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Makhachkala: Dusty Russian city where Boston suspect felt he 'belonged'

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A view of Makhachkala, where suspected Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent time, on April 25.

MAKHACHKALA, Russia — This dusty capital of Dagestan, Russia’s southernmost republic in the North Caucasus region, was home briefly last year to one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the 26-year-old alleged mastermind behind the Boston attacks, spent six months in the Russian Federation in 2012. At least half of that time he was in Dagestan, visiting his father Aznor Tsarnaev, who had moved back from the U.S. a year earlier. Investigators are trying to retrace the younger Tsarnaev’s footsteps and determine whether he met any Islamic militants during his stay.

His father maintains his son's innocence and said he only met relatives while he was there. He said his son was so taken with the place that he began talking about moving to Dagestan. In an interview with NBC News earlier this week, Aznor said his son "felt he belonged" there.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News

The beach in Makhachkala, Russia, the port city in Dagestan Tsarnaev spent several months in 2012. Its economy is growing rapidly and corruption is rife.

Tough town
A port city that dots the western edge of the Caspian Sea, Makhachkala is surrounded by low-lying mountains on its other sides. (Dagestan means “land of mountains.”)

The beaches reflect none of the glossy luster of Black Sea resorts; speed bumps seem to outnumber traffic lights; Residents and hotel guests complain about long periods of water shortages.

Nonetheless, the capital is enjoying robust economic growth. Construction sites are everywhere and new hotels are being built. Shops are full of well-known western brands, including Apple’s iPhones. Cafés are teeming with young people and families.

But life is not easy in this North Caucasus town. Take the mayor, for instance.

Said Amirov has survived 15 assassination attempts since the 1990s; one of them put him in a wheelchair. He refuses to be photographed in it, wanting to project an image of power and authority in a culture obsessed with male athleticism and physical prowess (wrestling and soccer are the most popular sports).

Though named the Best Mayor of Russia 2012, Amirov is an emblem of corruption, according to one local journalist. When asked about corruption during a press briefing this week about the Boston bombing suspects, Amirov dismissed the topic: “Corruption exists everywhere.”

However, local residents say corruption is particularly rampant in Dagestan.

In an interview with reporters, Zubeidat Tsarnaev, the mother of Boston bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, insists her sons are not responsible for the marathon attacks and expresses her regret in relocating the family to the U.S.

“If you have money, you can get anything done,” said a former policeman, who quit his job because he couldn’t stomach the corruption in the local police force.

In a town that features a clothing shop called “Tony Montana” – named after the Cuban gangster played by Al Pacino in “Scarface” – men swagger in leather jackets and sweatpants. Police checkpoints dot the main roads and semiautomatic weapons are on plentiful display.

The majority of women wear hijabs and long skirts, but it’s not unusual to see women with uncovered hair, three-inch Louboutin heels and tiny skirts.

With a population of half a million, the capital is also a cultural crossroads. Dagestan is Russia’s most ethnically diverse republic with more than 30 ethnic groups.

Sectarian strife
Apart from geography, Islam is the other tie that binds so many diverse groups. Arab conquerors introduced the religion to Dagestan in the seventh century, making it the oldest Islamic republic in the Russian Federation. Dagestan has between 1,800 to 2,000 mosques, according to official Russian government reports, more than neighboring Chechnya or Ingushetia.

During Friday prayers, hundreds of men streamed toward the white multidomed Central Mosque, the largest in Makhachkala. As they prayed, heavily armed men – some dressed in camouflage, some in civilian clothes – ringed the edge of the mosque grounds.

It is the perfect snapshot of the strife surrounding Islam in Dagestan.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News

The Central Mosque in Makhachkala. Dagestan is the oldest Islamic republic in Russia.

In 1999, Chechen rebels invaded, marking the beginning of the second Chechen war. The arrival of Chechen fighters in Dagestan deepened sectarian rifts between Sufis (those who mix Islam with local customs) and Salafis (ultra-conservative Sunni Muslims who believe they are practicing a “pure” form of Islam and adhere strictly to Shariah law).

As terrorist attacks spread throughout Dagestan – now considered more volatile than Chechnya – Russia’s security forces have cracked down further on dissidents and suspected militants, fueling violence, tension and fear.

“As soon as we began preaching Salafism, the government began targeting us,” said Gadzhi Mohamed, who helps run a local Islamic civil rights organization called “Akhlusuna.” In fact, “as soon as someone says ‘pure Islam,’ they become an enemy of the people, created by the state.”

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