What Role, if Any, Did Dagestan Play in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Radicalization?

By Mairbek Vatchagaev

Dagestan is the only region in Russia where Salafi Muslim teaching operates officially—under the guidance of the legal organization, the Association of Ahlu al Sunna. This is not because the authorities have a different attitude to Salafis in Dagestan, in comparison to the neighboring republics of the North Caucasus. Rather, the Dagestani government’s tolerance to Salafis is explained by the fact that it is particularly widespread in the republic (see EDM, May 9). Correspondingly, a number of mosques located there represent this particular variety of Islam. Well-known Salafi places of worship in Dagestan include the mosque on Vengerskikh Boytsov Street and the mosque on Kotrova Street in Makhachkala, the mosques in the town Vostochny in Khasavyurt’s suburbs, as well as mosques in dozens of other towns and villages such as Gimry, Gubden, Karamakhi and Kizilyurt.

However, much media speculation has recently embroiled the An-Nadyriya mosque on Kotrova Street in Makhachkala because of its alleged connection to Tamerlan Tsarnaev (see, for example, world.time.com/2013/04/26/exclusive-time-speaks-to-dagestan-imam), one of the accused Boston bombers, who was shot in a standoff with police on April 19.

A fairly modest mosque by Dagestani standards, the An-Nadyriya mosque on Kotrova Street in Makhachkala, commonly referred to as the Kotrova mosque, became famous because Tamerlan Tsarnaev, reportedly visited it during his stay in the capital of Dagestan in 2012. The mosque is considered to belong to the Laks, one of the major Dagestani ethnic groups. The house where the mosque is located was once the home of Nadir-Shah Khachilaev, the leader of the Laks’ movement, and was reconstructed by the Lak community for religious purposes. However, since Islam does not recognize ethnic divisions, many who attend the mosque are non-Laks. Because the mosque was built in Nadir-Shah Khachilaev’s home, it was named in his honor, but after the Khachilaev brothers died, financing for the mosque became scarce. People come from all over Makhachkala to the mosque for prayer, and thousands pray outside its walls since it cannot hold all of the worshippers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5QcYpZKGs0).

This mosque is officially considered to be Salafi in its religious orientation. Even the Kotrova mosque’s website clearly conveys this message about its origin (https://salyaf.ru/). Yet, the picture is more complicated than it looks. The mosque’s imam, Gasan-Haji Gasaliev, also delivers Sufi sermons and plans to open a madrasah named after Jamalladin Kazi-Kumukhski, who was one of the founders of the Sufi tradition in Dagestan in the 19th century (https://assalam.ru/content/story/1473). The imam himself denies any involvement of the mosque in the formation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s ideas (https://inotv.rt.com/2013-04-27/Imam-mecheti-v-Mahachkale-K). Indeed, it is hard to imagine that anyone would dramatically change his views and outlook toward Islam after visiting this mosque, given that sermons there are read in poor, strongly accented Russian. Furthermore, Dagestan’s Islamic clergy do not recognize the mosque as a Salafi mosque (www.ansar.ru/person/2010/04/12/2946).

Nevertheless, government agents frequently raid the Kotrova mosque to detain parishioners, which means that this place of worship is under constant surveillance by the authorities (www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-01/boston-bomb-trail-leads-into-heart-of-putin-s-own-war-on-terror.html).

While Tsarnaev was in Makhachkala, he may have witnessed conversions to Islam: one such event took place at the Kotrova mosque on March 3, 2012 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=baK5Z-3qBAI&feature=youtu.be). These rituals are normally very emotional. Tsarnaev may also have attended a lecture delivered by one of the best known Salafi sheikhs in Dagestan, Abu Umar Sasitlinski, in the same mosque on April 13, 2012. Without more detailed information about Tamerlan’s life in Dagestan, it is impossible to know whether he attended the mosque only on Fridays or visited it more frequently for special events.

In light of this, can one say that Tamerlan became radicalized while in Dagestan from January to July 2012? It is unlikely that he attended lectures and sermons by well-known Salafist preachers in Dagestan. Nobody would have prevented him from attending such events, so it was potentially possible, but there is no evidence thus far confirming such a hypothesis. If Tamerlan developed his radical ideas while in Dagestan, he likely would not have failed to mention Dagestan and the North Caucasus while talking about Afghanistan and Iraq—war in these two countries served as the Tsarnaev brothers’ justification for their violent terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon. Thus, to Tamerlan, Dagestan was something alien compared to what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. This may indicate that his instructors, whoever they were, put particular emphasis on the latter two countries and not on his native North Caucasus. It could also suggest that the North Caucasus is not given much prominence in the worldwide jihadist movement because it is apparently considered to be a place of secondary importance.