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An Excerpt From Masha Gessen’s New Book On The Tsarnaev Brothers

In this excerpt from The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, journalist Masha Gessen recounts the Boston Marathon bombing’s immediate aftermath through the eyes of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s friends and classmates as they came to realize who was responsible.

Last updated on July 3, 2018, at 1:12 p.m. ET

Posted on April 2, 2015, at 6:07 p.m. ET

Over at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus, just about every television set had been on for three straight days. Sixty miles’ distance from Boston made it all feel a bit like a video game. Few of the students were familiar enough with the multimillion-dollar town houses and luxury shops of Back Bay to have the sort of visceral reaction to the television footage through which the brain and the body tell each other, This is us, it is our home that is under attack. The kids at the UMass campus fielded calls and messages from family, affirmed that they were well and far from the scene of the attack, and commenced watching what felt like a reality TV show on the bombing. And then they saw Jahar.

Many of the UMass students saw Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whom they knew as Jahar, several times a week, or even daily. They did not think that television was broadcasting the picture of a kid who looked like Jahar: there was no doubt in their minds that this was Jahar. And then again, there was doubt.

Very soon, many of Tamerlan’s and Jahar’s friends would be telling the FBI and the media that it was impossible that the brothers were the bombers—there had been no sign. Surely, the friends would say, if the two had been plotting something so huge and horrible, they would have seemed distracted. Or emotional. Or pensive. Or somehow, clearly, not themselves. But this assumption was a misconception. The psychiatrist and political scientist Jerrold Post, who has been studying terrorists for decades, writes, “Terrorists are not depressed, severely emotionally disturbed, or crazed fanatics.” Political scientist Louise Richardson, an undisputed star in the tiny academic field of terrorism studies, writes of terrorists: “Their primary shared characteristic is their normalcy, insofar as we understand the term. Psychological studies of terrorism are virtually unanimous on this point.”

Nor do terrorists tend to behave out of character just before committing an act that, to them, appears perfectly rational and fully justified. One of the September 11 hijackers called his wife in Germany on the morning of the attacks to tell her he loved her; she apparently heard nothing extraordinary in his voice. Having made the decision to commit an act of terrorism, the future bomber—even a suicide bomber—develops, it would appear, a sort of two-track mind. On one track, life goes on exactly as before; on the other, he is preparing for the event that will disrupt his life or even end it. It is precisely the ordinary nature of the man and the extraordinary effect of the act about to be committed that ensure the two tracks never cross.

When students at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth saw their classmate’s picture on television, their minds became the perfect mirrors of Jahar’s: on one track was the full knowledge that they were looking at a picture of their friend; on the other was the certainty that Jahar could not possibly be responsible for the marathon bombing. “I knew it was him because I recognized him, but I didn’t believe it was him,” Tiffany Evora said in court fourteen months later. Testifying at the same trial, Alexa Guevara could not force the words out and had to be coaxed by a lawyer.

“When you saw the images, you did not believe it was him, did you?”

“No,” she said, though she had acknowledged that she had recognized Jahar.

“You didn’t believe he was capable of something like that, did you?”

“No,” she said, and started crying.

Between the track that was telling these college kids that the person in the pictures on television was undoubtedly their friend, and the track that kept insisting this was impossible, they chose the middle road. Rather than go to the police or the FBI, as the voices on television kept imploring them to do, they went to Jahar’s dorm. Why? None of them could answer that question clearly in the aftermath, but it seems that in the hope of calming their exploding minds, they wanted to ask Jahar himself if he had set off the bombs.

The door to room 7341, with what looked like a lily pad and a turkey glued to it, was locked. Befuddled students came in a steady stream, tried the door handle, exchanged concerned glances, somber nods, and the occasional unconvincing reassurance, and ambled off, back to the screens in their own dorm rooms.

Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, from Kazakhstan, with Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Times Square in New York.
VK.com

Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, from Kazakhstan, with Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Times Square in New York.

Had any of Jahar’s college friends gone to the police, they could have reported that they had seen Jahar in the days after the bombing—he had been on campus and he had been himself: just Jahar. Azamat Takhayakov could have said what he told the FBI later, that Jahar had not joined his friends for spring break in Florida in mid-March, and that when they returned he had apparently stopped smoking weed—though not necessarily selling it. That he did not see Jahar or text with him on Sunday, April 14—Jahar must have gone to Cambridge for the day or the weekend, which was hardly unusual.

Monday was the holiday, another no-school day, and Azamat had texted Jahar, asking if he was around. “I ‘have’ to make my passport, so ‘tomorrow,’” was the response, with the emphasis quotation marks around two words. Then a friend from Kazakhstan had texted Azamat, asking him if he was all right—this was how Azamat found out about the bombing. Azamat texted Jahar, asking in turn if he was all right—and learned that he was. At 4:19, Azamat got another text from Jahar: “Don’t go thinking it’s me, you cooked bastard.” Azamat was thinking no such thing; the only odd thing about this message was that “cooked” means “stoned,” and Azamat never smoked.

