Exclusive: Dagestani Relative of Tamerlan Tsarnaev Is a Prominent Islamist

Last year, when Tamerlan Tsarnaev visited the Russian region of Dagestan, he had a guide with a deep knowledge of the local Islamist community: a distant cousin named Magomed Kartashov

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DMITRY KOSTYUKOV for TIME

The mother of the two Boston bombing suspects, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, walks near the Caspian Sea.

Last year, when Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent six months in the Russian region of Dagestan, he had a guide with an unusually deep knowledge of the local Islamist community: a distant cousin named Magomed Kartashov. Six years older than Tsarnaev, Kartashov is a former police officer and freestyle wrestler — and one of the region’s most prominent Islamists.

In 2011, Kartashov founded and became the leader of an organization called the Union of the Just, whose members campaign for Shari‘a and pan-Islamic unity in Dagestan, often speaking out against U.S. policies across the Muslim world. The group publicly renounces violence. But some of its members have close links to militants; others have served time in prison for weapons possession and abetting terrorism — charges they say were based on fabricated evidence. For Tsarnaev, these men formed a community of pious young Muslims with whom he could discuss his ideas of jihad. Tsarnaev’s mother Zubeidat confirmed that her son is Kartashov’s third cousin. The two met for the first time in Dagestan, she said, and “became very close.”

Since April 19, when Tsarnaev and his younger brother Dzhokhar were publicly identified as being the key suspects in the bombing of the Boston Marathon, investigators have been trying to work out how they were radicalized to the point of wanting to kill and maim people in the U.S., the country the brothers had called home for much of their lives. (Tsarnaev was killed during a manhunt for the two men in Boston; his younger brother was shot but survived and has been charged with acts of terrorism including using a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.) Much of the investigators’ attention has focused on Tsarnaev’s visit to Dagestan in 2012. It appears that investigators have only recently begun exploring Tsarnaev’s links to his cousin.

(MORE: A Dead Militant in Dagestan: Did This Slain Jihadi Meet Tamerlan Tsarnaev?)

On May 5, three agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service, the agency known as the FSB, interrogated Kartashov for the first time about the Boston bombings, according to his lawyer, Patimat Abdullaeva. The FSB agents were interested in whether Kartashov and Tsarnaev had ever discussed Islamic radicalism, Abdullaeva says.

Kartashov told them that they had, but claimed that Tsarnaev was the one trying to “pull him in to extremism,” says the lawyer, who spoke to Kartashov soon after the interrogation. (It was impossible to ask Kartashov about this directly; he has been in jail since April 27 after a brawl with police in northern Dagestan, and prison officials denied TIME’s requests to visit him or have him answer questions in writing. His lawyer agreed to pass a reporter’s questions to him in jail.) In recounting her client’s replies, the lawyer said: “Kartashov tried to talk [Tsarnaev] out of his interest in extremism.”

Kartashov told the FSB roughly the same story, Abdullaeva says, and it matches the accounts of five other men in Dagestan who know Kartashov and spent time with Tsarnaev. All of them dismiss the notion that Tsarnaev was radicalized in Dagestan. Instead, 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.

The Union of the Just is a tight group of activists based in Kizlyar, a town of about 50,000 people in the plains of northern Dagestan. Tsarnaev, whose parents live 90 miles (145 km) away in the regional capital, Makhachkala, often travelled to Kizlyar to stay with Kartashov and hang out with his friends. In its short history, Kartashov’s group has never been linked to any acts of terrorism. It is seen in the region as a civil-society organization, which argues that nonviolent resistance is more effective than militancy in spreading the principles of Shari‘a.

The group’s core ideology is practically the same as that of Hizb ut-Tahrir, or HuT, a pan-Islamic political party that was founded in Jerusalem in 1953 and operates freely in many parts of the world today. Both groups use the same white-and-black flags and insignia, which decorate the homes, offices and Facebook walls of Kartashov’s followers in Kizlyar. Both groups believe that Islam is not just a religion and a way of life but also an ideal political system rooted in Islamic law.

None of the men TIME spoke to in Kizlyar admit to being members of HuT; that would be grounds for arrest in Russia, because the Ministry of Justice banned the party as an extremist organization in 2003. But several members of Kartashov’s group admitted that their politics are closely aligned with those of HuT. “We have many of the same ideas,” says Mohammed Gadzhiev, who is the acting leader of the group while Kartashov is in jail. “We also believe in the restoration of the caliphates that ruled after the death of the Prophet, may peace be upon him.”

