In August 2023, Dias Kadyrbayev, a close friend of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, gave an extended interview for the first time since his release from a U.S. prison and deportation to Kazakhstan in October 2018. It was an outpouring of his soul for more than 3 hours, in which he told in detail how he became friends with a Chechen terrorist and a fatal mistake that he said still torments his conscience. He said he decided to tell his bitter experience so that young Central Asian students in the U.S. would not repeat those “small, at first glance, insignificant mistakes” that could have far-reaching and tragic consequences in the future. Noteworthy, the confession of the Boston Marathon bombing conspirator also presents valuable material for utilization by counterterrorism forces in the endeavor to identify and preemptively address early stages of Islamic radicalization among foreign migrants.
On April 15, 2013, two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon, killing three — Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu, and Krystle Campbell — and injuring 281 people. MIT Police Department Officer Sean Collier was shot and killed as the bombers, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were on the run. Four days after the bombing, Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police and Dzhokhar was arrested.
In June 2015, Kadyrbayev was sentenced to six years in prison for his role in retrieving, and later disposing of, evidence in the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, specifically Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s backpack containing fireworks and other items, as well as his role in concealing Tsarnaev’s laptop computer from law enforcement. According to the FBI’s Boston Division, Kadyrbayev placed the backpack and its contents, including the fireworks, into a large black trash bag and threw the entire bag into the garbage dumpster in his apartment complex. After that, Kadyrbayev decided to keep Tsarnaev’s laptop and continued to conceal it without notifying law enforcement. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to obstruct justice and obstructing justice with the intent to impede the Boston Marathon bombing investigation.
He says that over a year and a half, he developed a profound friendship with the future bomber primarily due to their shared origins in the post-Soviet space. Kadyrbayev from Kazakhstan and Tsarnaev, born in Kyrgyzstan, and having lived in Russia, shared similar life experiences, which served as a unifying factor between them. Secondly, Tsarnaev’s open character and willingness to assist his compatriots elicited sympathy from both Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, another friend of the bomber who was convicted of impeding the investigation. Tsarnaev registered their phones under his own name, as his friends lacked the requisite Social Security numbers. Thirdly, as the jovial partygoer and pot enthusiast, Tsarnaev introduced Kadyrbayev to smoking marijuana – a practice considered a criminal act in Central Asia and deemed haram in Islam.
Kadyrbayev meticulously recounted his friendship with the young Chechen man, emphasizing what he saw as Tsarnaev’s adeptness at concealing his path toward Islamic extremism from the American public. It is well-documented that Dzhokhar’s radicalization was primarily influenced by his older brother, Tamerlan, who had significant connections with Islamic extremists in Dagestan, leading to a warning from Russia’s FSB to the FBI in March 2011. Additionally, within the family, constant disparagement of the American way of life further steered Dzhokhar Tsarnaev toward the path of violent Islamism.
Notably, Tsarnaev managed to remain elude suspicion not only from the FBI but also to his school and university friends. Behind the mask of a jovial, sarcastic, and frequently marijuana-reeking Russian-speaking guy, there hid a steadfast Islamic extremist who never showed remorse for his crimes during the Boston Marathon. Tsarnaev’s unrepentant demeanor during the trial garnered sympathy from global terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and pro-ISIS lone wolves, which have intermittently issued threats to the U.S. government should it carry out his death sentence.
Kadyrbayev documented three key factors illustrating the progression of Tsarnaev’s religious radicalization and the transformation of his beliefs. The initial incident transpired during a dinner gathering at the Tsarnaevs’ residence, wherein Dzhokhar’s elder brother, Tamerlan, conducted a religious examination, inquiring about Ayahs and Surahs from the Quran. In response to Kadyrbayev’s assertion that they did not observe Namaz, Tamerlan sternly replied that they should refrain from visiting his house until they embraced the rightful path of Allah. Subsequently, Dzhokhar feigned indifference to the situation.
