The FBI has identified the American known as Misha who helped radicalize the Boston bombing suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Family members of Tamerlan Tsarnaev have described Misha as the guiding influence in the elder bomber developing radicalized views.
Speculation as to who Misha is has varied wildly in the past week, with some suggesting he is the mastermind behind the marathon bombings while others believe he could be a Russian spy – sent to identify and keep tabs on young men like Tamerlan Tsarnaev who are at risk of turning to militant Islam.
To date all that is known about Misha is that he is an Armenian man in his 30s with distinctive red beard and that he has disappeared – no longer living in the Cambridge, Massachusetts area.
However, family members have been telling reporters that in the years before the Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev , 26, fell under the strong influence of a new friend, a Christian who converted to Islam and who steered the religiously apathetic young man towards adopting strong Islamic views.
“It started in 2009. And it started right there, in Cambridge,” said Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s uncle Ruslan Tsarni to CNN from his home in Maryland.
“This person just took his brain. He just brainwashed him completely.”
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a police shootout Friday, April 19. His younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was charged Monday with using a weapon of mass destruction to kill, and he could face the death penalty if convicted.
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.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev turned to websites and literature claiming that the CIA was behind the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, and Jews controlled the world.
According to Ruslan Tsarni, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalization happened right under the nose of his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva.
Ruslan Tsarni said that Misha was around 30-years-old and that he was an Armenian who, unusually for such a largely Christian people, had converted to Islam.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s relationship with Misha could be a clue in understanding the motives behind his religious transformation and, ultimately, the attack itself.
Although The Daily Beast claims that now officials know more about Misha he might be a less important part of the case than previously thought.
During his hospital room interrogation, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told FBI agents this week that he and his brother were influenced by the internet sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born preacher who was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.
There is a long trail of hardened terrorists who have acknowledged coming under his sway. Among them are Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010, and Nidal Malik Hasan, the US Army officer who killed 13 people in a shooting spree at Fort Hood in 2009.
The charismatic cleric was seen by the Obama administration as a uniquely dangerous terrorist because of his sermons, his intuitive grasp of US culture, and a burning desire to strike his birth nation.
As authorities try to piece together that information, they are touching on a question asked after so many terrorist plots: What turns someone into a terrorist?
Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev emigrated in 2002 or 2003 from Dagestan, a Russian republic that has become an epicenter of the Islamic insurgency that spilled over from the region of Chechnya.
They were raised in a home that followed Sunni Islam, the religion’s largest sect. They were not regulars at the mosque and rarely discussed religion, said Elmirza Khozhugov, 26, the ex-husband of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s sister, Ailina.
Then, in 2008 or 2009, Tamerlan Tsarnaev met Misha, a slightly older, heavyset bald man with a long reddish beard. Elmirza Khozhugov didn’t know where they’d met but believed they attended a Boston-area mosque together.
Misha was an Armenian native and a convert to Islam and quickly began influencing his new friend, family members said.
Once, Elmirza Khozhugov said, Misha came to the family home outside Boston and sat in the kitchen, chatting with Tamerlan Tsarnaev for hours.
“Misha was telling him what is Islam, what is good in Islam, what is bad in Islam,” said Elmirza Khozhugov, who said he was present for the conversation.
“This is the best religion and that’s it. Mohammed said this and Mohammed said that.”
The conversation continued until Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s father, Anzor, came home from work.
“It was late, like midnight,” Elmirza Khozhugov recalled.
“His father comes in and says, <<Why is Misha here so late and still in our house?>> He asked it politely. Tamerlan was so much into the conversation he didn’t listen.”
Elmirza Khozhugov said Tamerlan’s mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, told him not to worry.
“Don’t interrupt them,” Elmirza Khozhugov recalled the mother saying.
“They’re talking about religion and good things. Misha is teaching him to be good and nice.”
As time went on, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his father argued about the young man’s new beliefs.
“When Misha would start talking, Tamerlan would stop talking and listen. It upset his father because Tamerlan wouldn’t listen to him as much,” Elmirza Khozhugov said.
“He would listen to this guy from the mosque who was preaching to him.”
Anzor Tsarnaev became so concerned that he called his brother, Ruslan Tsarni, worried about Misha’s effects.
“I heard about nobody else but this convert,” Ruslan Tsarni said.
“The seed for changing his views was planted right there in Cambridge.”
It was not immediately clear whether the FBI has spoken to Misha or was attempting to.
While Misha is a very common name across the former Soviet Union, Dan Amira makes the point that “there can’t be that many bald, red-bearded Armenian Muslims in Boston”.
Respected national security writer Laura Rozen took to Twitter to speculate that Misha could be “the kind of mole Russia plants to keep on eye on émigré communities of concern”.
Indeed, she theorizes that Misha could even be the source that tipped off Russian security services to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s conversion to radical Islam in 2011.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev became an ardent reader of jihadist websites and extremist propaganda, two US officials said. He read Inspire magazine, an English-language online publication produced by al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate.
The young man loved music and, a few years ago, he sent Elmirza Khozhugov a song he’d composed in English and Russian. He said he was about to start music school.
Six weeks later, the two men spoke on the phone. Elmirza Khozhugov asked how school was going.
“I quit,” Tamerlan Tsarnaev said.
“Why did you quit?” Elmirza Khozhugov asked. “You just started.”
“Music is not really supported in Islam,” he replied.
“Who told you that?”
“Misha said it’s not really good to create music. It’s not really good to listen to music,” Tamerlan Tsarnaev said, according to Elmirza Khozhugov.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev took an interest in Infowars, a conspiracy theory website. Elmirza Khozhugov said Tamerlan was interested in finding a copy of the book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the classic anti-Semitic hoax, first published in Russia in 1903, that claims a Jewish plot to take over the world.
“He never said he hated America or he hated the Jews,” Elmirza Khozhugov said.
“But he was fairly aggressive toward the policies of the US toward countries with Muslim populations. He disliked the wars.”
One of the Tsarnaev brothers’ neighbors, Albrecht Ammon, recently recalled an encounter in which Tamerlan argued about US foreign policy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and religion.
Albrecht Ammon said Tamerlan Tsarnaev described the Bible as a “cheap copy” of the Quran, used to justify wars with other countries.
“He had nothing against the American people,” Albrecht Ammon said.
“He had something against the American government.”
Elmirza Khozhugov said Tamerlan Tsarnaev did not know much about Islam beyond what he found online or what he heard from Misha.
“Misha was important,” he said.
“Tamerlan was searching for something. He was searching for something out there.”
However, the Boston bombers mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, denied reports that her sons had been radicalized by a mysterious convert to Islam named Misha.
“Nonsense. He was just a friend,” Zubeidat Tsarnaeva told ABC News by phone today shortly before she sat down with FBI investigators for a second day of interviews here in the restive region of Dagestan, in southern Russia.
Zubeidat Tsarnaeva said Misha knew a lot about Islam and that it was interesting to learn from him, but denied his views were extreme.
She said their relationship with Misha, an Armenian with a red beard whose identity and full name remain a mystery, was short because he moved to another part of the United States since. She would not say where.
Throughout his religious makeover, Tamerlan Tsarnaev 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.
“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,” Elmirza Khozhugov said.
“I’d have arguments with her and if Tamerlan took my side, she would agree: <<OK, if Tamerlan said it>>.”
Elmirza 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.
“Of course I was shocked and surprised that he was Suspect No. 1,” Elmirza Khozhugov said, recalling the days after the bombing when the FBI identified Tamerlan Tsarnaev as the primary suspect.
“But after a few hours of thinking about it, I thought it could be possible that he did it.”