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'The First Russian To Escape From IS' Didn't Actually Fight For IS

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

Said Mazhayev (right), a Chechen who returned home purportedly after six months fighting in Syria and was touted in Russian media as a repentant former Islamic State (IS) militant, shown with a Chechen mufti.

Said Mazhayev (right), a Chechen who returned home purportedly after six months fighting in Syria and was touted in Russian media as a repentant former Islamic State (IS) militant, shown with a Chechen mufti.

Said Mazhayev, a Chechen who returned home after six months fighting in Syria, has been touted in the Russian press as a repentant former Islamic State (IS) militant and expert on the extremist group.

The man labeled the "first Russian to escape from IS" has appeared numerous times on Chechen television and given numerous interviews to the Russian media.

Mazhayev has also toured schools and mosques in Chechnya, warning young people of the dangers that await those who join and fight alongside IS.

The only problem? Mazhayev didn't actually fight alongside IS.

His story and its manipulation by the Chechen authorities and the Russian media offer fascinating insights into Russian attitudes toward IS, Syria -- and the domestic insurgency in the North Caucasus.

IS? JMA?

Mazhayev, now 23, spent around six months in Syria, from July through November 2013, when he went to Turkey. He returned to Grozny in February 2014 after turning himself in.

Sentenced to two years in a penal colony in November, Mazhayev was suddenly -- and unexpectedly -- released in February.

Electronically tagged and allowed to travel only within certain parts of Grozny, Mazhayev, it seemed, was not free to do exactly as he pleased. Instead, he has been used by the authorities as a cautionary tale, to warn others of what really awaits those who join IS.

But, although he has been labeled in the media a "former IS militant" who "escaped IS," even Mazhayev himself insists that he did not fight alongside that group.

Instead, he says that he was part of the Caucasus Emirate, the North Caucasus' homegrown Islamist militant group, which has an affiliate in Syria -- something Russia was reluctant to admit publicly.

Mazhayev says he was a member of the then-Chechen-led group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), a large contingent of which was loyal to the Caucasus Emirate.

Sources in Syria who say they know Mazhayev also told RFE/RL that the Chechen fought alongside JMA.

When Mazhayev was in Syria, JMA was led by Tarkhan Batirashvili (a.k.a. Umar Shishani), a Kist from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. Batirashvili was increasingly involved with Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which would later become the IS group.

But JMA always remained a separate jamaat (fighting group) as Mazhayev testifies in media interviews.

"Specifically, I was not part of IS," he told the Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP) in June. (Regardless, KP titled its interview with Mazhauyev "The Escapee From IS.")

Batirashvili did not leave JMA for IS until around November 2013, the same month when Mazhayev was allowed to leave Syria for medical treatment in Turkey.

The Chechen therefore left JMA and Syria as the group was splitting in two, with Batirashvili's men going over to IS and those loyal to the Caucasus Emirate remaining behind under the leadership of another Kist, Feyzulla Margoshvili (a.k.a. Salakhuddin Shishani).

Why Label Mazhayev An IS Militant?

When Mazhayev was released from prison in February, the authorities -- and, in turn, the Russian media -- made changes to details of his story.

At first, prosecutors did not even mention IS in connection with Mazhayev.

Initial media reports of Mazhayev's sentencing in November quoted prosecutors as saying he fought alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Western-backed, moderate Syrian umbrella group fighting against the Syrian government.

The prosecution's reference to the FSA likely did not reflect a lack of understanding of rebel groups in Syria.

Rather, it was a wholly political move on behalf of the Chechen authorities.

It followed the Kremlin's strategy of lumping together all those fighting against Russia's ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the FSA and labeling all rebel groups as foreign-backed Islamists.

But with the rise of the IS group, and the flood of foreign fighters joining its ranks -- including more and more from the Russian Federation -- Moscow shifted its narrative on Syria. In its new strategy, Russia began labeling all rebels "IS" and accusing the West, in particular the United States, of helping give rise to the extremists.

The strategy helped set the stage for Moscow to put out its current narrative that the West should back Assad against IS.

It was also good for domestic counterterror narratives. Russia and the Kremlin-backed leaders in Chechnya use the IS threat as a convenient bogeyman in a strategy that allows them to blame foreign Islamists for local militancy in the North Caucasus.

And labeling Mazhayev as an IS militant provides the Chechen and Russian authorities with a convenient "poster child" for that narrative by portraying him as a Russian national who was recruited by, fought alongside, and then renounced IS and militant Islam.

Even if he didn't.

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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