Family Matters: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the Women in His Life

Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, the mother of the two suspects in the Boston bombing, walks with a relative surrounded by reporters near her home in Makhachkala, Russia, April 23, 2013. Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times/Redux

“Regardless of how much good you do for evil, it is still evil,” Ruslan Tsarni snarls over the phone. ”That’s these Tsarnaev bastards, these evil pieces of shit.”

Tsarni can’t control himself. Ask the Maryland attorney about his brother’s kids, accused Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and their sisters, Bella and Ailina, and a rage consumes him, which usually leads to a loud, profane rant, most of it aimed at the family matriarch, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva. “If I saw her now,” Tsarni says. “I would simply smash her face.”

Tsarni became front-page news soon after two backpack bombs exploded near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three—a little boy and two young women—and wounding another 260 people. A few days later, Tsarni held a press conference on his front lawn to denounce his nephews as “losers” just hours after Tamerlan, 26, died in a shootout with police. Dzhokhar had fled that firefight and hid in a trailered boat until he was captured 20 hours later, weak and bleeding from gunshot wounds to his head, face, throat, jaw, left hand and both legs.

10_17_TwistedSisters_04 Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of the suspected Boston Marathon bombing suspects, speaks to reporters. Allison Shelley/Getty

Tsarni told reporters assembled on his leafy street that day he had not seen his brother’s brood for years. “I wanted my family away from his family,” he said. It’s not hard to understand why he would distance himself from the two young men accused of engineering that murderous blast, but he insists the whole family is trouble—from welfare scams to bomb threats to jihad—and it all stems from their mother, who fled the United States and now lives in Dagestan.

Back on the phone, still thinking about his brother’s family, he apologizes for his outburst of profanity, and then launches into yet another condemnation of his sister-in-law. “That woman—she created evil spawn. Evil spawn from an evil woman.”

The Black Widow’s Web

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense attorneys have repeatedly cited the “corrupting influence” of his older brother in filings for his trial, now slated for January. But they don’t mention the woman who gave birth to the boys and to their jihadist fervor. The woman they called Mama.

Zubeidat Khiramagomedovna was born in Dagestan, part of the mountainous slope along the Caspian Sea, on May 8, 1967. Her native village is now a hotbed of an ultra-conservative strain of Islam known as Salafism, which declares that Salafi Muslims are the only true interpreters of the Quran and moderate Muslims are nothing more than kaffirs, nonbelievers, infidels. The most visible proponents of Salafism right now are the barbarous ISIS militants. But Zubeidat was not a practicing Muslim in Russia. “She was like a gypsy,” Tsarni says. “She had no identity.”

10_17_TwistedSisters_05 Tamerlan Tsarnaev (bottom center), accompanied by his father Anzor, left, mother Zubeidat and uncle Muhamad Suleimanov, right, is seen in this photo courtesy of the Suleimanova family in Makhachkala. Suleimanova Family/Reuters/Landov

Zubeidat met her husband, Anzor, while he was serving his mandatory military term in the early 1980s. They married in 1986—a day before their eldest, Tamerlan, was born. A photograph of baby Tamerlan and his parents shows Zubeidat’s wild, Western style, a nest of raven hair piled haphazardly, her head not covered by a hijab. Other family photos of that era show her in low-cut dresses and red lipstick.

The couple settled in Kyrgyzstan, where Bella was born in 1988, Ailina in 1990 and Dzhokhar in 1993. As the region was ravaged by a bloody, internecine war, the family moved to Chechnya, another cauldron of ethnic violence, and then back to Kyrgyzstan before finally following Anzor’s brothers to the United States.

