Translated by Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ
21st December, 2015
Two years ago our investigation for "KP", "Jihad for export", began. The material featured young Russians who go abroad to fight and die for Islam. We started in Dagestan. From Makhachkala we went to "the path of Jihad" in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, Hatay province, where it is still acting as an open "gate for "Islamic State". People from the Free Syrian army, who met us at the border, said it they not be able to defend against Islamic radicals, which slowly but surely have taken over the authority over the rebellious territories.
For two years, the Middle East finally came to fruition for the Islamic State, who declared a Caliphate and required cannon fodder in unlimited quantities. In the autumn, when Russian aircraft came to the assistance of the Syrian army, a paradoxical situation appeared - under the attack of Russian bombs, they began to kill Russian citizens. Why are they go there? For answers we went back to Dagestan.
"The Light Of Islam: Wholesale and retail"
East vanity clothing market of Makhachkala. The chaotic bazaars with Turkish rags and tidy displays with Muslim attire. Signs of shops are striking in their original form. "The light of Islam - Wholesale and retail", "Hair of the horseman - Cut only men. Cleanliness is half of faith". Annoying street traders trying to sell fridge magnets with verses from the Koran. It's Funny, but we have not seen in any Arab country such ostentatious religious merchandising. And in Dagestan it, until recently, was not like this. But, as they say here, people reached out to God. Or were pulled...
Zainab Idrissov sells socks, and says it's a product of the latest sanctions against the Turkish party. Where to get a new job is not yet known but she is expected to. With her husband long ago divorced, her only son was killed in November of this year in Syria in air raids on the outskirts of Raqqa. Zainab lay on the table photographs of her son Magomed Rabadanov.
- In Junior high he studied well, and he started high school, the woman said. I wish he went to study medicine. And he said he wanted to learn the Koran by heart. I never thought that my boy was gonna do it.
This history is typical for present-day Dagestan. Allegedly he left home for a funeral in the mountain village, he stayed there for Uraza (fasting. - Ed.) in the cool, and a week later we suddenly received an SMS from Syria, "Mom, it's okay, we went to study". There are dozens of these stories, if not hundreds...
- Two months passed without contact. Then the son wrote that he was alive and healthy. And to the question of whether he'll return, he categorically said: "These conversations must be left alone". He then wrote to his friend, on 11 November, telling that they were injured. Bombing began on their positions, Mohammed had a shard in his neck. He started having seizures, and he left.
- Why did he go there?
- I think he heard something in Semendire (suburb of Makhachkala) in the mosque. Wahhabi mosque, it's known as. I think in a few years there will be no one left at home who hasn't be influenced. My classmate and friend's two nephews have left. Another friend went and sold his car (a minibus). It's been a year and three months, no one knows where he is. Another went looking for his brother and he too left a year ago. It's a virus of some sort coming from abroad, otherwise they cannot destroy us, perhaps.
In parallel, the secular reality of Dagestan is experiencing a real construction boom. This chaotic construction in the eyes of all will cure the chronic problems of the Republic. If you're a respected man with money, for you there is no town planning and architectural rules. Alone you can't have respect. So, you should socialise, in a tribal or patriotic manner. Those who do not fit into this orderly system, where the key to the social elevator is kept by the head of the family, look for happiness in other places. In Moscow, it is a crime to spread radical Islam, where all are equal from birth and all the brothers.
In front of us, a nervous guy on a chair sits crooked. In the hierarchy of the Caliphate, he held an important position. He managed to become in favor because of a natural propensity to fraud. He eventually gained a craving for 'pure' Islam. Simply put, he gave his brothers in arms money when he returned home with a big sum. But then he landed in jail. In Syria, he was engaged in the transportation of new recruits across the border.
- The commanders are all Russian - Chechens, Dagestanis. They all have Turkish citizenship or a residence permit. I had a Syrian passport, it was made in Istanbul for $50.
- A fake.
