Prof says Boston bombing suspect sought help ‘rediscovering’ Chechen roots

The Boston bombing suspect who was captured after a massive manhunt Friday reached out to a Massachusetts professor two years ago for help on research "rediscovering his Chechen origins," the professor told

Professor Brian Glyn Williams, who teaches the only course in the U.S. on the Chechen wars, said Friday that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev emailed him in the spring of 2011, asking questions on Chechen history for a research project he was doing at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

Williams said that based on conversations with a friend who taught Tsarnaev -- and who recommended he reach out to Williams -- he learned that Tsarnaev was "studying his past."

"He was sort of in the process of vicariously rediscovering his Chechen origins," the professor told

Williams said that after the student contacted him, he emailed back a syllabus. He said he didn't even remember the interaction until he talked to a friend.

"It freaked me out," he said. "I couldn't believe I communicated with this psychopath."

The detail comes amid swirling questions about the suspect's motivations and roots. Tsarnaev is thought to be of Chechen origin, though his family may be from the neighboring region of Dagestan. Chechnya, a region in Russia, is known for its bloody conflict with the Russian government -- but the region is also home to Islamic extremists.

It remains unclear what may have motivated the suspects. Their uncle, in an impassioned and impromptu press conference Friday, downplayed their Chechen ties and said the situation has "nothing to do with Chechnya."

FBI investigators are scouring records to find out where and when the suspects might have been radicalized. The other brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a shootout with police overnight in the Boston suburbs, traveled to Russia last year, Fox News has learned.

Fox News has also learned that the younger brother was granted asylum in 2002, obtained a green card in 2004 and was granted citizenship in 2012. The elder brother had an arrest for domestic violence in 2009.

Williams teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, where Tsarnaev is also a registered student. Williams said he's never formally had Tsarnaev as a student -- but said a colleague who does told him he was supposed to be in class Friday.

Details are still emerging about both suspects. The older brother told a photographer in 2009 that: "I don't have a single American friend, I don't understand them." He worked out in a gym and dreamed of making the U.S. Olympic boxing team, according to an online photojournalism slideshow that chronicled his training.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev previously studied at Bunker Hill Community College for three semesters -- fall 2006, spring 2007 and fall 2008 -- in hopes of becoming an engineer.

The brothers' background has also raised questions about ties between Chechnya and Islamic radicalism.

Williams described a complicated picture. He said "there's a jihad element that has grown larger and more important" inside of Chechnya in the wake of bloody wars with the Russians.

He said the official leadership is more secular and moderate, but there is an extremist element that sees the Russians as "infidels." He said the Al Qaeda links are tenuous, though Al Qaeda "sympathizes" with them.

Williams said he is publishing a book on the subject next year called "Inferno in the Caucus."

Fox News' Catherine Herridge and Mike Levine contributed to this report.