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And I'm Renee Montagne. The search for the motivations of the Boston Marathon bombers stretches from New England to Central Asia, with a lot of attention is focused on Dagestan. The mostly Muslim republic is in the far south of Russia, and it's been a battleground in a low-level insurgency that costs lives nearly every day.
One of the alleged Boston bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, traveled to Dagestan twice in recent years. Investigators want to know if that is where he embraced a radical and violent form of Islam. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: This is Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. It's a city of nearly 600,000 that sprawls along the Caspian Sea. The city backs up against the North Caucasus, the blue-green mountains that have made places like Dagestan and neighboring Chechnya into havens for bandits and rebels for centuries.
Makhachkala is dotted with mosques, but this one, on Kotrova Street - has drawn a steady stream of investigators and reporters. It's a mosque that's known as a center for the more fundamentalist Salafi strain of Islam, and it's where Tamerlan Tsarnaev's father said his son came to pray during trips to the region in 2011 and 2012. The tall, green-domed building is being expanded, and bearded young men work among piles of construction materials in the courtyard.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOSQUE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: A young man with a bushy brown beard denies ever seeing Tamerlan, and says a scheduled interview with the Imam of the mosque has been canceled. Other men from the mosque angrily demand to know why attention is being focused on them.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: This keeps up until the Imam, Gasan Gasanaliyev, shows up and agrees to talk.
GASAN GASANALIYEV: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: He says he never met Tamerlan Tsarnaev and that the young men in his congregation have told him the same. Many people come here. Who knows who they are, what they are. They come and go, he says. Gasanalivyev strokes his gray beard and looks benignly through thick spectacles.
He says his teaching adheres strictly to the Quran, and he denies that his mosque has ever been a gathering place for radicals or terrorists. But sources close to Russia's federal security service, the FSB, have reportedly said that Tsarnaev's attendance at this Salafi mosque was one of the things that triggered the request for the FBI to investigate the young man's activities in Boston.
Salafis in Makhachkala say they are unfairly branded as religious extremists and targeted by the security forces. Idris Yusupov is a 34-year-old businessman in Makhachkala. He's a tall man with a long brown beard, a Salafi who believes in a strict and unbending form of Islam.
IDRIS YUSUPOV: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: Yusupov says Russian security forces snatched him off the street and took him to a station where they put a plastic bag over his head and interrogated him for nearly five hours. They demanded to know why he dressed as he did, why he went to a certain mosque, whether he believed the imams.
No charges were ever filed, Yusupov says, and no explanation was ever given. It's an experience that Salafis say is repeated all too often in Dagestan, contributing to the resentments that turn young men into militants. The Dagestani town of Khasavyurt has seen its share of the militant insurgency.
It's a market town and trade center just a mile and a half from the Chechen border. Last summer and fall, the town saw plenty of bloodshed, with six policemen killed in one attack, four militants killed in another. The mayor of the town, Saigidpasha Umakhanov, says things have calmed down lately, in part because security forces are trying to be more even-handed in dealing with religious fundamentalists.
MAYOR SAIGIDPASHA UMAKHANOV: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: The most important thing, he says, was to restore some trust in the security forces. Umakhavob says local officials have started a program to lure young men back from the militant groups. It includes seeking help from parents whose sons have gone off to join the insurgents. Gebek Manayev is a man who thought he had lost his youngest son to the insurgency.
GEBEK MANAYEV: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: The 51-year-old construction worker says his son left home without warning - the Russian expression for it is "going to the forest," meaning going to join the militants. His son, who was just 20, was gone for three months, he says, and the distraught father and mother searched through all the surrounding villages and farms.
Finally, he says, the boy's mother made contact with him and convinced him that it was safe to come home. Because he had committed no crimes, Manayev says, local officials vouched for him to the security forces. Manayev shakes his head. He feels sorry for those who were killed and hurt in the Boston bombings, and ashamed that the attackers are said to be Chechens, like him. He can't understand why the Tsarnaevs would be unhappy in America, or why they'd lash out at their country of refuge.
I don't approve of such things, he says, never will. God made us and God should take us back. We shouldn't die by someone else's hands.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News.