who happen to be brown skinned, and our policies towards the middle east might be used both to radicalize and to self radicalize people who otherwise might not have gone down that path.  

Perhaps we should look a little closer than a Mosque all the way over in Russia, for the seeds of what caused this tragedy?

99% of Muslims in the US want what every other group that does, to raise their kids, make a living and to live a good life 99% of them do just that.  

Does the fact that most mass shooters happen to be white christian males mean that we should restrict gun use primarily in that group?  Or is it only when Minorities are involved that their race and religion becomes the predominant reason that they do the bad things they do?


BradFoley: You're FOOLING yourself!!! Wake Up. This Imam represents a denomination of Islam that Dreams of the Glory Days of Conversion By The Sword. Make No Mistake About It. In my personal opinion, after a Lifetime of reading and observation, about 99% of all Muslims would endorse Jihad if they could inflict it on the rest of the world. THAT is their Philosophy of Life. The 1% "Schindlers" wouldn't do us much good, Man, Wake Up. research for your self.


The Forces of Islam are on the move.......for conquest......and the stupid Leaders and citizens of America, Europe, and the world are feeling the fallout........the Moslem Armies were stopped at TOURS , FRANCE BYE CHARLES MARTEL......CHARLES THE HAMMER.....if they were not defeated there.......who knows......we would all be moslems today.

valentine, world and military and political historian


I don't get why it's so obvious that statements like '“America will soon collapse. It will disappear...tomorrow it will fall apart, a few more hurricanes, a few more of something else...“But today, we must all ..., wish each other well, respect each other and love each other. There should be no violence." 
To say this is incitement is a huge stretch. Especially in the explicit context given, that over the course of thousands of years, all the major empires or world powers have fallen. Sure, he probably wants more powerful Islamic countries, the same way most Americans cheer for capitalist democracies. Stop freaking out every time a Muslim says "Islam is good, and I support an Islamic state." And don't get me wrong, I don't support religious states on principle. But if every believer is a potential supporter of terror...


@NickAmes  Well said:   and just how many Muslims say the bombing was awful and how many have Come Out aganist it, very very few, that tells you something. When there has been bombings it is the American people who have let it be known it was wrong , you don't  hardly here anything from these Islamic "mosques".. If one does a little research and you don't have to do much you will know that the Muslim belief is evil and dangerous, and they believe in killing all who do not believe as they do. You might not like a "religion" group in America but they Do Not go around bombing and killing someone because they don't believe as they do. Yes you have the radical's aganist the government but they don't go to a church to learn it.[and that stupid westboro baptist]  was  a very very isolated church. These people with these teachings and beliefs should Not Be Allowed in this country, My God, what do you think would happen if some American went in there country teaching hate and killing aganist Islam?? Wake up people..Not all who call some belief a religion is good or Ok.