On Tuesday, Azamat and his apartment-mate Dias Kadyrbayev drove to Boston in their used BMW, a purchase bankrolled by Azamat's father with a vanity license plate that read “terrorista#1" (it is not clear who picked out the plate, or whether it was there from the start). The plan was to do some shopping, which was really an excuse to check out the state of Back Bay. They headed for Boylston Street, only to discover that all the stores there were closed. Dias dropped Azamat off in Cambridge, near Jahar’s house. Jahar came down and drove Azamat back to New Bedford in his green Honda Civic while Dias used the BMW to go see Bayan at Babson. Back at Azamat and Dias’s apartment on Carriage Drive, Jahar and Azamat played FIFA on Xbox for hours—except for a short break Jahar took to go into the bathroom and use his phone to Skype with Tamerlan. This was all normal enough. Along with Dias's girlfriend, Bayan Kumiskali, the boys shared a T-Mobile family plan. One of the them—most likely Dias, who had lost his T-Mobile phone—had failed to pay his share of the monthly bill, and T-Mobile had suspended their account. Now none of them could use regular phone service: they used iMessage, an Apple program, to text, and Skype to talk on the phone, but they could do those things only when they had an Internet connection. There was nothing strange about Jahar’s wanting some privacy for his call with his brother—and Azamat knew whom he was talking to, so Jahar was not exactly being secretive.

That day Jahar also tweeted a bit, as usual. Among other things, he, like millions of other Americans, commented on a picture of a woman who had been injured in the bombings. The photograph had been circulating with a caption that claimed the woman’s boyfriend had been planning to propose to her the day she was injured—and that she had died. “Fake story,” wrote Jahar. It was.

On Wednesday, two days after the bombing, Azamat and Jahar went to the gym together in the evening. Afterward, they played FIFA until midnight. Sometime that evening Jahar also dropped by a soccer-team get-together at an Italian restaurant. On Thursday Azamat ran into Robel Philippos, who was also part of their group, on campus. They had not seen each other in over a month, while Robel was on suspension; now he was on campus for a hearing on his violation. It was around one in the afternoon and they were near the cafeteria, so they got lunch. Robel asked if he could spend the weekend at the apartment on Carriage Drive. Dias had the BMW that day, so after lunch Azamat texted Jahar, asking him for a ride home. Robel and Azamat walked over to Pine Dale Hall. They spent about half an hour in Robel’s friend Lino Rosas’s room. Lino always said he liked Robel the moment he saw him, at the beginning of freshman year, because he had “finally found someone skinnier than me.” Both boys were dark-skinned, well over six feet tall, and so thin they looked breakable and made Azamat seem positively roly-poly. Azamat hung around with them for about half an hour in Lino’s room, then tagged along as they went down to the parking lot, and sat in the back of Lino’s car as they got stoned with the windows rolled up.

It was nearly four in the afternoon when Jahar became available to give Azamat a ride to Carriage Drive. He, Azamat, and Robel spent less than ten minutes in the car on the way to the apartment, and then Robel returned to campus with Jahar. That would make Robel the last person to have seen Jahar before his picture was broadcast to the world—the boys parted ways in Pine Dale Hall less than an hour before the FBI press conference. Before leaving his dorm room, Jahar retweeted a post by a Zimbabwean mufti: “Attitude can take away your beauty no matter how good looking you are or it could enhance your beauty, making you adorable.”

Andrew Dwinells, had he gone to the police, would not have been able to tell them much. His roommate Jahar had seemed the same as he’d ever been. He slept when Andrew left for class, and was out when Andrew returned. And even if all the students who had seen Jahar in the days following the bombing had gone to the authorities with their stories, the FBI would have learned only Jahar’s name. Jahar’s observed behavior contained no clues to what he and Tamerlan were planning to do and where they were planning to hide once their faces were known—because the brothers had no plan. While Boston was reeling from the marathon bombing, nothing extraordinary had happened to the bombers themselves.

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Dias Kadyrbayev with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Dias Kadyrbayev with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.


After Jahar dropped him off at Carriage Drive, Azamat took a nap. About an hour and a half later, Dias and Bayan walked in. Now Azamat took the car: he went to the gym, and Dias stayed at the apartment, where, prompted by a text message, he eventually turned on the television and saw the picture of his best friend wearing a white baseball cap with the visor turned back. The first person Dias texted was Jahar:

D: yo bro

J: wasup

D: pick me up please

J: sorry man i’m in boston

where r yu?