As such, they are fiercely against U.S. intervention in the Muslim world and, more broadly, the encroachments of Western liberalism. Within 20 minutes of meeting a TIME reporter, Bilyal Magomedov, one of the group’s leading members, poses a rhetorical question: “Tell me, who is not an enemy of America these days?” Asked what he thought about the Boston bombings, he offers a silver lining for the Islamist cause. “In principle, it’s good that this happened, even though the [Tsarnaev] brothers suffered,” he said. “Don’t understand me wrong, but Sept. 11 led many Americans to convert to Islam. It’s another question that people died there, sure. But people also started to wonder why this act was committed … And when the enemies of Islam try to blacken the religion, Allah creates the opposite effect. More people get interested in Islam. They get curious.”

(MORE: Homeland Insecurity: After Boston, the Struggle Between Liberty and Security)

Kartashov’s group occupies a kind of middle ground in the ultra-conservative Salafi Muslim community in Dagestan. All of the region’s Salafis are strict Muslims. But while the vast majority are peaceful and law-abiding citizens of Russia, a small minority has embraced violent jihad against the Russian state. On an almost weekly basis, Salafi militants, known in Russia as Wahhabis, attack local police and set off bombs in public places. Kartashov’s group sympathizes with the cause of these militants while renouncing their methods.

Shamil Mutaev, a former police investigator and prosecutor in the region, estimates there are about 100 active militants in the forests of Dagestan. But members of Kartashov’s group believe there are many more. “And the actions of the security services are constantly refilling their numbers,” says Gadzhiev. Magomedov agrees. “They push us, they threaten us, they say they’ll shave our beards,” he says. “Many of the people who went to the forests to fight, I know them. And you know why they went? Because of their convictions … Many of them had everything, and with God’s will, they were killed as martyrs.”

The group’s few dozen active members are a mixed bunch. Some, like Kartashov himself, are well educated, even bookish, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Islamic doctrine. Other members of the group are athletes, mechanics or former convicts with nicknames like Crowbar and Racket. (Kartashov’s nickname among his followers is the Intellectual.) A few of his associates, like Magomedov, are IT experts who run computer stores in Kizlyar. They are very active on Facebook and other social media. And their ties to the militant groups in the hills of Dagestan are often close.

One of Kartashov’s associates, Murad Abdulmuminov, is the brother of two men killed in separate shoot-outs with Russia’s counterterrorism forces in 2010 and 2012. The elder of these brothers, a former imam named Abdulmumin Abdulmuminov, was one of the leading ideologues of the militant underground in Kizlyar, according to statements released by the Russian security services in 2010. Before his death during a counterinsurgency raid that winter, he was wanted in connection with several terrorist attacks.

(MORE: More Boston-Bombing Arrests: What We Know About the Three New Suspects)

But for all its familiarity with militants, the Union of the Just has preferred protests to fighting. Usually, the target of the demonstrations is Russia, particularly the abuses that human-rights organizations say are frequently committed by Russian security services in Dagestan. But in October 2012, a few months after Tsarnaev left the region, the group staged a protest against the U.S. At the time, protests were raging across the Muslim world against a crude anti-Islamic film called Innocence of Muslims, which was produced in California and posted on YouTube. The largest of these protests in Russia was held in Kizlyar, and it was organized by Union of the Just. “I’m sorry to tell you. Actually, no, I’m not sorry. We burned an American flag that day,” says Gadzhiev, the acting head of the group.

All of the members of the Union of the Just that TIME spoke to were inclined to believe that the Boston bombings had been a set-up orchestrated by American security services, a common theory in Dagestan. But in Makhachkala one man who encountered Tsarnaev offered a different perspective. Although he is not a member of Kartashov’s circle, the man says he met Tsarnaev during a beach barbecue thrown by Kartashov and his friends last summer. The man asked to remain anonymous so as not to upset his acquaintances from the Union of the Just.

In June or July, toward the end of Tsarnaev’s visit, the man said he attended a cookout at a beach outside Makhachkala, just past the point where the Shura-Ozen river flows into the Caspian Sea. (He took a reporter to see the spot where the barbecue took place.) Locals often go there when the weather is good, driving as close as they can to the water and parking in a copse of white acacia trees where ravens nest by the many hundreds. The beach is littered with debris that floats in from the Caspian, but it is a fine place to grill some meat, play soccer and talk, as Tsarnaev and his friends did that summer day. (Kartashov’s friends in Kizlyar said they vaguely remembered such an outing, but declined to discuss it in detail.)

