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Five Uzbeks Killed Fighting In Syria Had Been Labor Migrants In Russia


Five Uzbek nationals reported killed fighting alongside militants in Syria in February had been labor migrants in Russia, according to a report by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Radio Ozodi.

Three of the Uzbek militants killed in Syria were from the Beshariq district of Fergana Province, while two had come from the Bekabad district in Tashkent Province.

In what has emerged as a common pattern among Central Asians reported as having gone to fight alongside the Islamic State group and other militant factions in Syria, the five Uzbek militants had worked in Russia before going to Syria, according to Radio Ozodi.

The profiles of the young men who went to fight and die in Syria belies the stereotype that Central Asian jihadis are un- or under-educated, very religious youths.

One of the men, "Mahmoud" (not his real name) from Bekabad district, was a 21-year-old college graduate. Despite his education, he went to Moscow as a labor migrant with his mother. Mahmoud was reported missing on December 13, 2013.

Mahmoud's family said that nothing about the young college graduate's behavior before his disappearance had aroused their suspicions. He had lived with his mother and brother in an apartment in the Moscow region, where he worked. When they did not hear from him, his relatives reported the disappearance to the Russian law-enforcement authorities and began to search for him.

The Russian authorities said that Mahmoud had left Russia for Ukraine, but that his movements after that were unknown.

On February 12, Mahmoud's relatives received a message from a stranger via the WhatsApp mobile messaging app. The stranger, whose WhatsApp avatar showed a black Islamic State flag, a Koran, a rifle and grenades, sent a photograph of Mahmoud and another man from the same mahalla (an urban administrative division in Uzbekistan). A voice message accompanying the photograph said that the two young men in the picture had "become martyrs in Syria."

"Probably they are in paradise now," the message said.

The message, which had been sent from a Russian number, did not say where and when the two young men had been killed.

Mahmoud's family tried to call the sender of the message, but his cellphone was switched off. They were afraid to send a text message to the number, because they thought that the man who informed them of Mahmoud's death was also in Syria.

Mahmoud's relatives said that it had not been possible for the young man, who had worked up to 12 hours a day, to find time to visit a mosque or take part in meetings with extremists. Instead, the young man had spent most of his free time on the Internet. On the Russian social-networking site Odnoklassniki, Mahmoud had apparently come into contact with others from Bekabad and become interested in radical Islam.

According to Radio Ozodi, Mahmoud's page on Odnoklassniki showed that at first, the young man appeared interested in sports, bodybuilding, and meeting women. Suddenly, however, it seemed as if he began to express solidarity with Syrian Muslims.

One of his last entries in Odnoklassniki is a message stating that, "My death is in the hands of Allah. There is no place for fear."

How did a young college graduate become influenced by radical Islam so quickly and to such a degree that he was willing to travel to Syria and die fighting alongside the Islamic State group?

Mahmoud's story does not hold any answers to that question, but others in Uzbekistan have related how their relatives, too, have fallen under the influence of the Islamic State group's ideology of "jihad" and martyrdom.

One Uzbek resident told Radio Ozodi that his sister had traveled to join the Islamic State group in Syria together with her husband and children. Last year, the couple's 15-year-old daughter was married off to a militant in Syria, and in December the husband was killed in clashes.

"My sister told us about that with such joy, that we were shocked," the Uzbek man said.

It is not known how many Uzbeks, both from Uzbekistan and ethnic Uzbeks from elsewhere in the region, are fighting in Syria. A recent report by the International Crisis Group estimated that between 2,000-4,000 citizens of Central Asian countries are fighting with the Islamic State group and other militant groups in Syria.

There are a number of Uzbek-led or predominantly Uzbek factions fighting in Syria, not just in the Islamic State group.

The largest Uzbek militant group in Syria outside of the Islamic State, the Imam Bukhari jamaat, pledged allegiance to the Afghan Taliban last year. Seyfullakh Shishani's Jamaat, the predominantly Russian-speaking faction in Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, is led by an ethnic Uzbek named Abu Ubayda al-Madani.

-- 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

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