On April 15, 2013, hours after detonating a pair of deadly explosives at the Boston Marathon, Tamerlan Tsarnaev walked into the Al-Burra Grocery store in the Roxbury section of Boston to buy a pack of cookies. As he arrived at the store, he found Laith Al-Behacy — a 46-year-old Egyptian immigrant who had been working there since 2008 — sitting behind the cash register, watching television footage of the aftermath of the attacks.
Seeing Tamerlan walk in, Al-Behacy asked him in jest whether he’d had anything to do with the bombings. Tsarnaev smiled, said no, and calmly walked out with his purchase.
On Monday, Al-Behacy testified about this encounter on the opening day of the sentencing phase of the trial of Tamerlan’s younger brother, Dzhokhar. While describing Tamerlan as generally polite in his interactions at the store, Al-Behacy also said that he had become the bête noire of Boston’s Muslim community due to his rude and abrasive outbursts at mosque services, as well as his increasing extremism. During one service, which Al-Behacy witnessed, Tamerlan was ejected from the mosque by other congregants after denouncing the imam as a munafiq (hypocrite) for encouraging voting in a forthcoming election.
Such behavior by Tamerlan is likely to be a focus of the coming weeks of testimony, as defense lawyers seek to establish the malign influence he had upon his impressionable younger sibling in the run-up to the 2013 bombing.
Somewhat incongruously, the defense has also stated that Tamerlan’s influence should not be held as a straightforward mitigating factor when deciding whether to impose a sentence of life imprisonment or death upon Dzhokhar. Rather, they have argued that death would in fact be a more lenient, and thus less appropriate sentence for their client.
In his opening statements, defense lawyer David Bruck argued that Dzhokhar would be subject to “unrelenting punishment” if sentenced to life in prison. He also displayed pictures of the stark conditions at the notorious ADX Supermax facility where Dzhokhar would be held, a prison once famously described as “a clean version of hell.” Bruck also argued that a sentence of life without parole would deny Tsarnaev the possibility of becoming a “martyr,” as well as any type of notoriety or fame which could stem from being executed by the state.
Nonetheless, the defense maintains that had it not been for the actions of Tamerlan, characterized as an unhinged, violent and overbearing older brother, Dzhokhar would not have ultimately progressed down a path toward violent extremism and would have remained a “good kid.” While the defense was forbidden from explicitly discussing Tamerlan’s behavior and character during the first phase of Dzhokhar’s trial, such discussions are expected to dominate the sentencing portion.
The defense discussed Tamerlan’s ideological grooming of his brother through a series of extremist lectures and articles emailed to Dzhokhar, which the older Tsarnaev had sent during a 2012 visit to Dagestan. One of these was an article discussing the one year anniversary of the “martyrdom” of Osama bin Laden, while another was a videotaped lecture containing religious exhortations by an Australian Salafi preacher, Omar al-Banna.
In his responses to Tamerlan’s increasingly insistent proselytizing, Dzhokhar appears to be receptive, but unenthusiastic. In one reply he does not even acknowledge the content, saying simply “I miss you, I hope everything is alright…”
During the first phase of the trial, in which Dzhokhar was found guilty, it was revealed that he had copies of Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine on his laptop, as well as a handful of other videos by clerics such as Anwar al-Awlaki. Contextualizing his possession of this ideological material, defense lawyers described it as a “faint echo” of the obsessive interest Tamerlan evinced in online jihadist material, which he had increasingly attempted to push on his younger sibling. In addition to his emails, Tamerlan was also revealed to have been running a YouTube channel dedicated to propagating extremist propaganda, portions of which he shared with Dzhokhar. One of the sections of his channel was entitled simply, “Terrorists.”
Judith Russell, the mother of Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell, also testified to Tamerlan’s increasingly controlling and abusive behavior toward her and her daughter. Describing him as obsessively haranguing her and others with his extremist religious ideas and grievances about American foreign policy — regardless of social setting — she also said that Tamerlan had controlled her daughter’s life to the point that Katherine was effectively cut off from many of her friends and family. The domineering and oppressive effect Tamerlan had upon Katherine was suggested by Dzhokhar’s lawyers as analogous to the influence he would later come to have in steering Dzhokhar toward extremist ideology.
In the months leading up to the bombing, Tamerlan, who had once been known as a notorious womanizer and drinker, had increasingly taken to ostentatious public displays of religiosity. He discarded his once flashy dress, and began wearing a flowing white dishdasha in public, a garment common to Gulf Arab countries but alien to the Caucasus region of Russia where he and his family originated. He also grew a beard, and became increasingly vituperative and confrontational in his personal interactions with friends, acquaintances and random passersby.
In November 2012, just months before the attacks, Tamerlan walked into a local halal meat shop where he began yelling and gesticulating angrily towards the store clerk for selling halal turkeys in celebration of Thanksgiving. Louay Assaf, the imam whom Tamerlan had publicly denounced as a “hypocrite,” also testified that he had tried to talk down Tamerlan from his extremist views after he had gotten up and yelled at him during a February 2013 sermon. “There were a large group of people there, and they separated us and removed him from the mosque,” Assaf said.
“The next time I saw him, he was on television.”