(Reuters) - They dressed like typical American teenagers, enjoyed playing sports, were friendly and strived to fit in after arriving in the United States with their family from the southern Russian province of Dagestan a decade ago.
The schoolmates, teachers and neighbors of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev said they saw little sign of radicalism - or anything extraordinary - to explain why the ethnic Chechen brothers would allegedly carry out the twin bombings that killed three people and wounded 176 at the Boston Marathon on Monday.
Tamerlan, 26, who dreamed of Olympic boxing glory and appeared to have become a more observant Muslim in recent years, was killed in a shootout with police late on Thursday. Dzhokhar, 19, who was a high school wrestler, is the target of a manhunt that virtually closed down Boston on Friday.
Much is still unknown about the pair, who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Four U.S. government officials said they were unaware of any information in government databases that would have, before this week, flagged the Tsarnaev brothers as militants who might become involved in violent attacks.
More than anything, Dzhokhar wanted to be popular, according to those who knew him. He laughed at everyone’s jokes. He tried hard to get along with everybody. He used the word “dude.” He liked hip hop. He was cheery, nervous and socially awkward - but not in a way that made people uncomfortable. And he didn’t talk about politics much.
“Seriously, he was so, so normal, no accent, an all-American kid in every measurable sense of the word,” said Nate Mann, 20, who was in the class above the younger Tsarnaev at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School.
The older brother, who was known as Timmy, appeared to be less social. “I don’t have a single American friend,” Tamerlan was quoted as saying in a 2010 profile in “The Comment” magazine, published by Boston University’s School of Communications. “I don’t understand them.”
The Tsarnaev brothers, who have two sisters, are ethnic Chechen, from a predominately Muslim region of Russia where separatists fought two wars in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union.
They were schooled in Dagestan, a neighboring region that was drawn into Chechnya’s violence during the 1990s and has since become the focal point for a simmering Islamist insurgency.
Their aunt, Maret Tsarnaeva, said the family had refugee status in the United States.
The younger brother arrived in 2002 with his parents. At the time, his three siblings were in Kazakhstan but later united with Dzhokhar in the United States. The father, Anzor, later went back to Dagestan with the mother, who has traveled back and forth to the United States.
Their uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who lives in Maryland, told reporters he had not spoken with Dzhokhar and Tamerlan since 2009.
“He put a shame on our family, he put a shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity,” Tsarni said of Dzhokhar.
Former classmates theorized that perhaps it was the older brother who had influenced Dzhokhar. A YouTube account under Tamerlan’s name featured two videos about terrorism.
Tamerlan appeared to become more of an observant Muslim in recent years, according to his aunt, who lives in Toronto.
“He was not devout, practicing, but about three years ago he began praying five times a day,” Tsarnaeva said in comments carried on CNN, adding that she saw no problem in that change.
The aunt said Tamerlan had a wife and a daughter, born two years ago. “He was very happy about his daughter,” she said. She did not say if he was still married.
Tamerlan had been a part-time accounting student at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. He was enrolled there for three semesters - fall 2006, spring 2007 and fall 2008.
“He wasn’t even close” to getting a degree, said Patricia Brady, a spokeswoman for the college.
Tamerlan was quoted in “The Comment” magazine as saying he wanted to participate in the Olympics and would “rather compete for the U.S. than Russia” if he could not represent an independent Chechnya.
He neither smoked nor drank, and said “God said no alcohol,” according to the profile.
After winning a Golden Gloves amateur boxing competition in nearby Lowell, Massachusetts, in 2004, Tamerlan told the local newspaper, “I like the USA ... . America has a lot of jobs.
“That’s something Russia doesn’t have. You have a chance to make money here if you are willing to work.”
The brothers’ high school, Cambridge Rindge & Latin, is one of the most diverse in the country, its student body ranging from the children of immigrants to those of Harvard professors.
“I always sympathized with him because he was, I’d say, a kid that just really wanted to be accepted,” said Taylor Conlin, who played on the Rindge lacrosse team with Dzhokhar. “He did it in a very humble way, but he just tried to hang out with the cool kids.”
Former classmates were astonished to hear that “sweet, considerate” Dzhokhar, who later enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, could have been involved in the explosions.
“He was the typical Rindge kid to us, actually a lot nicer than we were, and quieter,” said Mann. “But obviously he had secrets.”
They painted a picture of a youth who bore none of the telltales of an immigrant: Dzhokhar had virtually no accent. He dressed in sweats and a sweatshirt. He did not hang with anybody in the school’s Muslim circle.
A high school classmate, Eric Machado, told CNN that Dzhokhar had shown no “tell-tale signs of malicious behavior.”
“We partied. We hung out. We were good high school friends,” he said. There was “no evidence that would lead any of us to believe that he would be capable of this.”
Reporting by Edith Honan, Peter Graff, Ben Berkowitz, Stephanie Simon, Michelle Conlin and Lisa Schwartz; Research by Barclay Walsh and Carolyn Wilder; Writing by Ian Simpson and Frank McGurty; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Xavier Briand