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Reporting On Militants, Abroad And At Home

With the number of foreigners in the ranks of Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq now estimated in the thousands, countries around the world are grappling with how to prevent more members of their Muslim communities from joining the militant group.

RFE/RL journalists have in some cases been the first to report on recruits from their countries traveling to Syria and Iraq to fight. Their coverage has exposed the trend to their governments, some of which have passed legislation aimed at dissuading would-be militants from fighting abroad. And by meeting the families left behind, RFE/RL reporters have put a human face on a story that might otherwise be reported only as a security threat.

RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Radio Ozodi, was the first media outlet to report on Tajik nationals fighting in Syria and Iraq. The service was able to get to the story first by virtue of the fact that, unlike most Tajik media, Radio Ozodi has a correspondent in the Sughd province, the remote region of the country where the young men were recruited.

As Service Director Sojida Djakhfarova explains, in March a Radio Ozodi correspondent in the region had spoken with a local prosecutor and religious leaders who suggested that extremists were recruiting fighters in the area. Ozodi journalists scoured militant propaganda websites and found a photo of a man purportedly fighting in Syria with a Tajik name. The correspondent tracked down the man’s family, going door to door with the photo until she found them.

“After we began reporting on this, the Interior Minister announced publicly that Tajiks were fighting in Syria. His statement reflected our reports almost verbatim, showing he had taken most of his information from us,” said Djakhfarova.

Map of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria: Where do they come from? by Li Liu

Map of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria: Where do they come from? by Li Liu

In August, Tajikistan passed a law penalizing citizens who go abroad to fight in armed conflicts and those who recruit them with up to 20 years in prison. At the same time, the law offers those who have gone abroad with the intention of fighting, but who have not yet committed a crime, an amnesty to return home. Djakhfarova says officials have also partnered with local clerics to counsel parents in protecting their children from the influence of extremist groups.

Most recently, Ozodi spoke to religious leaders and parents in one village about the scrutiny their community is under after allegations surfaced that a number of their inhabitants left to wage holy war in Syria and Iraq.

WATCH: RFE/RL's Georgian Service interviews a man from the restive Pankisi Gorge region who claims to know many locals who have gone to fight in Syria.

Whenever possible, RFE/RL journalists have sought to speak with the families of those who have joined militants abroad. Such background is an important layer in a complex story, and can provide information to help other families with a relative who might be enticed to take up arms.

In September, RFE/RL’s Kazakh service obtained an exclusive interview with Mukhambetkali Danikhanov, who traveled to Iraq to find his son, who has been on Kazakh authorities’ wanted list since January 14.

“They have good living conditions and money to buy food and clothes. They drive brand-new Toyotas… And they only think about war," said Danikhanov, describing the life of Kazakhs fighting alongside foreign militants in Iraq.

Radio Azattyq, as the service in known locally, began reporting on the recruitment of foreign fighters nearly a year ago, when an October 13, 2013 YouTube video claimed to show a “family” of 150 Kazakhs--men, women, and children--preparing for jihad in Syria. Azattyq was able to identify several people in the video, find their families, and visit their homes, usually in villages located in isolated, industrial parts of the country.

Danikhanov told Azattyq his son first fought in Syria before moving to Iraq, and that he met several other Kazakh fighters while visiting his son.

"I don't know where they get their money from. I'm an outsider to them. It's their internal matter," Danikhanov said. "They don't talk too much."

He added, "It's no secret that many of the Kazakhs have died there, I saw their photos."

Following Azattyq’s coverage, Kazakh officials, including from the general prosecutor’s office, publicly acknowledged that Kazakh citizens were fighting with militant groups abroad. The reports were widely covered in Kazakh media and sparked discussion on Kazakh language web forums; many parents have appealed to Kazakh authorities to facilitate the return of their children. Radio Azattyq’s Almaty bureau chief was recently invited as a guest on a local TV channel to discuss the service’s coverage.

In Kosovo, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service met with Pranvera Abazi, whose husband went to Syria to join Islamic State militants without her knowledge, taking along their 8-year-old son.

Abazi described her horror at finding out by text message that her son was in Syria, when she believed his father had taken him on a weekend trip to a popular gorge in Kosovo.

Kosovo--Pranvera Abazi, mother of 8-year-old Erion, who was taken by his father to Syria without her permission.

Kosovo--Pranvera Abazi, mother of 8-year-old Erion, who was taken by his father to Syria without her permission.

“This was a very difficult line for our reporter to walk,” said Balkan Service Director Gordana Knezevic. “We needed to tell the story, but we were concerned about the boy’s safety--what the father might do when he saw it. So we had to be very careful.”

Speaking to RFE/RL, the former president of the Islamic Community of Kosovo Xhabir Hamiti implored Kosovar youth to reject extremist ideology and not to join militants abroad.

“We are calling on all the families and all the people who might be persuaded by different tutors to go to war, not to go there and not to be a part of that conflict, which has become a global concern, " he said.

--Emily Thompson