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North Caucasus Men In Syria Face Different Fates On Russia Return

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

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

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

The Russian media published two very different reports this week about Russian citizens who returned home allegedly after fighting alongside the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.

Interfax reported that a military court sentenced a Kabardino-Balkaria man to 14 years in prison for terror offenses.

Akhmat Ulbashev spent three weeks in an "IS training camp" in Syria in November 2013 before returning home to join a militant group, the report said.

Meanwhile, LifeNews reported that Russian intelligence helped a 27-year-old Chechen father of three, Magomed Shamayev, escape from IS in Syria, where he had spent eight months.

Shamayev was not prosecuted.

Crackdown On Domestic Terrorism

Why did the Russian authorities take such vastly different approaches when dealing with Ulbashev and Shamayev?

And why has LifeNews, which has close ties to the Russian intelligence services, devoted so much space to telling the story of Shamayev's rejection of IS and his escape from Syria?

The answer lies not in the length of time the two defendants spent in Syria, or which group they joined there. What's relevant is what they did when they came back home.

Ulbashev's lengthy prison sentence is part of Russia's drive to crack down hard on the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus.

The key allegations in his case were that he had made two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) for "the local militant group" and stored two pistols, two grenades, and IED components at home. He had also allegedly passed ammunition to a second defendant, Zafir Miziyev. (Both pleaded not guilty.)

The claim that Ulbashev spent three weeks in November 2013 in Syria at an "IS training camp" is pertinent only because it allows the court to blame foreign militants for his radicalization.

Prosecutors alleged that, returning home after three weeks in Syria, Ulbashev joined "the United Wilayats of Kabardi, Balkari, and Karachai" group. But that is just another name for the Kabardino-Balkaria branch of the North Caucasus Islamist insurgent group, the Caucasus Emirate.

If Ulbashev was loyal to the Caucasus Emirate, it's unlikely that he was involved with IS in Syria.

Almost certainly he would have joined Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), then a Russian-speaking militant group led by Tarkhan Batirashvili (Umar al-Shishani). But in November 2013, Batirashvili formally joined IS, a move that angered militants loyal to the Caucasus Emirate and which could have prompted Ulbashev to take the unusual step of returning home.

The 'Prodigal Militant'

Shamayev's case uses the "IS threat" to tell a different story -- that of the "prodigal militant," a young man who goes to Syria, realizes the error of his ways and escapes -- and then turns himself in.

Once back home, he is mercifully pardoned by the authorities and joins the fight against radicalization by telling young people in the North Caucasus about the reality of life with IS.

Another young man, Said Mazhayev, has been used to tell a similar story.

But Shamayev's case takes things even further by giving a prominent role to the Russian security services.

If we are to believe LifeNews, the long arm of Russian intelligence reaches as far as IS-controlled Syria, where it assists those who want to renounce their ties to the militants.

When Shamayev's mother asked them for help, "security officials contacted their colleagues who work outside Russia, and they helped Magomed escape from the IS base and cross the Syria-Turkey border," LifeNews writes.

Russian agents also helped Shamayev escape arrest in Turkey and obtain personal documents taken from him when he crossed into Syria. Having reached home, Shamayev was not prosecuted because he "recognized his mistake and voluntarily left the ranks of the terror group," LifeNews says.

But some parts of Shamayev's story do not add up.

In a second story, LifeNews claims that Shamayev did not see any action in Syria, because he was only there for eight months. "Recruits are not sent to the front lines because they have to earn trust and convince the leaders of their loyalty," LifeNews writes.

The implication is that Shamayev could not have been involved in actual fighting against Syrian government forces (fighting abroad in an illegal armed group is an offense under Russian law). Neither could he have been involved in any other violence.

LifeNews' claim does not fit with testimony from a number of IS militants who have put on record that, after a short period of training, new recruits are sent to the front lines -- where they often die.

And Shamayev's claim that IS forbids its recruits access to phones or other means of communication does not accord with evidence from other new IS militants.

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