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Who Are The Russian Nationals Fighting In Syria & Iraq?​


Many, if not most, of the Russian nationals fighting in Syria are believed to be from the North Caucasus. (file photo)

Many, if not most, of the Russian nationals fighting in Syria are believed to be from the North Caucasus. (file photo)

Last week, the head of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), Aleksandr Bortnikov, made a surprising announcement. The threat of the Islamic State (IS) group was of "such a serious nature" that the FSB deemed intelligence sharing with the United States "quite possible."

Bortnikov also told reporters at the Obama administration's antiextremism conference in Washington, D.C. that the FSB believes around 1,700 Russian nationals are currently fighting with militant groups in Syria and Iraq. The FSB chief's admission is a significant one when put into the context of the trend of playing down the number of Russian nationals fighting in Syria's armed civil conflict by others, particularly the pro-Moscow head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov.

The figure of 1,700 is also a large leap from Bortnikov's June 2013 estimate that some 200 Russians were fighting with militants in Syria.

Many, if not most, of the Russian nationals fighting in Syria are from the North Caucasus republics, a fact that has been long evident from tracking social media and other Internet resources. However, the Russian media has for the most part shied away from discussing the extent of the problem.

In the wake of Bortnikov's announcement of 1,700 Russians in Syria and Iraq, however, Russian news site Argumenty i Fakty (AIF) published an investigative article on February 24 regarding the profiles of the Russian nationals joining militant groups in the Middle East, and their motivations. The piece sheds light onto how Russian nationals, particularly from the North Caucasus, end up in Syria.

A law-enforcement official from the republic of Karachay-Cherkessia admitted to AIF that the phenomenon of residents of the republic joining militant groups in Syria has been going on for several years now.

"Most of those who go to Syria are young people aged under 30. The youngest person from our republic that has gone there was barely 17. His parents sent him to study in Egypt, and they recently found out that he was killed in Syria. It turned out that the lad studied for just a few months and then he was recruited. He went to Turkey from Egypt, crossed the border and went to fight," the unnamed law enforcement source said.

Social Exclusion Not A Factor

There have been several cases reported in the Russian media of young men from the North Caucasus who were recruited to fight in Syria after first studying in Egypt. Three of the cases involve men from the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. One of those men, a 22-year-old named Murat Nagoyev, was sentenced to four years in prison in November after returning to Kabardino-Balkaria.

Just as research from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union has shown, Islamic State recruiters are not just targeting socially disadvantaged youth.

Heda Saratova, the head of the non-profit information and analysis agency Objective, which is based in the Chechen capital of Grozny, told AIF that, while socially-disadvantaged youth are being recruited into the Islamic State group, so are seemingly successful men and women.

One hotspot for recruitment has been the socially-deprived Staropromyslovskiy District in Grozny, where living standards are low, Saratova said.

"However, just yesterday night, two grandmothers from Daghestan came to me for help: their 18-year-old granddaughter had gone [to Syria], a second-year medical student, who had never known failure -- her father is a civil servant; the family is well-to-do. So social wellbeing is not an indicator," Saratova added.

'Depressing'

According to AIF, human rights defenders in the North Caucasus say the situation regarding recruitment to Islamic State is "depressing."

One of those rights defenders is Oleg Melnikov, who leads Alternativa, a Russian youth NGO combating slave labor, which was involved in (unsuccessful) negotiations with the Syrian rebel group Liwa al-Tawhid over the release of Russian hostage Konstantin Zhuravlyov.

Melnikov told AIF about the case of an ethnic Russian from Kazakhstan, whose father asked Alternativa for help after the man's disappearance a year ago.

"The son went to study at a Moscow college, met a girl on the Internet, converted to Islam, changed his name, cut ties with his family and disappeared. His father came to the capital several times, talked to his former friends, and visited the mosque where his son had gone to pray. In the end he was told, 'Don't look for him here, he's long been in Syria.'," Melnikov told AIF.

Melnikov said that students and other young people are an easy target for extremist recruiters, who persuade them to join their pursuit of a "brighter future."

Melnikov's story of a young man who was recruited while in Moscow is not particularly unusual, though most reported cases of young people being radicalized and going to Syria after coming to the Russian capital involve labor migrants from Central Asia.

Hard To Return

Saratova told AIF that, while it is relatively easy for new Russian recruits to go to Syria -- all they have to do is travel to Turkey and cross the border -- it is hard for them to come back.

"They have their passports and means of communication confiscated, and 'traitors' are executed. Not everyone can get in touch with their relatives. But sometimes they manage to return. Sometimes the parents go in search of their sons. Each story is like a special operation. Our organization has [helped] return five people and a total of 27 have returned to [Chechnya]," Saratova said.

Saratova added that those who do return to Chechnya are subject to prosecution.

One recent case of a young Chechen man who returned from Syria after quickly becoming disillusioned with what had been sold to him as a "jihad" or holy war to save Muslims highlights the difficulties faced by returnees. Said Mazhayev managed to return to Chechnya after just two months in Syria. He went back home after he went to Turkey for treatment when he was wounded. Mazhayev, who appeared on national television to warn other Chechens not go to Syria, was sentenced in November to two years but was freed this month after the Chechen Supreme Court slashed his sentence to eight months.

It is uncertain whether the Chechen authorities will take a more lenient approach to returnees in the future, in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision on the Mazhayev case.

Regarding the issue of returnees facing prosecution, Saratova was clear about what she thought was the better option for those disillusioned with fighting in Syria.

"It's better, in any event, to be in prison here than be cannon fodder in Syria," Saratova told AIF.

-- 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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