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Russia Jails 'IS Militant' For 17 Years -- But Was He Really In IS?

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

The charges against Gadzhi Magomedov included fighting in an illegal group in Syria and trafficking weapons.

The charges against Gadzhi Magomedov included fighting in an illegal group in Syria and trafficking weapons.

"He served in [Islamic State] and threw rocks at police" is how Russian daily Kommersant described Gadzhi Magomedov, a Daghestani man sentenced to 17 years in a penal colony this week.

A court in Rostov-on-Don found Magomedov, 27, guilty of participating in a 2012 "mass disturbance" in Daghestan, fighting in an illegal group in Syria and trafficking weapons.

Magomedov admitted participating in the disturbance but denied the other charges. In fact, Magomedov claims never to have been in Syria at all.

That and other elements suggest that Magomedov's case might represent the latest instance of Russian officials deliberately positing an erroneous claim that a suspect who fought in Syria was with the militant group Islamic State (IS).

Just how strong is the evidence that Magomedov fought alongside IS in Syria?

Details of the prosecution's case suggest that, if Magomedov was indeed in Syria for just over two months with the group they allege him to have fought alongside, it is unlikely he could have been a formal member of IS.

Sabri's Jamaat

The prosecution alleges Magomedov was a member of Sabri's Jamaat (SJ), a Russian-speaking, predominantly Uzbek militant group.

A small group based in Aleppo province, SJ had been involved in the Syrian conflict since at least the first months of 2013: its first leader, Abdurahman, died in a March 2013 battle at Al-Duwaryrineh in Aleppo. The group was one of several groups involved in the July 2013 offensive to capture the Menagh Airbase in Aleppo.

Sabri's Jamaat pledged bay'ah, or allegiance, to IS in March 2014.

Kommersant, which published the most detailed account of the prosecution's allegations against Magomedov, said that the Daghestani had returned from Syria to Egypt in March 2014 -- at the same time that SJ pledged allegiance to IS's ethnic Chechen military commander, Umar Shishani.

But if the prosecution's case is true, and Magomedov did go to Syria and did fight alongside SJ -- both allegations he denies -- it is very unlikely that he pledged allegiance to IS.

The Prosecution's Case

The prosecution alleges Magomedov provided clothes and food to militants in Gimry in Daghestan.

In November 2012, Magomedov then took part in a "riot" in the village of Vremmeny in Untsukulsky district, when around 500 protesters blocked a road and demanded that police release three men detained on suspicion of weapons trafficking. When police tried to stop the protest, some protesters -- allegedly including Magomedov -- threw stones.

Magomedov, who worked as a muezzin in a local mosque, testified that he had been returning home from prayers on the morning of the protest, and joined the protesters.

The prosecution further alleges that, in January 2013, Magomedov returned to Egypt to study at Al-Azhar University, known as a highly influential source of Sunni jurisprudence.

Magomedov testified that he first went to Egypt in 2009 and that he returned there in 2013 after some time in Daghestan.

But he denied allegations that in January 2014 he left Egypt for Turkey and Syria.

According to the prosecution, when he arrived in Syria in January 2014, Magomedov met another Daghestani who took him to the city of Homs, then under government siege. A week later, Magomedov was taken to a base and introduced to a commander who taught him how to fire a Kalashnikov rifle.


Magomedov was allegedly taken to Kafr Hamra in northern Aleppo province, where he joined SJ and met its leader, Abu Usman. SJ then fought against Syrian government troops in Hama, where Magomedov allegedly spent two months guarding "IS checkpoints," though exact locations are not given.

IS -- or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), as it was then known -- did have a presence in some parts of Hama province during January and early February 2014. But IS was then embroiled in infighting with Syrian rebel groups, including Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate the Al-Nusra Front.

It is not impossible that SJ fought alongside IS in Hama province, but it is far more likely that the group was dispatched to fight alongside Nusra and other Syrian groups against government forces. Another Russian-speaking group, the then-Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, was also dispatched to Hama to fight alongside Syrian Islamist groups at that time.

That SJ fought alongside Nusra and not IS in Hama seems even more likely when the faction's next move is taken into account.

In the first week of February 2014, the group fought alongside Syrian Islamist groups including Nusra in a failed attempt to storm the Aleppo Central Prison (the group's new leader, Abdullah al-Toshkandi, was killed in that operation). IS was not involved in the prison offensive.

The prosecution argues that in March 2014 -- less than three months after Magomedov allegedly came to Syria -- he returned to Egypt.

Magomedov was detained in Alexandria in November 2014, after his foreign passport expired. He was deported to Russia and arrested. A search of his home a month later allegedly revealed detailed instructions for making explosives and ammunition. (Magomedov's defense said the search was undertaken without witnesses and Magomedov's fingerprints were not found on any of the confiscated weapons.)

Blame IS

Whether Magomedov really was in Syria will likely never be known. But this is not the first time that Russia has apparently deliberately made the erroneous claim that someone fighting in Syria was with IS.

Russia says that a Chechen national, Said Mazhayev, was the "first Russian to escape from IS" when he himself said he fought alongside a completely different group.

In Magomedov's case, the allegation he was an "IS militant" possibly reflects a lack of nuanced understanding of militant groups in Syria.

But the prosecution's reference to Islamic State is also part of Russia's strategy of deliberately labelling all groups fighting its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as "IS."

The strategy has been good for domestic counterterrorism narratives. Russia has used the "IS threat" to justify arrests of Muslims and labor migrants.

Labeling Magomedov -- a Salafist who was active in a local mosque and who studied in Egypt -- as "IS" helps Russia link the local militancy in Daghestan with dangerous foreign Islamists.

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