Accessibility links

'We Were Conned,' Chechens Who Fought With IS Tell Russian Media


The main themes expressed by the interviewees are that they were conned by fake videos claiming to show that the Syrian government was killing Sunni Muslim women and children; that the fighting in Syria was not really "jihad"; and that the IS group is recruiting militants to fight for its own financial and political interests.

The main themes expressed by the interviewees are that they were conned by fake videos claiming to show that the Syrian government was killing Sunni Muslim women and children; that the fighting in Syria was not really "jihad"; and that the IS group is recruiting militants to fight for its own financial and political interests.

Two Chechens who say they fought with the Islamic State (IS) group have expressed negative attitudes about the militants and say they regret their decisions to go to Syria, according to interviews published by Russian state media.

It's not clear from the reports whether the two Chechen returnees are standing trial on charges of participating in the fighting in Syria and if so whether they chose to express regret and remorse about their decisions in order to attempt to mitigate the court's decision about punishment.

There has been at least one case in Chechnya of a Chechen man, Said Mazhayev, who returned home after fighting in Syria and appeared on national television in order to appeal to young Chechens not to make the same mistake he had and go to Syria. Mazhayev, who was given a two-year prison sentence in November, said that he had made his television appeal to tell young Chechens "what was really happening in Syria."

Regardless of the reason why these young Chechens chose to talk about their experiences in Syria, their stories and attitudes -- at least as presented in the Russian media -- share similarities to those expressed by Mazhayev. It is likely that these interviews are intended as cautionary tales designed to deter young Russian-speaking Muslims who may be considering joining the "jihad" in Syria.

The main themes expressed by the interviewees are that they were conned by fake videos claiming to show that the Syrian government was killing Sunni Muslim women and children; that the fighting in Syria was not really "jihad"; and that the IS group is recruiting militants to fight for its own financial and political interests.

The interviews conflate the IS group with other militant groups in Syria, specifically the Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, the Syrian branch of the North Caucasus-based militant group the Caucasus Emirate.

Both interviews also include an anti-American spin, with the accusation that the United States is either sponsoring propaganda or engaged in double-dealing with militant groups in Syria.

According to RIA Novosti, which said that the Russia Today outlet had carried out the interviews, one of the Chechen men, named as Magomed S., said that he traveled to Syria to fight in the summer of 2014. He was motivated by a video he saw about the "situation in Syria," RIA reported.

The 25-year-old says that he "stumbled on" the video on the Internet. The footage showed women and children being abused, he explains. "It wasn't possible to remain indifferent to their pain and tears. I thought, my family has a good life, they are not starving, they are not freezing, they are shod and clothed. And I decided to help those who needed it most," he says.

Magomed S. told his family that he was going to study in Egypt, but instead he went to Syria.

According to RIA, Magomed S. decided to return home to Chechnya after a few months in Syria. The news agency said Magomed's decision came after he realized that "what he had seen in the video bore no resemblance to reality."

"Of course, there are those who are fighting for faith, for an idea, but you can't call it a holy war. Cutting throats in front of a camera isn't jihad. And in my five months there I did not see any suffering women or starving kids. And there were many people who thought as I did, that it was all true, and that's why they went there, having left their homes," RIA quotes Magomed S. as saying.

Magomed S. also insists that he did not take part in any fighting during his time in Syria, a claim that has been made by Chechens who have stood trial on charges of fighting in Syria. According to Magomed S., he spent all his time in a training base and received $50 per month.

The Chechen returnee also makes a point of mentioning that the IS group was not all it seemed to be. "I heard that while fighting against America, the Islamic State [group] also sells them oil. No one should die for someone else's interests and money," Magomed S. insists.

While Magomed S. says he fought for the IS group, RIA includes an interview with another Chechen returnee, 22-year-old Ahmed B., who says he fought with the "Caucasus Emirate" in Syria -- in other words, the Chechen-led faction Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), which calls itself the Syrian branch of the Caucasus Emirate and is therefore a particular concern to Russia.

Ahmed B. says he was radicalized online and shown videos that convinced him that the "Syrian government was attacking the local population."

In July 2014, Ahmed B. left his wife and baby and went to Turkey, RIA says. Once in Syria, Ahmed B. claims that he realized right away that he should leave, and that he had been mistaken about events in Syria.

"Practically right away I figured that I should get out of there, but I couldn't find a way. Nothing was as I'd imagined it when I went there. You couldn't tell who was fighting who and most importantly for what," Ahmed B. says.

Ahmed B. tells the same story about JMA as Magomed S. did about the IS group: that the young wannabe jihadis were just pawns in a political game. "We were goods. We were just set up to serve their interests. They earned money for us, to put it bluntly," Ahmed B. says.

Just as Magomed S. suggests that the United States is engaged in shady dealings with the IS group, Ahmed B. suggests that the Americans are somehow sponsoring the propaganda videos that were used to recruit him to JMA.

"On the videos, which were apparently sent by American sponsors, it seemed that people are being killed just because they are Muslims. We want to protect our religion but we saw something that doesn't have anything to do with it," Ahmed B. says.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

Show comments

XS
SM
MD
LG