The man in Makhachkala, who was invited to the picnic by a friend from the city’s main Salafi mosque, said a group of about eight of the guests gathered around a circle on the beach and began discussing religion. Tsarnaev was the center of attention. “Folks were saying he was the champion of boxing in America,” he says. (Tsarnaev had been a successful amateur boxer.) The man remembers Tsarnaev expressing the opinion that the insurgency in Dagestan is a “holy war.” But others disagreed with him. “Some of our guys started telling him that this is no holy war, that it’s just banditry and has nothing in common with holy war,” he said. “Muslims here are killing Muslims. That’s what we explained to him.”

Eventually the man remembers Tsarnaev ceding the point. Some weeks later — the man could not recall exactly how long — many from the same group of friends, including Kartashov, gathered on the same beach again for another barbecue. This time the discussion was different. Tsarnaev also brought up the issue of holy war, “but in a global context,” the man said. They talked about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the civil war in Syria, which some of the men from Kartashov’s circle accuse the U.S. and the U.K. of helping to foment. “Those questions that he brought from America [about the holy war in Dagestan], those didn’t come up anymore,” said the man who attended both barbecues. And what was Tsarnaev asking about then? “Listening,” the man said. “He did more listening.”

— Jay Newton-Small contributed from Washington, D.C.

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

76 comments
EdLifton
EdLifton

The proper understanding of Tsarnaev’s action may not be in terms of politics but in terms of a particular psychopathology - narcissism. The main comparison is not with Islamist jihadis, but with a scourge of Muslims – Anders Breivik. The Norwegian was found not be psychotic but to have narcissistic personality disorder. Tsarnaev’s brooding sense of humiliation increased when his aspiration to box for the USA was crushed by a change in the nationality requirements. This diminution of self was followed by a desire to increase his perceived worth by commanding awe from his audience: his February 12th tweet was “Do I look like that much of a softy ... little do these dogs know they're barking at a lion”, and in March: “never underestimate the rebel with a cause”. Why did he choose to blow up random people in Boston? It is extremely difficult to see any achievable political goal, such as Chechen independence in this. His anger was directed at Americans around him. He tweeted: "I don’t understand Americans, don’t have any American friends” and "there are no values anymore. People can't control themselves”.

Vagueness of the target is typical of jihadis. Mohammed Atta flew a plane into the twin towers as he believed he was hurling himself against this centre of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy. His Saudi fellow conspirators thought they were attacking “The Great Satan”. They thought they would be shahid – witnesses by self-sacrifice – in front of an adoring audience. They imagined being transported straight to paradise, bypassing the interrogating angels Munkar and Nakir and the possibility of going to Hell.

These beliefs have little to do with achievable political goals, but everything to do with narcissism.

mkundu
mkundu

Muslim community should understand GOD created all religions to live peacefully. Most of the educated Muslims  know Prophet Mohammed said His last peach to His followers in Arafat, " Do not  fight with religions because of that lot of good religions were destroyed in the past".

bidiboom
bidiboom

Theirs backpack wasnt full with something fat like a pressure cooker. Or didnt have something heavy at the bottom of it. I didnt see how they put those backpacks on ground and walked away in the public camera records as well. Is there anybody that knows those details? 

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

A "noted Islamist"?  Doesn't that mean he's faithful to his religious beliefs?  Why is this newsworthy?  That's the equivalent to Timothy McVey having a cousin that is deeply faithful to Christian beliefs and regularly attends church services. 

dholland62
dholland62

Its important that all NON MUSLIMS / INFIDELS understand the meaning of "ISLAMIST" Its simply a devout "MUSLIM". THATS IT! A Muslim who follows the Koran the way the Koran / Allah tells not some but ALL Muslims to follow word for word.

Thats what makes ISLAM 100 times more dangerous and more a threat than Adolph Hitlers Mein Kampf Ideology. 3000 massacred on 911 and  thousands more terrorist attacks by "MUSLIMS" WORLD WIDE! Been going on since the year 600! Whats it going to take exactly for the world to BAN ISLAM!? Another WORLD WAR!? Well that's exactly what the MUSLIMS want. 

CrossWinds
CrossWinds

Matthew 3:10

And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Lee1717
Lee1717

They should be given 24 hours to claim his body.  After that, burn the body and give it to the widow in a small box.

anniem
anniem

No  virgins for them, they didn’t strap the things to their body. God, I pray for all of us! And I know justice will not stop with the idiot here-but will be connected to others-as it should be. It was obvious from the start these 2 were not the brightest bulbs on the tree. Someone else helped plan it.I mean, I really do pray for all of us. How does someone raised in the US, much less anyone,be able to commit such a crime? How can you do that? Hate us so much, but live here, hmmm, how does that work?Probably a little nicer here huh? 

