Tamerlan Tsarnaev: Inside the Mind of a Killer

On the night of the Boston Marathon attacks, Tamerlan Tsarnaev watched his handiwork on television—and laughed.

boston marathon bombings


It was the evening of April 15, 2013, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a happy man. At a messy, third-floor apartment on Norfolk Street in Cambridge, the 26-year-old was in his living room alongside his brother, Dzhokhar, 19, watching the news on TV. Nearly every channel was running nonstop coverage of the chaos and carnage on Boylston Street: the smoke, the screaming, the severed limbs scattered in the street. Blood was everywhere. In the apartment, a laptop streaming CNN also played the endless chaos and heroic rescue efforts. Spectators used their belts, shirts, and shoelaces as tourniquets to tie off the mangled limbs of strangers; doctors who ran the marathon sprinted to operating rooms; former New England Patriots offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi carried an injured woman to safety.

Then came a knock at the door.

“Open!” Tamerlan shouted.

In walked Khairullozhon Matanov. Tamerlan had been expecting him.

Matanov, a 23-year-old cab driver from Quincy, was a fellow Russian-speaking immigrant with a scrawny frame and floppy black hair. The two had met years earlier at a mosque on Prospect Street in Cambridge, part of the Islamic Society of Boston, and became friends. They attended Friday prayers together and went to the mosque on holidays such as Id al-Fitr, the highest of Muslim holy days. Tamerlan, a New England Golden Gloves champion, gave Matanov boxing lessons, and they played weekly pickup soccer games together in Cohasset. Matanov had even met the Tsarnaev family matriarch, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, who cooked chicken and salad for him at their home. One time, the two friends climbed Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, where Tamerlan talked about the mujahedeen.

All of these details—and many more—are contained in FBI proffer reports obtained exclusively by Boston magazine. The proffer reports are an FBI agent’s written account of multiple interviews with Matanov, whom the feds have charged with obstruction of justice in connection with the Boston Marathon investigation. Agents first interviewed Matanov in May 2013 and arrested him 12 months later. According to one of the reports, Matanov and Tamerlan “did not have secrets.”

On the night of the bombings, Matanov allegedly told the FBI, he was rattled. But he repeatedly insisted that he had no idea the Tsarnaev brothers were behind the bombings. It was mere coincidence, he claimed, that at 3:31 p.m., some 40 minutes after the explosions, Matanov called Tamerlan, who said he was in a store buying milk. “During this conversation they discussed the bombings in Boston,’’ the FBI report states. “Matanov suggested that maybe something blew up in a kitchen near the finish line, to which Tamerlan responded: ‘Maybe, maybe not.’’’ The two made plans for dinner.

It was sundown by the time Matanov walked into the Norfolk Street apartment. The Tamerlan that greeted him that day looked more like the old Tam. Gone was the beard he’d grown after returning from a six-month trip to Russia in July 2012. Instead, his face was freshly shaved. Wearing sweatpants and boxing shoes, he more closely resembled the handsome party boy who once frequented Boston nightclubs and smoked pot with his friends. Neither Tamerlan’s wife, Karima, née Katherine Russell, nor their toddler daughter, Zahara, were home.

After greeting the brothers, the FBI report says, Matanov commented that the bombings were very bad and voiced his concerns that the public might direct its outrage at Muslims. He plopped down on the couch next to Dzhokhar, who was stroking the family cat. Matanov also expressed sympathy for eight-year-old Martin Richard, who died in the second blast. According to the report, “Tamerlan responded by asking whether Matanov thought the U.S. drones that dropped bombs in Pakistan and Afghanistan did not kill any children.”

“So what if a kid dies,” Tamerlan said. “God will take care of him.”

As Tamerlan watched the coverage on TV, he smiled. There was one image that every newscast replayed over and over again: 78-year-old marathoner Bill Iffrig being hurled to the ground after the first bomb exploded, his bright-orange tank top juxtaposed against the gray billowing smoke behind him. He lay prone on the ground, stunned, just yards away from the finish line. Half a dozen Boston Police officers sprang toward Iffrig and stood around him in a protective huddle as chaos erupted behind them. A blue-and-yellow-clad volunteer helped him to his feet.

There was something about that old man on the ground…Tamerlan loved it. When he saw the shot of Iffrig falling as the smoke rose in the background, Tamerlan laughed. Matanov told the FBI that “Tamerlan expressed glee over the bombings and called them the biggest thing since 9/11…. Specifically, Tamerlan laughed at images of an old man running from the blast.”

The image of Iffrig crumpled on the ground became emblematic of the pandemonium and bloodshed near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. A child was dead, along with two young women. In all, the bombs injured more than 260 people; 16 of them lost one or more limbs. And at that time no one knew why.

Except for Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Inside the apartment, Tamerlan disappeared into his brother’s room, and Matanov tried to engage Dzhokhar in conversation about what had happened. Matanov said that the bombings were going to be a big problem for Muslims because innocent people were killed. For the first time that night, according to the FBI report of Matanov’s account, Dzhokhar responded; he said that for some people the bombings were a good thing, for others they were a bad thing.

Dzhokhar was always a quiet kid, Matanov told the FBI, but that night his demeanor was particularly aloof. Maybe he was concentrating on the tweet he transmitted from his account @J_Tsar at 5:04 p.m. that day: “Ain’t no love in the heart of the city. stay safe people.” Dzhokhar also marked another tweet, from an account called “Death,” at @GMCoderGoddi. It read, “The ultimate sacrifice is within you, The battle within is defined by the word jihad.”