Zubeidat appeared to embrace her new country. She enrolled in beauty school and became a state-licensed aesthetician. She cut her hair into short, jagged spikes, and wore red leather blazers over tight jeans accented by high heels. Clients remember her as bright and bubbly, a woman who handed out quarters to feed parking meters and had a jar of candy near her spa chair. That is until 2008, when the light went out of her. “It seemed like it was overnight. I came one week, and she was Zubeidat. A month later, I came back, and it was like she had been transformed,” one former client recalls. “She was wearing a burka and talking about 9/11 being orchestrated by the government.” Zubeidat’s transformation didn’t help her business, and it didn’t help her marriage. The couple’s landlady once overheard an argument during which Anzor yelled, “Why are you dressing like that? We are in America!”

Anzor seemed to have the fight beaten out of him after he was attacked at the Russian Benevolent Society, a Boston social club in 2009. Tamerlan walked into a police station to report that his father was “punched in the back of the head by an unknown male,” and “then he was attacked by a large group, including a couple of females.” The attack was apparently provoked by what one of the women thought was an insult by Anzor. Police say: “Son stated that the father had internal head bleeding and suffered a fractured skull.”

A neighbor says that Anzor “changed a lot” after he was released from the hospital and that his work as a mechanic began to falter. “He was different after he got hurt. Tamerlan was so mad about it.” That’s when Zubeidat took over running the family.

Tamerlan too was going through some dramatic changes. A month before his father’s beating, he had been arrested for slapping his live-in girlfriend, Nadine Ascencao, across the face. She would later recall that when she met Tamerlan he was a handsome playboy, “Euro-trash,” she said, partying in Boston’s hot spots. In the summer of 2009, his mother insisted he change his ways, and Tamerlan began to attend prayers at the Islamic Society of Boston’s Cambridge mosque. “One minute he was a normal guy, the next minute he is watching these crazy Muslim videos,” Ascencao said.

On July 8, 2009, Tamerlan took his new beliefs too far when he slapped Ascencao for dressing too provocatively for a barbecue. She called 911. “She stated she was beat up by her boyfriend and was crying hysterically,” police said. A cop asked Tamerlan if he had assaulted his girlfriend, and he responded, according to the report, “Yes. I slapped her.”

Zubeidat’s response: She told her oldest son it was time to get a more pliant and pious girlfriend, someone like the woman he had been dating on the sly since 2007: Katherine Russell.

Russell was an unlikely candidate for the hijab. Raised nominally Christian under the watchful eye of her father, an emergency room doctor, and her mother, a nurse, in a sprawling home in an upscale neighborhood, Russell graduated from high school at the top of her class and mused about joining the Peace Corps. She started college in the fall of 2007 and met Tamerlan that same year. Russell tried to win him over by converting to Islam and started wearing flowing robes and headscarves, just like Tamerlan’s Mama. It seems to have worked. She dropped out of college in 2010, pregnant with Tamerlan’s daughter. After a wedding at the Masjid al-Qur’aan mosque on June 21, 2010, Russell moved into the Tsarnaev clan’s cramped apartment on Norfolk Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and told friends and relatives to start calling her by her Islamic name, Karima.

That apartment was now home to feuding parents, Anzor and Zubeidat, as well as Dzhokhar, Tamerlan, Russell and their baby. In one video posted over and over on the Tsarnaev supporters’ social media pages to show Dzhokhar’s softer side, he is seen teasing his baby niece in that apartment, cooing, “Give me a kiss” over and over. The clip is cut off just as what appears to be the black flag of jihad hanging on a wall of the apartment comes into the frame.


10_17_TwistedSisters_08 Anzor Tsarnaev and Zubeidat Tsarnaev, the parents of the Boston bombings suspects, and Patimat Suleimanova, an aunt of the suspects, during a news conference in Makhachkala, Russia, April 25, 2013. Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times/Redux