If I here one more person complain about drones, I ll remind them of the Boston Marathon 

grenadetrade
grenadetrade

If there's anything good that came out of this is the fact that Americans will no longer view islamic terrorists as only being people of color. Ignorantly stereotyping Africans, Indians, Pakistanis, and Arabs as being terrorists walking our streets out of convenience is just plain ridiculous. Having said that, we dropped the ball on this one - we have spent billions of dollars and even abused our civil liberties and privacy to avoid such events since 9/11 and we're not doing a good enough job. I don't subscribe to the argument that these things will happen, and we can't avoid it 100% since the terrorists just have to succeed once. The underwear bomber got through airport security and subdued by passengers and the attempt to set off a truck bomb in Times Square was spotted by a street vendor who alerted the authorities. If we're gonna just be "lucky" like this, it's just a matter of time before something really big happens. 

nobel70
nobel70

There are so my sick people in todays word.this kid grow up in the Boston area and he has no clue what true Islam is?

he committed murder pure and simple ,he is a murderer.(Islam has nothing to do with it).

he is no different than the mass murderer in New town CT , Columbine , Aurora or Oklahoma city even though these sick individuals were Christians (Christianity has nothing to do with it) 

But what is sad is the media for some reason portray every muslim as terrorist or Jihadist even though most of you dont understand the true definition of Jihad(in its purest positive  meaning as a peacful duty for true muslims) 

no doubt there are a few people committing murder in the name of a religion, these people are criminals no matter how we slice it 

and there are no justification what so ever for conflicting pain to others thats no Islam that is murder 

lets start calling therse people by their true name "Killers' not Muslims.

segesta65
segesta65

I'm just going to cover my ears and blame "Bush's Unfunded Wars(tm)"

StevensMiller
StevensMiller

Be nice if they'd define what they mean by the word, "Islamist."

zhabaklava
zhabaklava

Kartashov is not that radical as it is said in the article. He is struggling for religious freedom in Dagestan.

FrankMiller1
FrankMiller1

I know what they can do with his body!  Take him to the FBI's body farm and see what urine does to the decomposition of the human body.  Throw a little pig's blood on him too.

BillShut
BillShut

Oh, when I saw the headline, "Relative of Tamerlan Tsarnaev Is a Prominent Islamist", I figured they meant OBAMA!!


MarcusJones
MarcusJones

Muslims didn't drop atomic  bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,

Muslims didn't commit almost complete genocide of Native Indians in North America

Muslims didn't kill 50 million aboriginal peoples of Australia

Muslims didn't kill 50 million Native Indians of South America

Muslims didn't kill 6 million in Vietnam

should I continue??????


markpajak2
markpajak2

Islam is like that street beggar who begs for coins and compassion by displaying his gangrenous foot. It's victim mentality-the whole idea is based on victim mentality. If you fail to show empathy, the beggar responds with anger and threats of violence. Strange strategy for winning support.

Is this self-pity and self-loathing a new phenomenon or was Islam like this from the beginning?

Kaitensatsuma
Kaitensatsuma

Are we seriously focusing on the people the dead guy has run into? Seriously? Nothing better to do? Living son number 2 just, dropped off the face of the earth?

GeraldO'Hare
GeraldO'Hare

They are dogs pure and simple. The militants are cruel and they love to hurt people. The militants of Islam are a disgrace to God and to the whole world. All of their bravado and misinterpreting of Holy teachings led to the killing of a seven year old by. I curse them in my prayers every day.

TastyCooties
TastyCooties

I call shenanigans... One giant web of lies.

ChikuMisra
ChikuMisra

A religion of peace and love, indeed.

JHL
JHL

@bidiboom I believe your handlers from the Mothership have the details. Put on the aluminum chapeau and listen closely to their broadcast. Someone else who might know the "real facts" are the birthers. I live in Boston: have you even been to the Marathon or are you stuck in the basement waiting for dinner or Haley's Comet, whichever comes first? 

CrossWinds
CrossWinds

@dholland62

Revelation 16:16
And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon.

