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FBI agents question members of mosque that Tsarnaevs attended

FBI agents digging into background of bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev get help from Cambridge, MA Mosque members who knew the suspects as some members of Congress want to learn more about FBI contact with Tamerlan before the bombing.

Just weeks before the Boston Marathon bombing,Tamerlan Tsarnaev — the suspected mastermind of the plot — was still attending prayer services at a Cambridge mosque where he had previously caused disruptions and been threatened with eviction, a spokesman for the mosque said.

Yusufi Vali, a spokesman for the mosque, said that FBI agents have begun questioning members of the mosque about their interactions with the 26-year-old Tsarnaev, who was killed during a shootout with police last Friday, and his younger brother, Dzohkhar, who is still hospitalized and has been charged with helping carry out the attack.

As soon as mosque leaders learned of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s alleged involvement, “We immediately called law enforcement and said, ‘Listen, we’ve got folks who knew him and if you need any information, we’re here – and those folks have already met with the FBI.”

Read statement by the Islamic Society of Boston, operator of the mosque

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has told investigators he and his older brother acted alone, learning how to build the pressure cooker bombs by reading the al Qaeda propaganda magazine Inspire online. He said they plotted the bombing to defend Islam because of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, federal law enforcement officials tell NBC News. 

FBI agents have also begun reviewing the two brothers’ cellphone and email records and so far have found no sign of accomplices -- or connections to international terror groups, said a counterterrorism source who has been briefed on the investigation. 

But there are signs that Tamerlan had become radicalized — apparently from a friend in the United States named “Mischa” — described as a Russian of Armenian descent who was a relatively recent convert to Islam and who lived in Cambridge, according by Tsarnaev’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni. Tsarni told NBC News that Mischa presented himself as an “exorcist” who specialized in “removing demons from people’s bodies.” He recounted hearing from his brother, Anzor, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar’s father, about an incident in 2007 when the father came home one night and found Mischa lecturing his son about Islamic ways. The father was outraged and ordered Mischa to leave the house. Shortly after that, he said, Tamerlan dropped out of school, telling his parents that music and the arts were incompatible with Islamic teachings.

Ruslan Tsarni said he has told the FBI about Mischa. NBC News has been unable to contact him, and Vali said that he is unaware of anybody in the mosque community who matches the description.

FBI agents are also trying to determine if there were other influences on Tamerlan Tsarnaev from people he may have met with during a six-month trip to Russia last year — during which he spent time in Chechnya and Dagestan, according to his father.

After the trip, a YouTube account was set up filled with postings of radical jihadi videos — including the sermons of Feiz Mohammed, a radical Muslim preacher from Australia who has been investigated by authorities for allegedly inciting violence. Authorities in that country have examined a series of sermons known as the “Death Series,” in which he describes Jews as “pigs” and encourages Muslim parents to offer up their children as soldiers to defend Islam.

Vali said that, after Tamerlan Tsarnaev was identified as a suspect in the Boston bombing last week, congregants reported two incidents in which he had disrupted services at the mosque. The most recent one took place on Martin Luther King Day in January, when Tsarnaev interrupted a talk by a speaker saying King could be compared to the prophet Mohammed.

 Tsarnaev stood up and called the speaker a “non-believer” and a “hypocrite,” he said. At that point, “the congregation yelled back, ‘You need to leave.” And then leadership had a conference with him, and told him, that you need to stay silent or you are not welcome here.”

Vali said that Tsarnaev returned to the mosque — as recently as last month — but there were no further disruptions.

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