WASHINGTON - In the years before the Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev fell under the influence of a new friend, a Muslim convert who steered the religiously apathetic young man toward a strict strain of Islam, family members said.
Under the tutelage of a friend known to the Tsarnaev family only as Misha, Tamerlan gave up boxing and stopped studying music, his family said. He began opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He turned to websites and literature claiming that the CIA was behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Jews controlled the world.
"Somehow, he just took his brain," said Tamerlan's uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who recalled conversations with Tamerlan's worried father about Misha's influence. Efforts over several days by The Associated Press to identify and interview Misha have been unsuccessful.
In this Friday file photo, Ruslan Tsarni, the uncle of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, speaks with the media outside his home in Montgomery Village in Md. In the years before the Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev fell under the influence of a new friend, a Muslim convert who steered the religiously apathetic young man toward a strict strain of Islam, family members said. 'Somehow, he just took his brain,' said Tsarni, who recalled conversations with Tamerlan's worried father about the friend of Tamerlan's known only to the family as Misha.
Tamerlan's relationship with Misha could be a clue in understanding the motives behind his religious transformation and, ultimately, the attack itself. Two U.S. officials say he had no tie to terrorist groups.
Throughout his religious makeover, Tamerlan maintained a strong influence over his siblings, including Dzhokhar, who investigators say carried out the deadly attack by his older brother's side, killing three and injuring 264 people.
"They all loved Tamerlan. He was the eldest one and he, in many ways, was the role model for his sisters and his brother," said Elmirza Khozhugov, 26, the ex-husband of Tamerlan's sister, Ailina. "You could always hear his younger brother and sisters say, 'Tamerlan said this,' and 'Tamerlan said that.' Dzhokhar loved him. He would do whatever Tamerlan would say.
"Even my ex-wife loved him so much and respected him so much," Khozhugov said. "I'd have arguments with her and if Tamerlan took my side, she would agree: 'OK, if Tamerlan said it.'"
Khozhugov said he was close to Tamerlan when he was married and they kept in touch for a while but drifted apart in the past two years or so. He spoke to the AP from his home in Almaty, Kazakhstan. A family member in the United States provided the contact information.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a police shootout Friday. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was charged Monday with using a weapon of mass destruction to kill, and he could face the death penalty if convicted.
"Of course I was shocked and surprised that he was Suspect No. 1," Khozhugov said, recalling the days after the bombing when the FBI identified Tamerlan as the primary suspect. "But after a few hours of thinking about it, I thought it could be possible that he did it."