MAKHACHKALA, Russia — Six blocks from the Caspian Sea, on Kotrova Street in central Makhachkala, sits a mosque being watched by undercover Russian agents charged with preventing acts of terror.
As worshippers spill out into the streets, U.S. investigators are watching now, too, as they try to reconstruct the events that led to the most high-profile terrorist assault in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
It’s here that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the man U.S. authorities say masterminded the Boston Marathon bombings, went to worship during a six-month trip to Russia’s Dagestan region last year, according to his father.
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin tamed Tsarnaev’s ancestral homeland, Chechnya, where federal forces fought two wars against Islamic extremists, neighboring Dagestan has emerged as the center of separatist violence on the Russian side of the Caucasus Mountains.
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“We know there were militants who started their path to Islam at this mosque,” Rezvan Kurbanov, a former deputy premier of Dagestan who oversaw security in the region in 2010 and 2011, said in Moscow. “We’ve had our eye on this mosque for a long time.”
Hundreds of mainly young men took to the street for afternoon prayers last Friday, halting traffic around the mosque because they were unable to squeeze into a building designed to hold 1,800. They knelt on sheets of cardboard, carpets and plastic bags and prayed along the dusty road.
About 3,000 people attend Friday prayers at the mosque on average, said Ziyavudin Uyvasov, a representative of the community and a lawyer whose clients include men suspected of religious extremism.
“All kinds of people come here from many countries, but we don’t ask for passports,” Uyvasov said in Makhachkala, about 210 miles up the Caspian coast from Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. “Some people express quite radical views and keep asking others what they think about jihad. They are provocateurs. We don’t talk to them.”
If something changed Tamerlan, said Habib Magomedov, a member of the Dagestan government anti-terrorism committee, surely it happened in America. “I can only say that whatever happened in Boston had nothing to do with Dagestan.”
As for the accusations against Tamerlan Tsarnaev, they defy understanding. “He had a good life,” Magomedov said, “where he could have coffee and chocolate for breakfast.”
FBI agents are trying to determine themselves whether Tsarnaev may have had any link with extremist groups in Dagestan.
Dagestan is the most violent region in Russia, with 53 bombings last year, according to the Caucasian Knot, a Moscow-based research group. Makhachkala is a haphazard city of 800,000. Cars dodge each other wildly at some busy intersections, free of interference from cops or streetlights, while police wearing camouflage and bulletproof vests and carrying submachine guns set up road blocks on the outskirts, searching random motorists, looking for terrorists.
The day of the Boston bombings, the deputy head of Dagestan’s forestry agency was fatally shot outside his office. For two days before that, the village of Gimry, home to 5,000 people, was overrun by masked commandos battling extremists.
The Kotrova mosque adheres to the Salafist branch of Sunni Islam, and its community is opposed to the Sufis who are backed by the Putin-appointed government, according to Uyvasov, the lawyer.
Several Muslim leaders loyal to authorities have been slain in Dagestan in recent years, including Said Afandi al-Chirkawi, 74, a Sufi scholar with 100,000 followers who was killed by a suicide bomber at his home this past August, according the Interior Ministry.
Tsarnaev’s father, Anzor, said there was nothing sinister about the visits he and Tamerlan, 26, made to the mosque. “If it’s seen as a radical place, it should be fully monitored — who goes there, whom they speak with,” the elder Tsarnaev said in Makhachkala.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev started getting “serious” about Islam three years ago and spent most of his time in the Dagestani capital reading the Quran, according to Patimat Suleimanova, an aunt. A YouTube page in his name included videos by radical Australian cleric Feiz Mohammad.
One extremist Tsarnaev may have had contact with was William Plotnikov, a Russian-born Canadian who was killed during a raid on a rebel stronghold in the forests of Dagestan last year, according to Magomed Baachilov, head of the region’s Security Council. Both men were boxers, and Plotnikov was from Toronto, where another of Tsarnaev’s aunts lives.
Plotnikov was questioned by Russian officials about his Islamic beliefs in 2010 and identified Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a fellow member of an Islamic youth network, Novaya Gazeta reported April 27, citing an unidentified official in the Dagestani Interior Ministry’s Center for Combating Extremism.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev left Dagestan to return to the United States on July 16, two days after Plotnikov was killed, according to the Moscow-based newspaper, which is partly owned by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Plotnikov had been under surveillance by Russian operatives since the previous April, after making contact with a Dagestani-Palestinian jihadist recruiter named Nidal Mahmoud Mansour, Novaya Gazeta reported. Mansour was killed by Russian forces in a raid on a home in Makhachkala in May, according to the Interior Ministry.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev died after a shootout with police four days after the Boston attack, which killed three people and injured more than 260. His brother, Dzhokhar, 19, who was wounded, is being held at a federal facility outside Boston, charged with using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction.
The FBI has decided to send more agents to Dagesgtan to assist with the investigation, officials said.
At a news conference Tuesday, President Obama suggested that the Tsarnaev brothers appeared to be “self-radicalized” and that local, homegrown terrorist plots were harder to detect and prevent than those originating overseas. Investigators believe the views of the two brothers grew more radical over time and were influenced at least partly by the Internet sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American cleric who moved to Yemen and was killed in September 2011 by a U.S. drone strike.
Russian government authorities contacted the FBI and CIA in 2011, saying they had information that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, had ties to extremists. According to a statement released last month by the FBI, the Russians said that Tamerlan Tsarnaev “was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer.” The Russians said they had information that he had “changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups.”
In response to the Russian requests, the FBI conducted a review of Tsarnaev, including checking a website he had visited and searching databases on terrorists. The FBI questioned him and members of his family. Ultimately, the FBI told the Russians it had no evidence he had ties to extremists. The CIA came to a similar conclusion.
The Russians did not follow up on subsequent requests from the FBI for more information on Tsarnaev and his mother. Putin defended his government’s handling of the case, saying April 25 that the agency was unable to provide “information that would have operational significance” because Tsarnaev didn’t live in Russia.
Material from The New York Times and The Washington Post is included in this report.