- How many people cross the border with Syria?
- Russians, on average 30 - 50 people a day. First they are trained. Then they are distributed into squads. There is assault, which is always at the forefront, there are placed higher , Fedayeen. There is 'Istishhad', who sit in the car whilst it explodes. After the Arabs make Sharia, it is spread to Mayors, Treasurers and Judges in Russian-speaking territory.
Rasul then said that our role in IS is to be used as cannon fodder. In the oil business, foreigners are not allowed, but he did not skimp on the flattery:
- Russian-speaking Caucasians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs - are heroes for them. The Arabs did not possess such spirit, said Rasul, who until now, possessed a steady voice, but is now trembling with pride or excitement...
- In the occupied territories, what missions can be arranged for a local?
- Civilians live in fear. I have seen someone take pliers and rip one hair from a moustache. If one is caught with a cigarette, they go to jail. Once in prison, they hang by their hands all day.
Thus, according to our interlocutor, in the territories controlled by ISIS, water, electricity and Internet are controlled also. Trade is in full swing, cheap products are imported from Turkey. From Turkey, you can call an Ambulance for $50.
On social networks militants from Russia strongly emphasize that life in the IS is more fun and luxurious than in the Caucasus
- How is ISIS with money and weapons?
- Money is no problem. Weapons and armored vehicles are Soviet and American, most captured from the Syrians. Helicopters are dumped. I saw ammo and grenades too. By the way, the weapons travelled through Turkey to Georgia and the Caucasus. There are those who want to return to the Caucasus. They teach people to survive there and make European & Ukrainian documents. For ten thousand dollars you can make a real Ukrainian passport, which is held on all databases. Through Ukraine there is a channel to get to Russia. Some had already left with such documents. What happened to them, I don't know.
- How many people prepared for Russia and the Caucasus?
- A group of 250 - 300 people. How many units there are, I don't know.
At the end of our conversation, Rasul tried to draw a conclusion. It's simple - he did not like the following in IS:
- There are no luxuries, so who ever travels for luxury will generally get lost. And those who are going just to do something, will be cannon fodder. Between ordinary people Islam exists, but soon it's gone. The higher tiers are not interested in Islam, they only have self-interests that are expressed in money. They die young guys. If you go there, you don't go back.
He voiced this rant in the hope of mitigation of punishment.
We were able to meet with one of the "sleepers" mentioned by Rasul. Rashid Nurbekov, by profession a carpenter and carpet fitter. He served in the Amur region in the internal troops. In 2014, after watching videos about the "good life of the Caliphate", he decided to go to Syria. Logistics in comparison with 2013 have changed. Now, "recruits" do not run the risk of flying directly from Istanbul to Makhachkala as to not get exposed. Someone went to Astrakhan, flew to Rostov and from there got on a plane to Syria. They then rode a bus through Azerbaijan and Georgia. Nurbekov flew from Mineralnye Vody.
But in Turkey, the scheme works as before without special suspicious plans, using the bus from Istanbul to Gaziantep on the border of Reyhanli. Then the journey continues by minibus across the border (documents are not even asked for). Meeting occurs in the town of Atma as well as distribution to the training camp.
- I Studied Islam, the Sharia and the tactics of fighting. - Nurbakov said sitting on the chair in handcuffs. Like all the "returnees", he is subject to criminal liability.
- After the camp, I was sent to Raqqa. There I was put into the group "Muhajirin", which was headed by a Chechen named Abu Musa. Fighting did not happen often, and when it did, it was mainly with units of the Free Syrian army. Once they captured 40 people very quickly.
- What happened to them?
- They were executed. Someone was shot, someone was beheaded.
- You participated in this?
- I shot two others. Heads were cut mostly by Chechens... There's a lot said about the need in Russia to wage Jihad. In the end they sent me home to create a subversive group. I had to come to Makhachkala and contact a man from Mosul. They'd received instructions from someone to keep in touch in Dagestan and had info for where to purchase weapons. But I was detained...
