(MAKHACHKALA, Dagestan) — The aunt and uncle of Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev say they saw no signs he was becoming radicalized during a visit to his old home in Dagestan last year.
“There was no feeling that he could be,” his aunt Patemat Sulemanova told ABC News. “It’s not possible.”
That six-month visit to this restive region in southern Russia, home to a militant Islamist separatist movement, has become a focal point for investigators who are looking for clues in Tsarnaev’s past to explain why and how he may have been trained and inspired to plant two bombs at last week’s Boston Marathon along with his younger brother Dhzokhar.
Tamerlan, who was killed in a gun battle with police on Friday, reportedly came to Dagestan to renew his passport.
His aunt says he stayed partly to train and compete as a boxer. He had been a boxer in the United States, but the aunt said he gave it up in Dagestan after having trouble finding a coach he liked and concluding that the sport of hitting another person was against Islam.
Sitting at her kitchen table, the aunt cried softly as she showed ABC News photos of the two suspects when they were young boys. In one photo, they posed with their two sisters. In another, an infant Tamerlan sits with his mother, father and another relative.
“They were very kind boys,” Sulemanova said.
In the separate interviews with his aunt and uncle, they insisted Tamerlan was deeply religious but not an extremist.
“He he did not tell me anything [about extremism],” the uncle, Muhammed Haji Sulemanov, told ABC News.
They said he prayed at the central mosque in Makhachkala during his stay and advised his aunt on how to pray. The aunt and uncle — he is the suspect’s mother’s brother — describe themselves as devout Muslims but denied they fought with Tamerlan over interpretations of Islam.
“We were debating with him,” she said. “But not fighting.”
The aunt said during his visit, Tamerlan made at least three trips to Chechnya, also home to an Islamist uprising, to visit relatives. He chose to fly home from the Chechen capital of Grozny instead of from the airport in Dagestan, though she did not say why.
The FBI investigated Tamerlan in 2011 at the behest of an unnamed foreign government that was concerned he was planning to link up with extremist groups abroad. But their inquiry concluded that there was no cause for concern.
The younger suspect, Dzhokhar, planned to visit Dagestan in May, his aunt said.
The uncle said he is praying for Dzhokhar to recover from the wounds he sustained during a battle with police on Friday.
“So he can tell us what really happened,” he said.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Joe Sterling and Cassandra Santiago, CNN
Holly Yan and Joe Sterling, CNN
Laura Smith-Spark, Erin McLaughlin and Nina dos Santos, CNN
Laura Goehler, CNN