MAKHACHKALA, Russia — The elder suspect in the Boston bombings regularly attended a mosque and spent time learning to read the Koran, but he struggled to fit in during a trip to his ancestral homeland in southern Russia last year, his aunt said.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev seemed more American than Chechen and ‘‘did not fit into the Muslim life’’ in Russia’s Caucasus, Patimat Suleimanova said. She said when Tsarnaev arrived in January 2012, he wore a winter hat with an ornamental ball, something no local man would wear, and ‘‘we made him take it off.’’
Tsarnaev and his younger brother are accused of setting off the two bombs at the Boston Marathon on April 15 that killed three people and wounded more than 280. Tsarnaev, 26, was killed in a gun battle with police. His brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was later captured alive, but badly wounded.
Investigators are focusing on the six months Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent last year in the predominantly Muslim provinces of Dagestan and Chechnya to see if he was radicalized by the militants in the area who have waged a low-level insurgency against Russian security forces for years.
The Tsarnaev family moved to the United States a decade ago, but the suspects’ parents are in Russia. Their father, Anzor Tsarnaev, said he will return to the United States this week to seek ‘‘justice and the truth.’’
Suleimanova, who wore a pea-green headscarf, said her nephew prayed regularly and studied the Muslim holy book. ‘‘He needed this. This was a necessity for him,’’ she said.
Every day, using Skype, he spoke to his American-born wife, who had recently converted to Islam, and at times she instructed him on how to observe religious practices correctly when he lapsed, Suleimanova said Sunday from her home in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan province. She said her nephew was considering bringing his wife to Dagestan.
His parents insist he spent much of his time visiting relatives in his mother’s and father’s extended families in Dagestan and Chechnya, but details of his whereabouts are vague and contradictory. His father says Tsarnaev stayed with him in Makhachkala, regularly sleeping late.
His aunt, however, said neither of Tsarnaev’s parents was in Russia when he arrived. One reason his father came last year, Suleimanova said, was to make sure his elder son returned to the United States.
Tsarnaev’s father explained his son’s trip by saying he needed to get a new Russian passport. But an official with the federal migration service in Dagestan said that Tsarnaev had applied for a new passport in July, but never picked it up, the Interfax news agency reported. Tsarnaev returned to the United States July 17.
His mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaev, said her son enjoyed his time with her relatives, but never traveled to her native village in a mountainous region of Dagestan, which is a hotbed of an ultraconservative strain of Islam known as Wahabbism. The mother said her relatives all live in Makhachkala and the town of Kaspiisk. She refused to say which mosque her son frequented, but Tsarnaev’s parents and aunt denied that he met with militants or fell under the sway of religious extremists.
Zubeidat Tsarnaev told journalists on Monday that the suspects’ father plans to fly to the United States on Wednesday. She said the family would try to bring the body of their elder son back to Russia. ‘‘I want normal justice,’’ Anzor Tsarnaev said over the weekend. ‘‘I have many questions for the police. You know, I am a lawyer myself and I want to clear up many things. . . . I want justice and the truth.’’