MAKHACHKALA, Russia — Tamerlan Tsarnaev had already found religion by the time he landed in Dagestan, a combustible region in the North Caucasus that has become the epicenter of violent Islamic insurgency in Russia and a hub of jihadist recruitment. What he seemed to be yearning for was a home.
"When he came, he talked about religion," said his aunt, Patimat Suleimanova, who saw him a few days after he arrived in January 2012.
It was 15 months before Tsarnaev would be killed in a standoff with the police, who believe he and his younger brother planted bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
He flew in to the airport here in Makhachkala, where the plate-glass windows of the arrival hall frame a mosque with twin minarets stretching skyward. He had already given up drinking alcohol, grown a close beard and become more devout, praying five times a day. The reunion with his aunt and uncle in their third-floor apartment on Timiryazeva Street was a happy one, marked by contrasts with his life in America. "He said, 'The people here are completely different. They pray different,' " Suleimanova recalled in an interview Saturday.
"Listen to the call to prayer — the azan — that they play from the mosque," he said, according to his aunt. "It makes me so happy, to hear it from all sides, that you can always hear it — it makes me want to go to the mosque."
Tsarnaev stayed for six months in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, where he had spent most of his teenage years and where his parents had returned to live after several years in the United States. Those six months have become a focus for investigators who are trying to understand why he and his brother might have carried out the attack in Boston, and especially, whether they were connected to any organized terrorist network.
But the emerging portrait of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's time here seems inside out. Dagestan, which is known for growing and exporting terrorists like those who carried out the deadly 2010 bombings in the Moscow subways, seems in this case to have been a way station for a young man whose path began and ended somewhere else.
On Sunday, the most feared terrorist group in the Caucasus, the Mujahideen of the Caucasus Emirate, issued a statement dismissing speculation that Tsarnaev had joined them and denying any responsibility for the Boston Marathon attack. "The Mujahideen of the Caucasus are not fighting against the United States of America," the statement said.
This ongoing strife between Islamic militants and the Russian authorities has yielded a long string of terror attacks, many in Dagestan. Tsarnaev would have experienced the bloodshed close at hand when he was living here.
Two weeks after his arrival, another grenade was tossed in a residential area. It was apparently meant to draw the police into an ambush, because several minutes later, in a pattern eerily similar to the marathon bombing, a larger bomb hidden in a garbage pail went off, killing a small child and injuring another.
And so it went all the time he was in Dagestan: two or three deadly bombings a month on average, constant "special operations" in which the federal police killed dozens of people they said were Muslim insurgents, and numerous other attacks.
Yet, during his six months in Makhachkala, according to relatives, neighbors and friends, he did not seem like a man on a mission. Rather, they said, he was more like a recent graduate who could not quite decide what to do with himself. He slept late, hung around at home, visited family and lent his father a hand renovating a storefront.
"The son helped his father," Vyacheslav Kazakevich, a family friend, said in an interview. "They started at 8 in the morning. When I passed by, they were working on the inside of the store, laying tiles. He didn't go anywhere; no friends came to see him. His father wanted to open a perfume shop."
Even so, his life's narrative had been one of constant motion — so much so that the authorities and relatives in recent days have given differing accounts. According to his aunt, he was born in Kalmykia, a barren patch of Russian territory along the Caspian Sea. His family moved to Kyrgyzstan, an independent former Soviet republic in Central Asia, then to Chechnya, the turbulent republic in the Russian Federation that is his father's ancestral home. Then to Dagestan. And then to America, where Tamerlan finished high school, married and had a daughter, now a toddler.
Wherever he went, though, he did not quite seem to fit in. He was a Chechen who had never really lived in Chechnya, a Russian citizen whose ancestors were viciously oppressed by the Russian government, a green-card holder in the United States whose path to citizenship there seemed at least temporarily blocked.