Actors Doused in Fake Blood

Anzor and Zubeidat Tsarnaev divorced in 2011. They had no personal property or real estate to divide and listed no retirement or pension benefits. They gave the reason for their split was “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage” with “no chance of reconciling our differences.” But it was Zubeidat’s increasing fervor for fanatical Islam that drove Anzor away, his brother says. Their divorce was finalized just months after the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) took the extraordinary step of warning the FBI that Zubeidat and Tamerlan had been flagged as “adherents of radical Islam” who were dangerously close to Islamic militants in Chechnya, including one whose phone was apparently tapped. In one of those calls, the FSB said, Zubeidat declared her son’s readiness to die for Islam. Text messages she exchanged with Tamerlan, intercepted by the FSB, urged him to go to Palestine for terrorist training and instructed him to learn Arabic. The FSB told the FBI it was concerned that Zubeidat and Tamerlan would travel to Russia to join “bandit groups.”

In March 2011, the Boston field office of the FBI opened an investigation into Tamerlan; his mother was added to a terror watch list but never fully investigated by U.S. counterterrorism officials.

Tamerlan traveled to Dagestan in January 2012 for a strange and still unexplained six-month trip. His father followed him there in May 2012, and Zubeidat joined her son and her ex-husband in early July, right before Tamerlan returned to Boston. In Dagestan, Anzor and Zubeidat reconciled, and they have never returned to the United States.

Back in Boston, Tamerlan and Karima were served with an eviction notice in November 2012 because they’d stopped paying the rent on the family’s Norfolk Street apartment. Tamerlan was also having meltdowns at his mosque and once yelled at a shopkeeper, calling him a kaffir for selling turkeys. And he was still regularly talking to Mama back in Russia.  

A week after her elder son died after a shootout with police and her youngest son, Dzhokhar, was shackled to a bed in Beth Israel Hospital in critical condition, with gunshot wounds and flashbang grenade burns, Zubeidat held a press conference in Russia. “I thought America was going to, like, protect us, our kids, it was going to be safe…but it happened the opposite. My kids—America took my kids away from me—only America.” Zubeidat did not express sympathy for the dead 8-year-old or the college student or the restaurant manager murdered in the bombings. Instead, she insisted her sons were being “framed because they were Muslim” and described the carnage on Boston’s Boylston Street as a cynical government ploy, complete with actors doused in fake blood.


10_17_TwistedSisters_07 Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev in a photo released by the FBI FBI/Reuters

That Widow in Black

An FBI search warrant affidavit filed for the Tsarnaev brothers’ apartment cites, among the items investigators wanted, “Male and/or female clothing consistent with clothing worn by the two individuals in the February 23, 2013 surveillance video from Macy’s department store.” The individuals purchased “five kitchen items.” Federal judge George O’Toole has put a gag order on the government and defense attorneys and has admonished prosecutors that he is “not happy” that former FBI officials have gone on TV to discuss the case. Investigative sources, who are not authorized to speak on the record, say those kitchen items were pressure cookers, the key components in the explosives detonated at the finish line. The man captured in the store’s surveillance video is believed to be Tamerlan, but the footage is too grainy to positively identify the woman, whose face was hidden by a hijab.  

Court records state that investigators have recovered from the bombs the “presence of DNA from three or more individuals,” including a woman’s DNA found on a fragment of one of the two pressure cookers used in the blasts. Russell’s attorney insists it isn’t hers and makes one other intriguing claim: He says Russell has not been called in front of a grand jury, although every other member of her family has testified before that secret tribunal. Legal experts say this suggests she is far from being in the clear, but U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, whose prosecutors are working the Tsarnaev case, has refused comment on Russell.

Multiple law enforcement sources tell Newsweek Russell is part of the ongoing Boston Marathon investigation. “She remains in the web of suspicion,” says one high-ranking government official, and has been under surveillance since the blasts.

Investigators still don’t know where Russell and her baby were on the day of bombings, and she has never explained how she failed to notice the bombs and guns stored in her apartment, the bomb-making recipes on the computer she and her husband shared, the extremist videos of beheadings regularly viewed on that computer, the large knives her husband had stashed over doorframes, or even the black flag of jihad hanging that appeared to hang on their living room wall.

