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Chechen Man Gets Two Years For Fighting With 'Free Syrian Army'

Fighters from the Islamic State group gesture as they take part in a military parade on the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province in June.

Fighters from the Islamic State group gesture as they take part in a military parade on the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province in June.

A court in Grozny on November 10 sentenced a local man to two years' imprisonment in a penal colony for fighting in Syria.

Said Mazhaev, a 22-year-old Grozny native, went to Syria in November 2013. He returned home to Chechnya on January 14, when he was arrested.

The story of Mazhaev’s brief sojourn among militants in Syria is a strange one.

In the first place, the indictment says that Mazhaev fought for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is highly unlikely to have been the case. The FSA is a loosely defined umbrella term for locally based Syrian armed opposition groups and is not a foreign fighter faction. That the term "Free Syrian Army" was used is likely to be a political move on behalf of the Chechen Republic, which -- like Moscow -- considers all of the armed Syrian opposition including the relatively moderate, Western-backed Free Syrian Army to be illegal terrorist groups.

If Mazhaev really did fight with the FSA, he would be the first Russian-speaking militant known to have done so.

It is far more likely that Mazhaev, who apparently went to Syria via Turkey, fell in with other Chechens in Syria. In November 2013, when he traveled there, that would almost certainly have meant Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, at the time under the leadership of Umar Shishani.

Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar is linked to the militant Islamic jihadi group Caucasus Emirate, which calls for the violent overthrow of the Chechen leadership and the establishment of an Islamic state in its stead. It is unlikely that the Chechen leadership would want to advertise that young Chechens are going to Syria to fight in a group that has any connection with the Caucasus Emirate.

In October, a relative of Mazhaev told the Caucasian Knot outlet that the young Chechen man had "really gone to Syria, believing that there he would defend Muslims against annihilation by the Assadites [forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad], but having spent several weeks there he understood that he was mistaken about jihad in that country. After that he moved back to Turkey and contacted his family, who helped him go back," the relative said.

Had Mazhaev been with Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar from November 2013-January 2014, it is not unlikely that he could have become disillusioned with "jihad," because that is the time when Umar Shishani moved with a group of his men to join Islamic State, a decision that caused upheaval and a bitter split among North Caucasian militants in Syria.

Although the penalty under Russian law for fighting in an antigovernment force abroad is five to 10 years' imprisonment, Mazhaev's relatives said on November 10 that they were surprised that the court sentenced the young man to two years in prison, because he admitted the charges against him.

Mazhaev had even spoken out on Chechen television and appealed to young people not to make the same mistake as he did, and told them "what was really happening in Syria," his relative said.

-- 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