D: in my crib-

i am tryan to go to umass

please

yo bro

Dias’s mind had not just split into two tracks: it had all but imploded. He wanted to go to campus to find out if Jahar, his best friend, was the Boston Marathon bomber—and he wanted Jahar, his buddy with the car, who was texting him right back, as usual, to drive him there. It took him a minute to grasp that Jahar was out of reach. At 8:43 in the evening he texted Jahar again.

D: u saw the news?

J: yea bro i did

D: for real

J: i saw the news . . .

better not text me my friend

lol

D: u saw urself there?

ahaha

hahaha

J: ifyu want yu can go to my room and take what’s there:) but ight bro salam alekum

D: what’s wrong with yu?

haha;)

J: can’t right now man

Dias began frantically texting Azamat, who had finished his workout and gone shopping at Target. In the space of ten minutes Dias sent ten messages, all of them imploring Azamat to pick him up at once. “Azkro,” they began. “What yu doing,” “Will yu pick me up?” “Please,” “Azik!” and so on. Azamat dropped his shopping and rushed home. Dias was waiting for him at the sliding door—this would have shaved half a minute off the time required to exit the apartment and enter the car. Dias told Azamat to drive to campus, then explained that he had seen a photo on the news and it looked like Jahar.

By the time they got to Pine Dale Hall, Jahar had been gone more than four hours and the haphazard pilgrimage to the locked door to his dorm room had lasted more than three. Robel, whom Dias had also texted, was there, as was Lino, who had been smoking weed with Robel in his dorm room. Like all the students who had come here in the last few hours, they knocked, jerked the handle, confirmed that the door was locked, and commenced a few minutes of standing around looking somber. All agreed that the picture on TV looked like Jahar. All nodded their heads. Then there was nothing left to do. The four young men went to Lino’s room and started a game of Xbox. After about five minutes, Dias said he was going back to Jahar’s room, and left. For every four cramped residential double rooms in Pine Dale Hall, there is one common study area, also cramped; this makes the four rooms a “suite.” Dias found Andrew working on an essay in the common room. When he said he needed Andrew to let him into the dorm room, Andrew thought nothing of it: he had accommodated such requests before, whenever Dias, the only genuinely frequent visitor to Jahar’s side of the room, had forgotten his iPhone charger there. It was in the room that Dias showed Andrew the text message from Jahar: “Ifyu want yu can go to my room and take what’s there:) but ight bro salam alekum.” To Andrew, who had not yet seen the news, the message read as somewhat cryptic but also unsurprising: he could imagine Jahar, who had never seemed to be quite there in the first place, picking up one day and vanishing.

Dias began a frantic search of Jahar’s side of the room—the wardrobe, the dresser drawers under the bed, the desk. Azamat and Robel came, summoned by a text Dias had sent to Robel: “Come to Jahar’s.” They sat impassively on the bed, staring at images moving across the television screen—it was Project X, an unfunny 2012 comedy about three high school students trying to throw the party of a lifetime—as Dias continued his search. What was he looking for? Pot? But he knew where Jahar kept his stash, so, barring the possibility that he was too agitated to remember even that simple fact, he had no reason to be conducting a search. More likely, he was still seeking what everyone who had knocked on Jahar’s door that day had sought: an answer. He thought he might have found it when he came upon a black JanSport backpack with some emptied-out fireworks in it: a larger hollow cylinder and a half-dozen long ones, barely thicker than a cigarette, which had been removed from the large one and then relieved of the gunpowder. He also found a half-empty jar of Vaseline. From something he had either watched on a screen or heard in conversation, Dias knew that gunpowder and Vaseline could be components of explosive devices. He placed the open backpack in front of Azamat and mouthed the words “I think he used these to make the bombs.” Azamat nodded.

But finding the backpack could not have helped reconcile the conflicting tracks of Dias’s mind. The fireworks looked so ordinary. The larger cylinder was a meek blue; the thin inner cylinders were just paper. They looked like the remnants of a long-ago New Year’s, or like that March night on the bank of the Charles River when Jahar had set off the fireworks while the rest of the crew watched. And the jar of Vaseline was just a jar of Vaseline. Dias may have known that these objects could be the remnants of making a bomb, but all of them were of this reality, not of the fantastical, otherworldly, disastrous realm of the carnage on television.

When Dias, Azamat, and Robel left Jahar’s room after about half an hour, they took with them: the black backpack with the fireworks and the Vaseline, a black Sony VAIO computer, a thumb drive, a brown clay ashtray, a small bag of marijuana, a pair of red Beats headphones that Azamat did not exactly remember loaning to Jahar a few months before, and a red baseball cap that Dias decided he liked.

Andrew returned to the common room and told the friend with whom he had been studying there that Dias and company had been acting “suspiciously.” He texted Jahar: “Hey your friends said you left.” He got no response.

Masha Gessen's The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy is out April 7.

  • Picture of Masha Gessen

    Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and author of several books, including The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy and the national bestseller The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. She lives in New York.

    Contact Masha Gessen at mashage@gmail.com.

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