On the morning of April 19, 2013, after her husband was pronounced dead, Russell was taken from that apartment by federal agents, clutching her baby awkwardly to her chest. She then moved back to Rhode Island with her parents. She never claimed her husband’s body for burial. Neither did his parents or his sisters. It was Ruslan Tsarni who stepped in to make sure his nephew got a proper Muslim burial.    

Russell’s parents are now trying to sell her childhood home, and she is nestled back into the fold of the Tsarnaeva women, sharing a cramped, government-subsidized apartment with her two sisters-in-law. There they raise their babies—Bella is pregnant with her second, according to her Facebook announcement—with the help of public welfare, and wash their clothes at a Laundromat down the street. Just like the old days. All of them declined to talk to Newsweek about their lives or their pasts.

‘I Have People…’

Ailina Tsarnaeva was her Uncle Ruslan’s favorite. “She was a sweet, sweet girl growing up,” he recalls.  His love for her curdled in 2010, however, after Ailina, now 23, and her friends allegedly stiffed an Applebee’s in Boston by paying their bill with counterfeit money. Their server, who sensed something was awry, ran outside and jotted down the driver’s license plate number. Boston police found the car was registered to a Zalina Tsarni of 410 Norfolk Street in Cambridge. That would be Ruslan’s wife, who had just given birth two weeks before and hadn’t been to Boston since 2003.

When police knocked on the door at 410 Norfolk, Zubeidat, Ailina’s mother, answered, and played dumb, even though she knew Ailina had used her sister-in-law’s name and date of birth to register the family car and obtain a fake driver’s license, which made it possible for the family to grab additional welfare cash under that assumed name. Zubeidat merely told the cops “Zalina” wasn’t home, and they left.


10_17_TwistedSisters_01 Bella Tsarnaeva, the sister of the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, in court for marijuana charges. Amy Newman/northjersey.com

An arrest warrant was issued for Zalina Tsarni, and when Ruslan found out, he was livid. He quickly faxed paperwork proving his wife lived in Maryland, and the cops paid Zubeidat another visit. This time she had a different story: Her daughter had used her aunt’s information, perhaps accidentally, but detectives couldn’t ask her about it because she had moved out. “Zubeidat Tsarnaeva stated that her daughter Ailina had moved into a shelter with her son and sister Bella,” according to the police report.

The arrest warrant for Ruslan’s wife was then recalled, and he cut off all contact with his brother’s family. “I officially disowned them from my soul in 2010,” Ruslan says. “I did so much for them. Helped them in Russia, helped them here. Took the kids into my home. Gave them money. They disgraced me.”

He says it especially hurt that Ailina was the culprit. Ruslan had introduced her to her first husband, whom she married in 2007 when she was 16, and pregnant. Ailina had to petition the city of Cambridge for the right to become an underage bride, and her handwriting on the form is childlike. “She threw that marriage away,” he says. Police records show that Ailina moved with her husband to the West Coast, but months later, she frantically called police to report her husband had tried to strangle her. He pleaded guilty to assault charges, agreed to probation, and the couple divorced.

Ailina now lives in the North Bergen, New Jersey, apartment with Bella and her brother’s widow, and often her new man. She gave birth to his daughter this year. And she has new, even bigger legal worries.

The father of her new baby, George Briones, has three children who live with his ex-girlfriend in Manhattan’s East Harlem. They are at the center of a custody and child support battle, according to New York police. On August 25, Ailina threw herself into this nasty dispute; she allegedly called her boyfriend’s ex to deliver this threat: “I know people who can put a bomb on you.” Considering the charges Ailina’s little brother is facing, the ex took the threat very seriously. So did the NYPD. A criminal complaint filed against her gives a full account of the conversation according to the frightened ex: “[The] defendant stated in substance to me, ‘Leave my man alone. Stop looking for him. I have people. I know people that can put a bomb where you live.”’

