Exclusive: Dagestani Relative of Tamerlan Tsarnaev Is a Prominent Islamist

Last year, when Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent six months in the Russian region of Dagestan, he had a guide with an unusually deep knowledge of the local Islamist community: a distant cousin named Magomed Kartashov. Six years older than Tsarnaev, Kartashov is a former police officer and freestyle wrestler — and one of the region’s most prominent Islamists.

In 2011, Kartashov founded and became the leader of an organization called the Union of the Just, whose members campaign for Shari‘a and pan-Islamic unity in Dagestan, often speaking out against U.S. policies across the Muslim world. The group publicly renounces violence. But some of its members have close links to militants; others have served time in prison for weapons possession and abetting terrorism — charges they say were based on fabricated evidence. For Tsarnaev, these men formed a community of pious young Muslims with whom he could discuss his ideas of jihad. Tsarnaev’s mother Zubeidat confirmed that her son is Kartashov’s third cousin. The two met for the first time in Dagestan, she said, and “became very close.”
Eventually the man remembers Tsarnaev ceding the point. Some weeks later — the man could not recall exactly how long — many from the same group of friends, including Kartashov, gathered on the same beach again for another barbecue. This time the discussion was different. Tsarnaev also brought up the issue of holy war, “but in a global context,” the man said. They talked about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the civil war in Syria, which some of the men from Kartashov’s circle accuse the U.S. and the U.K. of helping to foment. “Those questions that he brought from America [about the holy war in Dagestan], those didn’t come up anymore,” said the man who attended both barbecues. And what was Tsarnaev asking about then? “Listening,” the man said. “He did more listening.”