Dolce Vita is un-islamic
Today in Dagestan, 700 criminal cases for participation in illegal armed groups abroad were opened. But in reality, according to unofficial estimates, within the IS, five thousand Russians are involved, if you count only men. But many are traveling with families. Local security officials told us an exciting story about a woman who ran away from her husband with three children. On the territory of the "Islamic State," she married a Tajik-Mujahideen. The legal husband arrived in Syria and "showed" the spiritual leader of the group: "It's true! Our marriage according to Islamic laws is not terminated!" For the theologians, this was indeed a hitch. The abandoned husband took the kids, and his now ex-wife remained in Iraq with her Tajik. Should this case be approached using interpretations of Sharia, she could be stoned, but the Tajik was too high profile.
Arslanbek Gazilaliev, under investigation in Makhachkala, said that he went to war, and built a new life, taking with him his wife and children.
- I was touted via the Internet to work on a project, and was promised housing and a salary. But on arrival I was separated from my family and sent to a training camp. My wife and children lived in a shed with no heating, poor conditions that were unsanitary. We decided to leave under the pretext that we must be taken to a treatment family. In fact we ran out of there. Civilians and workers were not needed. They needed those who would sacrifice themselves for the sake of spreading the Caliphate.
- The bulk of those going there are going not to fight, but to live in the "Islamic state" under Sharia law - assures us another "returnee", Gadzhi Magomedov.
- It works something like this: you don't want to fight, but to live in pleasure. The Amir said he asked them: "why don't you want to do Jihad?" They have a nice car, two or three wives and two or three houses. He asks, "Why will you not fight?" They say, well, the fight has already been won, I will continue to live as I am!
Actually this is a key point during the recruitment. Earlier the emphasis was on the norms of Islam and the need to wage Jihad, but now the emphasis is shifted to the material side. The Internet is full of videos showing the beautiful life in the Caliphate - luxury villas, swimming pools, cool cars...
- Recruiters do not stop anything, - said the chief specialist of Department of Public Safety of Makhachkala, Magomed Abdurashidov. Their task is to get as many people as possible. And no one is exempt. My friend, the policeman, his son left for Syria. He says: "My son has disgraced the whole race, after fighting Wahhabis all his life, and he's there for what?" They are told that there, in Syria, a paradise exists. But in reality it turns out that you're alone there, you have no right to say 'no', and you work under someone else's will.
The path for "Jihad warriors" is blocked. In the IS, sooner or later death will come, and at home, they are waiting for this ending for a considerable period of time. Their homeland makes it clear: they don't need "warriors of Jihad" in any form. Even the disillusioned and repentant say it's cruel, but other people don't explain what the tickets to IS mean. There are no return tickets.
Instead Of An Epilogue - Unwanted Returnees
For ten years, the fight against Islamic extremism in the North Caucasus has seen all methods utilised, ranging from hard and soft punishments from the first persons of the republics, dialogue from the elders, amnesty of militants and "reverse tolerance". When one is caught and under suspicion, they are stopped, frisked and interrogated and held under arrest. There were religious debates, resulting in the closing of Wahhabi mosques. Still, with alarming regularity, the Caucasus is ablaze. The Imams teach killing and preach Salafism-Wahhabism in the twenty-first century, something the mosques can do without, the Internet itself has done enough damage.
Syria has become a real salvation for a secular North Caucasus, taking in the most ardent Wahhabis. Society, in fact, has rejected them. And local authorities sigh with relief: terrorist attacks in the Caucasus are less frequent. But Wahhabis do not lose hope to return home to continue the Jihad. When the story of ISIS is over, all the "dark forces" will cast a return of the militants to the Caucasus. The State Department, the EU, the UN, the Russian opposition and human rights defenders will put pressure on all fronts. They will return under any guise until public repentance. And here Russia will have to make a cruel and very hard choice.