A short time later, Ailina turned herself in at the 30th Precinct in Manhattan, where she was charged with aggravated harassment. After she left the police station, prosecutors say, Ailina drove by the ex’s house, a violation of the stay-away order that had just been issued. The ex “has seen the defendant driving in her neighborhood since,” prosecutors say, in an illegal attempt at intimidation.

At her arraignment on September 30, Ailina was hit with an additional aggravated harassment charge for those drive-bys. The DA told the judge Ailina “has an inability to follow court rules” and cited her laundry list of petty crimes, and the fact that she is slated to go on trial for repeatedly lying to police about that counterfeit money case. Ailina didn’t make bail and was led to a lockup in her long black burka and tan, flowered hijab. Brioness ​left the courthouse without comment, a hood pulled over his head, carrying Ailina’s Burberry purse.

Her troubles in Boston are not over either. Not long after the Boston Marathon bombings, a judge agreed to dismiss charges against her in the counterfeit case if she gave up the names of her companions who had passed the fake money. She refused. Instead, according to Boston police, she repeatedly gave detectives names and phone numbers as phony as that counterfeit cash. Her trial in connection with that case is scheduled for November 4.

In July, Ailina drove to Boston from New Jersey for a court appearance. Outside the courtroom she was asked about her brother. She snapped, over the objections of her attorney, “What do you care? Everyone knows he was framed. Accept it.”

Family Values

Since Ailina’s parents went to Russia to visit relatives in 2012 and never came back, she and her older sister Bella are the only blood relatives allowed to visit their baby brother at the Massachusetts federal prison at Fort Devens, where he is being held without bail in solitary confinement, denied access to TV or other media. It was during one of those visits this spring, federal prosecutors say, that Dzhokhar, “despite the presence of an FBI agent and an employee of the federal public defender, was unable to temper his remarks and made a statement to his detriment which was overheard by the agent.” Prosecutors refuse to elaborate, but cite the “detrimental” statement as the reason they put an FBI agent in the room whenever the Tsarnaeva sisters visit, saying it was a national security issue. Dzhokhar’s lawyer calls that claim ludicrous and says there is no reason to suspect that Ailina or Bella will attempt to engage in “terrorist tradecraft” while meeting with their little brother.

10_17_TwistedSisters_02 Ailina Tsarnaeva, sister of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is escorted by a court officer during her appearance in Manhattan Criminal Court, Sept. 30, 2014, in New York. Jefferson Siegel/New York Daily News/Getty

Ailina and Bella were there for their brother’s arraignment on July 10, 2013. They sobbed and wiped away tears with the ends of the hijabs wrapped around their heads. After he pleaded not guilty, U.S. marshals began to lead him toward the prisoner’s exit, handcuffed, his legs in shackles and a chain running from his hands to his ankles. Before reaching the door, he turned toward his sisters, his face still swollen and disfigured by gunshot wounds, a soft cast wrapped around his left wrist. He smirked, and then blew them a kiss.

Queen of the Jaharians

Dzhokhar has become a perverse kind of heartthrob. Rolling Stone was pilloried last year for running a cover shot that made him look like a pop idol, and social media sites have exploded with young women who have latched on to his nickname and call themselves “Jaharians.” Postings on these sites repeatedly declare he has been framed, and Jaharians have crowded into his court hearings sporting T-shirts and even tattoos with images of lions, an avatar for his February 2013 tweet in which he wrote: “Little do these dogs know they are barking at a lion.”

Jahar’s fangirls write him love letters, propose marriage and fill his prison canteen fund with their donations. The Jaharians declared a social media war on journalists and bombard the Twitter accounts of courtroom reporters with attacks. They have set up slick websites echoing Zubeidat’s contention that the bombings were a government-run conspiracy. Facebook has numerous Jahar Is Innocent pages, including Justice4Jahar and Free Jahar Army, and there is even a page for Muslims in Support of Katherine Russell. Twitter and Tumbler also boast an array of Jahar supporters sites like http://innocentyoungmen.tumblr.com/ and http://freethatniggajahar.tumblr.com/, complete with childhood photos of “Jahar.”

