Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, the mother of Boston bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, appeared in photos of her as a younger woman wearing a low-cut blouse and having her hair teased like a 1980s rock star.
After she arrived in the U.S. from Russia in 2002, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva went to beauty school and did facials at a suburban day spa.
But in recent years, people noticed a change. The Boston bombers’ mother began wearing a hijab and cited conspiracy theories about 9/11 being a plot against Muslims.
Now known as the angry and grieving mother of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva is drawing increased attention after federal officials say Russian authorities intercepted her phone calls, including one in which she vaguely discussed jihad with her elder son, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
In another, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva was recorded talking to someone in southern Russia who is under FBI investigation in an unrelated case, U.S. officials said.
Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, 45, insists there is no mystery. She’s no terrorist, just someone who found a deeper spirituality. She insists her sons – Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a gunfight with police, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was wounded and captured – are innocent.
“It’s all lies and hypocrisy,” she told The Associated Press in Dagestan.
“I’m sick and tired of all this nonsense that they make up about me and my children. People know me as a regular person, and I’ve never been mixed up in any criminal intentions, especially any linked to terrorism.”
Zubeidat Tsarnaeva arrived in the U.S. in 2002, settling in a working-class section of Cambridge, Massachusetts. With four children, Anzor Tsarnaev and Zubeidat Tsarnaeva qualified for food stamps and were on and off public assistance benefits for years. The large family squeezed itself into a third-floor apartment.
She took classes at the Catherine Hinds Institute of Esthetics, before becoming a state-licensed aesthetician. Anzor Tsarnaev, who had studied law, fixed cars.
By some accounts, the family was tolerant.
Bethany Smith, a New Yorker who befriended Zubeidat Tsarnaeva’s two daughters, said in an interview with Newsday that when she stayed with the family for a month in 2008 while she looked at colleges, she was welcomed even though she was Christian and had tattoos.
“I had nothing but love over there. They accepted me for who I was,” Bethany Smith told the newspaper.
“Their mother, Zubeidat, she considered me to be a part of the family. She called me her third daughter.”
Zubeidat Tsarnaeva said she and her son Tamerlan began to turn more deeply into their Muslim faith about five years ago after being influenced by a family friend, named “Misha”.
The man, whose full name she didn’t reveal but later was identified as Mikhail Allakhverdov, impressed her with a religious devotion that was far greater than her own, even though he was an ethnic Armenian who converted to Islam.
“I wasn’t praying until he prayed in our house, so I just got really ashamed that I am not praying, being a Muslim, being born Muslim. I am not praying. Misha, who converted, was praying,” Zubeidat Tsarnaeva said.
By then, she had left her job at the day spa and was giving facials in her apartment. One client, Alyssa Kilzer, noticed the change when Zubeidat Tsarnaeva put on a head scarf before leaving the apartment.
“She had never worn a hijab while working at the spa previously, or inside the house, and I was really surprised,” Alyssa Kilzer wrote in a post on her blog.
“She started to refuse to see boys that had gone through puberty, as she had consulted a religious figure and he had told her it was sacrilegious. She was often fasting.”
Alyssa Kilzer wrote that Zubeidat Tsarnaeva was a loving and supportive mother, and she felt sympathy for her plight after the April 15 bombings.
But the woman stopped visiting the family’s home for spa treatments in late 2011 or early 2012 when, during one session, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva “started quoting a conspiracy theory, telling me that she thought 9/11 was purposefully created by the American government to make America hate Muslims”.
“It’s real,” Zubeidat Tsarnaeva said, according to Alyssa Kilzer.
“My son knows all about it. You can read on the Internet.”
In the spring of 2010, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva’s eldest son, Tamerlan, got married in a ceremony at a Boston mosque that no one in the family had previously attended. Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his wife, Katherine Russell, a Rhode Island native and convert from Christianity, now have a three-year-old daughter, Zahara.
Zubeidat Tsarnaeva married into a Chechen family but was an outsider. She is an Avar, from one of the dozens of ethnic groups in Dagestan. Her native village is now a hotbed of an ultraconservative strain of Islam known as Salafism or Wahabbism.
It is unclear whether religious differences fueled tension in their family. Anzor Tsarnaev and Zubeidat Tsarnaeva divorced in 2011.
About the same time, there was a brief FBI investigation into Tamerlan Tsarnaev, prompted by a tip from Russia’s security service.
The vague warning from the Russians was that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, an amateur boxer in the U.S., was a follower of radical Islam who had changed drastically since 2010.
That led the FBI to interview Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 at the family’s home in Cambridge. Officials ultimately placed his name, and his mother’s name, on various watch lists, but the inquiry was closed in late spring of 2011.
After the bombings, Russian authorities told U.S. investigators they had secretly recorded a phone conversation in which Zubeidat Tsarnaeva had vaguely discussed jihad with Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
The Russians also recorded Zubeidat Tsarnaeva talking to someone in southern Russia who is under FBI investigation in an unrelated case, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation with reporters.
Anzor Tsarnaev’s brother, Ruslan Tsarni, told the AP from his home in Maryland that he believed his former sister-in-law had a “big-time influence” on her older son’s growing embrace of his Muslim faith and decision to quit boxing and school.
While Tamerlan Tsarnaev was living in Russia for six months in 2012, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, who had remained in the U.S., was arrested at a shopping mall in the suburb of Natick, Massachusetts, and accused of trying to shoplift $1,624 worth of women’s clothing from a department store.
Zubeidat Tsarnaeva failed to appear in court to answer the charges that fall, and instead left the country.