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.

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