MAKHACHKALA, Russia (AP) - The elder suspect in the Boston bombings regularly attended a mosque and spent time learning to read the Quran, 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 told The Associated Press. She said when Tsarnaev arrived in January 2012, he wore a winter hat with a little pompom, 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 180. Tsarnaev, 26, was killed in a gun battle with police. His 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was later captured alive, but badly wounded.
Investigators are focusing on the six months 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 currently in Russia.
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. She said her nephew was considering bringing his wife to Dagestan.
Tsarnaev's mother told the AP that he greatly 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.
Tsarnaev's parents and aunt firmly denied that he met with militants or fell under the sway of religious extremists.
"He used to say, `I want to go somewhere in the mountains, to be all by myself, to escape from everyday life, to be alone,'" Suleimanova said.
The suspects' father, Anzor Tsarnaev, said he hopes to return to the United States this week. "I want normal justice," he said. "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."
The family said it wants to bring Tsarnaev's body back to Russia.