When they were finally ready for dinner, Matanov told the FBI, he and the Tsarnaev brothers climbed into his cab and went for kebabs at a storefront eatery in Somerville called Man-O-Salwas, a little less than a mile away.


The FBI first interviewed Matanov on May 31, 2013, nine days after his former roommate Ibragim Todashev was shot dead by an FBI agent in an Orlando apartment. Agents were interviewing Todashev, 27, regarding his role in an unsolved triple homicide in Waltham, and Todashev had, according to Florida authorities, begun to write a confession. The victims were three young men found with their throats slashed, their heads nearly decapitated and marijuana sprinkled over their mutilated bodies—a grisly bloodbath that fell on September 11, 2011, the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. At least one of the victims, Brendan Mess, knew Tamerlan, who was also a suspect. The motive, Todashev had begun to explain, was robbery.

“I wanna [sic] tell the story about the robbery me and Tam did in Waltham,’’ Todashev wrote on a legal pad. But before he could finish the confession, according to a Florida state attorney’s report, Todashev, who had a long history of criminal violence, flipped over a table and lunged at a Massachusetts state trooper with a metal pole. Aaron McFarlane, an FBI agent assigned to the Boston field office, shot Todashev seven times. The FBI later cleared McFarlane of any wrongdoing.

The horrendous unsolved murders in Waltham have been used by Dzhokhar’s defense team—in conjunction with Todashev’s unfinished confession—to argue that the older Tsarnaev brother was a menacing, dangerous man who acted as a “corrupting influence” on their client. In a court motion filed last fall, Dzhokhar’s defense attorneys referred to an “identified witness [who] would be prepared to testify” for prosecutors that their client was well aware that his big brother had committed the Waltham atrocities—and that Dzhokhar was afraid of him.

In January, Dzhokhar is expected to go on trial in federal court, charged with using and conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that prosecutors will seek the death penalty. But whether Dzhokhar lives or dies may hinge on his defense attorneys’ ability to convince a jury that the younger Tsarnaev was, in some way, under the sway of his older brother.

Of course, dead men tell no tales. Todashev couldn’t finish his confession from the morgue—and Tamerlan was pronounced dead at 1:35 a.m. on April 19, 2013, after a wild firefight with police in Watertown.

In response to Dzhokhar’s defense team, the government denies that their alleged “identified witness” exists, saying only that there is a third party who claimed that someone might say Dzhokkar was aware of Tamerlan’s involvement in the Waltham murders. The government recently claimed it has no evidence linking Tamerlan to the Waltham murders, so there is nothing to produce in court—a stance that contradicts many earlier statements tying Tamerlan and Todashev to the crimes. In fact, the same FBI interviews of Matanov that detail the brothers’ reactions to watching TV news coverage of the bombings on April 15 also refer to questions Matanov was asked concerning the Waltham murders and the movements of his roommate, Todashev.

Matanov told conflicting stories at first, but eventually confirmed that Todashev was at their shared home on September 11, 2011, the night of the murders. He told agents that he came home from driving his cab to find his roommate in the shower. Hours later, Todashev packed up his belongings, save for a pair of boxing gloves, and drove with another Russian-speaking immigrant to Florida.

After initially interviewing Matanov in May 2013, agents have testified, the FBI followed Matanov sporadically for a year—during which time, according to the Patriot Ledger, investigators deployed a noisy, low-flying plane to track him. They arrested him on May 30.

Despite Matanov’s claims that he expressed sympathy for the child who died in the bombings, the federal indictment paints him as far more cold-hearted. It claims that after Matanov had dinner with the Tsarnaevs on April 15, he returned to his Quincy apartment and told his roommate—who is now a government witness—that the bombings were justified if they were “done in the name of Islam.”

In the days following their dinner together, Matanov stayed in cell-phone contact with Tamerlan and even made one more visit to Tamerlan’s apartment in Cambridge during the week leading up to the Watertown shootout. Matanov also tried six times—in vain—to call Dzhokhar. His last attempt was made at 7:17 a.m. on April 19, when, according to the indictment, the suspect “was still evading law enforcement.’’

After Dzhokhar’s capture, Matanov desperately tried to erase the memory on his own computer, according to the indictment, and deleted photos that showed him alongside Todashev and the Tsarnaev brothers during happier times: going to the beach in Quincy, celebrating Id al-Fitr at the mosque. In one of the pictures, Matanov posed alongside Tamerlan in front of a black flag imprinted with a sword and the shahada phrase—often described as “the black flag of jihad”—taken, according to one of the FBI reports, at a Massachusetts mosque.

Federal prosecutors accuse Matanov of deleting files from his computer and of lying to investigators about his interactions with the Tsarnaev brothers in the days after the bombings. Today, Matanov is being held without bail at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility—in notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger’s old cell. Federal prosecutors have argued that Matanov is a flight risk: a man who speaks seven languages, has no family here, has changed jobs and residences several times, and has made multiple money transfers to parties overseas using various aliases.

Matanov’s attorneys, Edward Hayden and Paul Glickman, insist that their client is innocent of any crimes, including any involvement in the Waltham murders, pointing out that he has voluntarily cooperated with investigators. “It’s not a federal crime to be friends with someone,” Hayden says.

On April 19, hours before Dzhokhar was captured, Matanov gave a voluntary interview to the Braintree police. When asked how he met the brothers and what he thought about them, Matanov said what any neighbor or casual acquaintance might say: “They were like so, so nice people.”