The second incident unfolded when Dzhokhar, clad in formal attire including long jeans and a warm jacket despite the summer heat, left the house and subsequently changed into shorts inside Kadyrbayev’s car. When questioned about his actions, Tsarnaev merely whispered his older brother’s name and gestured toward the house. This episode serves as a testament to Dzhokhar’s religious duality and the evolving nature of his inner world during that period.
The third concerning instance of Dzhokhar’s religious radicalization, Kadyrbayev said, became evident after a year and a half of their inseparable friendship. Tsarnaev began to eschew encounters with his Kazakh friends, citing academic commitments as a reason. He ceased socializing, refrained from using marijuana, adopted a reclusive lifestyle, and declined invitations to attend a Florida spring break student party.
Kadyrbayev said it never crossed his mind to report Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s outward behavioral shifts to the FBI, as he likely couldn’t fathom the tragic consequences associated with this Islamic radicalization. His decision may have been influenced by the Central Asian cultural inclination to refrain from snitching on a close friend, a characteristic common in the post-Soviet region.
Based on his interview, it’s evident that the Boston Marathon attack and his five-year prison experience in the U.S. profoundly transformed Kadyrbayev’s perspectives on life and friendship. When questioned about why he removed Tsarnaev’s laptop from his room and didn’t report it to the FBI, Kadyrbayev, following a lengthy pause, admitted it was the most senseless and foolish action of his life. As he reflected on those tragic events from his current vantage point, he consistently emotionally reproached himself and appeared anguished over his actions.
At that time, Kadyrbayev said, Tsarnaev offered him over the phone to take whatever he wanted from his room on the second day of the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, so he and his two friends, Azamat Tazhayakov and Robel Kidane Phillipos, collected the laptop, backpack, cap, and ashtray. Later, he said, as Tsarnaev’s involvement in the terrorist attack became evident, they disposed of these items in the trash out of fear. Kadyrbayev reiterated multiple times that he felt a responsibility to the victims of the Boston attacks and learned a lesson that in times of tragedy there are no “petty childish pranks” – for which he served a full prison sentence.
In Kadyrbayev’s view, nothing happened by chance. A sequence of minor errors and juvenile antics, he said, inexorably led him to prison. A chain of events, including his acquaintance and friendship with Dzhokhar, experimentation with marijuana, consistent deception of his mother, and a gift from his girlfriend bearing the inscription ‘Terrorist No. 1,’ which he affixed to his car, served as harbingers of the Boston tragedy, he said. He even did not remove this inscription from his car on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, a decision for which Kadyrbayev said he cannot forgive himself.
Notably, during his interview, Kadyrbayev refrained from criticizing the U.S. judicial system or prison conditions. He did not assert that he had been unjustly convicted. Instead, he underscored the fairness of the U.S. court decision and talked about how it altered his perspective on life. Had a similar situation occurred in Kazakhstan, his parents might have been able to navigate through corruption channels to secure his release. However, Kadyrbayev unequivocally expressed his desire not to revert to the person he was before serving his prison sentence.
At the conclusion of his interview, Kadyrbayev remarked that during his five-year prison term, which included two and a half years spent in solitary confinement, he received an overwhelming number of letters from across the U.S., filled with words of encouragement that deeply moved him. Surprisingly, not a single letter came from his homeland. Nevertheless, he continues to maintain strong connections with a few of them.
He provides guidance to individuals considering studying or immigrating to the U.S., urging them not to replicate his errors and to diligently adhere to counterterrorism laws, which provide no leniency for what he now views as a mistake. Kadyrbayev emphasizes that in the U.S. everyone is genuinely held to the same standard under the law.
Drawing from story of the Tsarnaev family’s life in the U.S., it is crucial to emphasize that the process of religious radicalization in potential terrorists does not transpire overnight. With vigilant monitoring and intervention by those within the inner circle, closely observing the activities of potential radical Islamists, tragic outcomes could have been averted – a step that, regrettably, Kadyrbayev said eluded him at the time.