10_17_TwistedSisters_03 Dzhokar Tsarnaev, 19 FBI/Getty

Earlier this year, federal investigators started searching for the young woman who could rightfully claim to be the Queen of the Jaharians. Heda Umarova is a 23-year-old friend of Dzhokhar’s who left Boston in July 2013 for Chechnya and has apparently posted what federal officials call “alarming” photographs on a Russian social networking site that appears to support extremism. When she failed to return to the U.S. as scheduled, federal officials started asking questions. Her family told them Heda stayed behind to get married, but declined to say to whom.

This wasn’t the first time investigators had chatted with the Umarovs. Four days after the bombing, their house was raided as authorities searched for Dzhokhar. Federal investigators were initially led to the Umarovs by Twitter messages exchanged between Dzhokhar and Heda’s brother, Junes. The day before the blasts, Junes wrote: “Good luck my brother. I’m sure you’ll get in.” A month before the bombing, he posted pictures on Facebook that show him with Dzhokhar, setting off fireworks. Innocent-seeming fun until you recall that the backpack bombs were pressure cookers filled with explosives harvested from fireworks.

“Junes and Dzhokhar are best friends,” a high-ranking law enforcement source involved in the investigation says. “They exchanged questionable, public messages that could be interpreted as referring to the Boston Marathon bombing.”

Junes and Heda also took to social media to support Dzhokhar after he was captured in that Watertown boat, where he had scribbled anti-American, pro-Muslim extremist sentiments with a black marker. They orchestrated a “Free Jahar” movement via social media. In one photo, Heda scrawled the words “Free Jahar” on her thumb and forefinger, a symbol mimicked by other Jaharians in pictures now common on Tumblr and Instagram.


10_17_TwistedSisters_09 Investigators work around the boat where Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev was found hiding after a massive manhunt. Darren McCollester/Getty

Investigators from Boston’s Joint Terrorism Task Force knocked on the front door of the Umarov home again this past spring after Heda appeared to have launched a site with photos depicting Chechen black widows that was linked to http://vk.com/djohar_is_innocent, a site very similar to “Free Jahar” social networking sites she created while in Boston. It features several pictures of Heda and her brothers with Dzhokhar. Some postings show several women dressed as black widows, one toting a high-powered automatic rifle. Other postings tout martyrdom and violence for Islamic extremism. The Heda Umarova social media page also includes links to Kavkaz Center, a jihadist media portal. Last year, before leaving for Chechnya for Ramadan, Heda was quoted by Bloomberg roughly two months after the bombings as a fan of Alex Jones’ Infowars, an Internet site espousing government conspiracy theories—including the government’s case against the brothers Tsarnaev. 

Heda’s father, Hamzat Umarov, says he ordered his daughter to stay away from the Tsarnaevs, largely because of Zubeidat’s anti-American behavior, but his daughter defied him. Her mother insists repeatedly in broken English that her family loves its adopted country, saying, “We are Americans.” Still, her youngest son, Junes, very publicly flaunted Tsarnaev’s last tweet. “I’m a stress free kind of guy,” Junes wrote in his 2013 Chelsea High School yearbook, next to his picture. Those are the exact words Dzhokhar tweeted two days after the bombings.

Dzhokhar’s appeal for all so many, most of whom have never met him, may be due to his good looks, his “chill” demeanor and the belief that he is an innocent young man, yet another victim of that horrific bombing. And it may stem from exactly the opposite possibility, that he is an astonishingly calculating, cold-blooded killer.

Ruslan says he thinks he knows the answer. He says that his nephew’s female fans, those Jaharians, share something in common with the other women in his life, including Mama, his sisters and his sister-in-law. “They are radical in their stupidity,” he says. “Ignorance is their radicalization.”

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