Tamerlan Tsarnaev: beyond the Obvious? ((Looking for Root Causes)

A question being asked these days, following the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombings, is this: what happened to lead these two young men, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who had called America home for a decade, to turn so violently against her and her citizens? The obvious assumption would be, of course, conversion to a radical Islamist ideology. But behind that conversion, more specifically, at what point is an opening found through which to recruit a young man or woman into such an agenda? Why is it that he or she becomes susceptible to such a thing? And what could be done now to possibly short-circuit such an event in a future incident? These are not questions that have not already been considered; watching a special presentation of CBS’ “48 Hours”, aired the Saturday night after this horrible, horrible event shattered so many lives, I glimpsed a possible clue or two, I think.

  The father had very high expectations for his son.”

(Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s aunt, Maret Tsarnaev)

Anzor Tsarnaev was tough, a championship boxer back home, and he wanted his oldest boy to be tough too.  (link)

The Tsarnaev family gained political asylum in the U.S. just over a decade ago, escaping from the war-torn areas of Kyrgyzstan and Dagestan. They had managed to move to Chechnya from that turbulent area years before, but were eventually forced back.

They arrived in Boston in April, 2002.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers, began boxing shortly after their arrival in America. Tamerlan “registered with USA Boxing, the governing body for Olympic-style boxing and consistently rose through the ranks.” (link)  He represented New England in the Golden Gloves competition in 2009 and 2010.  In fact,  he won awards for his prowess in the sport.  According to reports (1)  http://www.bu.edu/com/comment/library/downloads/2010_comment.pdf, (2), Tamerlan had wanted to represent the United States in the Olympics boxing events, hoping to gain citizenship by being selected for the U.S. Olympic team. Despite being “In that weight division…probably one of the best out of New England,” according to gym owner Kendrick Ball, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was disqualified from entering the Olympics in 2010 because of complaints that non-U.S. citizens should not be allowed to compete.


Anzor Tsarnaev, Tamerlan’s father, seems to have been instrumental in developing Tamerlan’s drive to engage in boxing activities. He “would ride his bicycle as his son Tamerlan jogged to a Boston-area boxing gym, pushing him to run faster, to punch harder.” and “…make him run for miles.”  (link)


Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has stated that the brothers grew up in America, therefore the roots to this tragedy should be sought in America.


In some of the articles I’ve read, the term ‘disenfranchised’ has appeared as part of the description of young recruits to radical Islamic organizations.  This term denotes being dispossessed of certain privileges or rights pertaining to citizenship. Something a person should have, they don’t. Learning about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, I wonder if a variation on that meaning could be applied to him.
The media has painted a picture of a Chechen family living in sometimes brutal conditions amidst wars and conflicts, and finally becoming political refuges here in the United States. We may not know exactly how much of their pre-American life was unsettled and in turmoil, but we do know that they came to America to escape it. It has to be assumed that they hoped for something better. The dream of America beckoned.

Tamerlan was fifteen when the Tsarnaevs arrived in the United States. He would have had more exposure to difficult living conditions than his younger brother Dzhokhar, who was eight. He also, being older, was closer to an age where one begins to think & perhaps learn about or train for a career. His desire for stability, for acceptance and an established life was probably greater than Dzhohkar’s, and would probably have determined Tamerlan’s choices & course in life.

Accounts indicate that his father Anzor had his own dreams for Tamerlan (as quoted above).


I wonder how much of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s boxing ambitions were truly his own. I wonder if he absorbed that drive into himself as a means of pleasing his father & gaining his approval. Perhaps that, to a young Tamerlan, would’ve been the ultimate success?
 I wonder if, as the years passed and he continued to train and develop his boxing skills, on some level Tamerlan became aware of a dissatisfaction gnawing within. On some level, perhaps he had begun to suspect a conditional acceptance by his father. As long as he succeeded, as long as he excelled at his boxing…but what if he wanted to ease up? Anticipating possible conflict with & rejection by his father may have produced a resentment that proved an eventual fertile breeding ground for other resentments, other grievances. “He was never happy, never cheering, never smiling. He used to strike his girlfriend. … He was not a nice man” was how Zaur Tsarnaev, a cousin, described Tamerlan.  And an uncle cited “Being losers — hatred to those who were able to settle themselves” as a motivation behind the carnage at Boston.

Additionally, Tamerlan himself is reported to have stated that he had no, or very few American friends, and had commented that people “smile at you all the time and forget about you the next moment.”  Perhaps he believed that achieving ‘star’ status as a boxer might alleviate a sense of isolation?  So when, in 2010, he was refused entrance to the Olympics boxing events because of his non-citizen status…all his efforts to succeed, all those years and all that work, hopes for acceptance and status and his self-esteem…crashed and burned.

I wonder if these circumstances in his life conspired to bring Tamerlan Tsarnaev to a place of readiness to hear and finally receive an extremist ideology.


In no way are the thoughts expressed here, should they be valid, meant to be an excuse of any kind for this man’s actions, nor those of his brother or any other co-conspirators in this inexcusable crime.

Nor am I implying that Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s father is responsible for his eldest son’s decisions to kill and destroy. I am speculating on the possibility of his son’s harboring a suspicion of conditional acceptance. That may not have actually been the reality. It may, however,  have been Tamerlan’s reality.

And I am definitely not pointing a finger at an American policy of not allowing non-citizens to represent her  in the Olympics.

I am looking for root causes, period.


In this world, any of us can be deceived.  And there is plenty of disillusionment to go around.

Who does not want to be accepted and valued? I think there are very few who don’t care and are not affected if their lot in life doesn’t provide these things.  But what do you do if you are one of those people who, for whatever reason, find yourselves propping yourself up, self-esteem wise, with no or very little encouragement from the sidelines?  And you are hard-pressed to find solace, or cause change?

Any goal for which we strive can elude us.  Or, once we’ve attained to it, could yet be lost…or worse, not provide the satisfaction we thought it would.  Much falls into that that category, I think…and so I wonder, what events or interventions could have altered Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s path in life?  What might have yielded a kind of peace and self-acceptance that could have changed everything?

I only know one thing, that God alone loves unconditionally. Even our parents, our spouses and our close friends may or will let us down, as we will them, and withdraw support if the chips are down far enough. It happens.  Our human needs and our human identities can be very, very much intertwined with acceptance by others, and it can be painful, maybe too painful to stand alone. But at that point, should it come, there is a God whose Everlasting Arms are underneath to catch you, and in whose Son, the only begotten of the Father, you are accepted.



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