MAKHACHKALA, RUSSIAN REPUBLIC OF DAGESTAN — The news of the Boston Marathon bombings circled the globe, and resonated here in Dagestan, a majority Muslim republic in Russia, on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Last year, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of two brothers suspected of the bombings and a longtime Boston resident, returned to Dagestan, where he had lived for a year during his youth.
Dagestan was the land of his maternal ancestors. But in the last two years, this republic of 3 million people has gained notoriety as the region with the highest level of political and religious violence in all of Russia.
Seeking sharia law
Tsarnaev mainly stayed in the capital, Makhachkala, where he lived with his father. He prayed nearby at the al-Nadiria mosque, a conservative place named after its founder who was fatally shot 10 years ago.
The current imam, Hassan Mahomedovich, does not remember Tsarnaev. He says members want sharia law, but oppose violence.
"Here in the mosque there are no extremists there is no one person with an extremist position. We are orderly only, smart, literate, well-educated Muslims," said Mahomedovich, 73.
Across the street, graffiti reads: "Victory or Heaven."
One mosque member who did not want to be identified said he thought that Tsarnaev was framed by American security services.
This view was pushed here by Tsarnaev’s mother, Zubeidat, who gave an angry press conference after her oldest son was killed in a shootout with Boston police. She said that her son was innocent, and that he was set up, and then killed by American security services.
Boston coroners say that Tamerlan Tsarnaev's bullet wounds were compounded by his younger brother Dzhokar running him over in a getaway car.
Later, the mother told reporters that Tamerlan’s greatest influence in Dagestan was a third cousin -- Magomed Kartashov, head of the Union of the Just, a pro-sharia group in the town of Kizlyar.
VOA drove two hours north, and talked to Rasim Ibadanov, a Union of the Just leader. He remembers Tsarnaev as a happy, humorous person.
“When we found out from the first time that it was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, that was a huge shock for us,” said Ibadanov, in a barbecue restaurant where other members had gathered.
Ibadanov said his group walks a fine line: advocating sharia law, but promoting non-violence.
“Yes, we say that we want to live in a sharia society, but we aren’t calling for some kind of destabilization or overthrow of the government, or any other kind of radical or extreme actions," said Ibadanov, a 30-year-old computer specialist. "We are just saying our opinions."
Kartashov, the third cousin, could not be interviewed. His lawyer said he was in a prison hospital, recovering from a police beating after being arrested with a wedding motorcade that flew black flags with Arabic writing.
Ibadanov said police are jailing a nonviolent man and claiming he was a radical mentor to Tsarnaev.
“We think that they are trying to discredit him and claim that he is some kind of illogical extremist, and that he had some effect on radicalizing Tamerlan Tsarnaev," he said.
But extremist attacks - and counter-terrorist operations - are weekly events in Dagestan.
Returning to Makhachkala, a reporter passed through Chirkey. Last August, a suicide bomber killed six people here, including one of Dagestan’s most revered moderate Muslim leaders.
Further down the road, we arrived in Buinaksk, just hours after a policeman and a civilian were killed in a police car. Before that, security officials had blown up a house of suspected extremists.
Zarema Bagavotdinova runs a human rights group for conservative Muslims in the city. She shows us the remains of the house.
“They called me and said that there was a house search," she recalled of the "counter-terrorist operation." "Then, around 8:30, they called and said they supposedly found explosive materials that they couldn’t defuse, and that they blew them together with the house.”
Analysts believe that Tsarnaev came to Dagestan from Boston with radical world views formed from readings he found on the Internet. Here in Dagestan, he saw that some people try to score religious and political points with bombs.