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Why Did An Azerbaijani Wrestling Champion Join (And Die For) IS?


Rashad Bakhshaliev (circled) is reported to have joined IS in August after suddenly leaving Afghanistan for Syria, taking his family with him.

Rashad Bakhshaliev (circled) is reported to have joined IS in August after suddenly leaving Afghanistan for Syria, taking his family with him.

Azerbaijani media sources are reporting that a professional wrestler from Azerbaijan was killed while fighting for the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

The wrestler, Rashad Bakhshaliyev, is reported to have joined IS in August after suddenly leaving Azerbaijan for Syria, taking his wife and child with him.

Bakhshaliyev’s wife provided the information about his death in a telephone call from Syria, according to Azerbaijani news site Haqqin.az. She said the former wrestler was killed “several days ago” but did not give details about where he died.

The story of Bakhshaliyev’s move to Syria to join IS has been widely reported in Azerbaijan. Bakhshaliyev, from the Ismailli district in northern Azerbaijan, appeared to lead a successful life before his departure for Syria and IS.

He took gold at various wresting competitions in Azerbaijan and before leaving for Syria he worked as a freestyle wrestling coach in Ismailli’s Olympic complex.

In September, Bakhshaliyev called his mother, Mirvari Bakhshaliyeva, from Syria and told her that everything was fine.

“Everything’s good, don’t worry. I can’t call very often from here. Everything’s OK. I don’t have any problems,” he said, according to media reports.

However, Bakhshaliyev’s mother did worry. So much so that she asked Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, for help.

“For several days now I have had no news of my son. My heart is breaking. I don’t know what to do. I’m asking you for help. I just want to know that my son is alive and to hear his voice,” she was reported as saying.

Why did a seemingly successful young man from a close-knit family suddenly decide to travel to Syria and join IS?

No explanation has been offered. Even though Bakhshaliyev had steady employment, Mirvari Bakhshaliyeva says he joined IS because of poverty.

“My son went because of financial problems. I helped him however I could. But how long could that go on for?” she reportedly said.

Some Azerbaijani outlets reported that Bakhshaliyev received payment to fight for IS, although those reports are impossible to verify.

It is not known how many Azerbaijanis are fighting in Syria. Estimates in news reports have ranged from 200 to 300.

The largest group of Azerbaijani foreign fighters in Syria is likely fighting for Islamic State. In May, the leader of an Azerbaijani IS faction in Raqqa, Mohammad al-Azeri, gave a video address in which he stated that IS was on the “correct path of jihad” in Syria.

While it is not known where Bakhshaliyev was killed, the timing of his death suggests he may well have died in or near Kobani on Syria’s border with Turkey. It is known that Azerbaijanis are among those fighting with IS in Kobani. IS militants speaking Azerbaijani can be heard in recent footage that shows a group of IS gunmen just outside of Kobani.

Media sources in Azerbaijan are reporting that Kurdish militias in the besieged Syrian town of Kobani executed a young Azerbaijani man who had been fighting with the Islamic State (IS) group.

The report of the man’s execution seem to originate from the French AFP news agency, which reported that Cuneyt Hemo, a grocer who had escaped to Turkey from Kobani, had said the Azerbaijani man had begged to be killed so that he could “go to paradise and be rewarded.”

There are no additional details about the reported execution, and the Azerbaijani man’s identity is unknown.

-- 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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