Redman
Redman

Kind of like the 9/11 incident,correct?

anniem
anniem

@grenadetrade I think we can always do better, but I know that we have come a long way understanding and catching these guys before something does happen. Tell me, what civil liberties have we lost? If you are not a suspect, you really have nothing to worry about. The airport-well, I think everyone should just strip naked and go thru the xrays and detectors. No questions then, eh?

segesta65
segesta65

@grenadetrade We have learned that Islam is not a race. Underwear bomber: African. Shoe bomber: biracial Englishman. Times Square bomber: Hispanic. Wife and possible co-conspirator of Boston bomber: white. 9/11 killers: Egyptians and Saudis.

anniem
anniem

@zhabaklava I found paragraph 7 of article particularly enlightening. This is not a cause , it’s an excuse to murder people, maim them, torture them. And nothing will change for the extremists because this is not a true jihad. Nothing on this earth anyway.

Redman
Redman

No,they were referring to yourself.

leonvang
leonvang

@MarcusJonesGrand Mufti was a friend and ally of Hitler and hoped for extermination of all Jews Peace loving leader of Mislim world.

i4geturname2
i4geturname2

@MarcusJones No need to continue, it appears to me, that you should consider moving somewhere else.

Redman
Redman

No,Marcus,you can stop now.These are Americans killed in the here and now,not historical figures out of the past.

dholland62
dholland62

@MarcusJones 

Who started the war with America that caused us to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? THEY DID! Ill bet they think twice about it next time wont they!?

Who started the Vietnam War? South vietnam is our ally, the north attacked our ally KNOWING PERFECTLY WELL we would get involved. 

Both DEFENSIVE MOVES by the U.S. in response to "EVIL"!


dholland62
dholland62

@MarcusJones 

Continue with what? ANCIENT HISTORY! We are talking about the DAILY ongoing genocide of NON MUSLIMS perpetrated by ISLAM every single day since the year 600!!!!!!!!!!!!

I might add that JAPS STARTED IT! WE FINISHED IT! 

We aide our allies in Vietnam, they were communists attacking our allies to take over their country. 

grenadetrade
grenadetrade

@MarcusJones And they didn't kill dozens of people in schools and movie theaters - what's your point? I don't care if it's millions or even just one - if there's a group of people (not only Muslims, mind you) who want to kill Americans, then as an American, i'm gonna make sure we do everything in our power to prevent that. Go make silly arguments in some other country where it makes sense.

otto937
otto937

No Muslim I've ever met ever responded with violence toward any offense and/or disdain from others. What you just said is a load of crap. Have you even read the Quran? Or did you just hear the "kill the infidels, die and wake up to 71 virgins." Because if you learned from the latter then you thoroughly misguided on Islam and any Muslim ALIVE or dead.

TimothyRigney
TimothyRigney

@Kaitensatsuma I'm not sure why this isn't clear to you - this is evidence that it may have been a more-organized plot.  They may have been acting "under orders" from an organized terrorist group.  And that would mean they're planning to do it again. 

anniem
anniem

@GenieO'Brien if this can be corroborated, IT’S ONE GUY!So, policy is changed by one guy? if it is true, we have a bunch of whimps working in the CIA, without a real leadership. So, I hope it is not.

segesta65
segesta65

@anniem @grenadetrade TSA needs to look for terrorists, not the things terrorists carry. For example, I should be allowed to carry a gun or knife on a plane--why? Because I'm a normal, harmless person like most of you. I am not a terrorists.

But a wealthy young Muslim that just spent 6 weeks in rural Pakistan? Don't let him bring a pen onboard.

BillShut
BillShut

@Redman   Wow......that was some killer comeback! You're really clever, aren't you?  I bet you spend all day, zinging people with your witty comebacks, don't you??


I'm betting you're the king of "I know you are, but what am I??", aren't you??

dholland62
dholland62

@otto937 BS!

2/3's of the Koran is nothing but WHAT TO DO WITH INFIDELS once they capture them and how do do it by using DECEIT and TERROR. There are 108 war versus for Muslims to follow to perpetually wage holy war on the world until the entire world is run by ISLAM and Shariah law. This is no SECRET by the way!


We can all read the Koran too, we're not illiterate, and the only reason the so called peaceful Muslims are acting peaceful is because they are outnumbered. As soon as they get the numbers to start a civil war and take it over THEY WILL!


segesta65
segesta65

@otto937 I read the Koran, and it was mostly about how to treat your cattle and how to kill the tribe next door (in God's mercy, of course). I didn't see anything about how to make the world a better place.

Kaitensatsuma
Kaitensatsuma

@TimothyRigney A bit late at this point, considering its now September, but then wouldn't just working on the one who was still alive make more concrete conclusions than "concluding" or, outright lying, about who the one that wasn't alive anymore had contact with?