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How A Kazakh Soccer Enthusiast Died In An Anti-IS Air Strike

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

Talghat Toreev joined the Islamic State after a promising soccer career ended and problems finding a job. (file photo)

Talghat Toreev joined the Islamic State after a promising soccer career ended and problems finding a job. (file photo)

On May 12, Ainash Toreeva got a WhatsApp message from her daughter-in-law, Maria.

It was the first time Ainash, a 46-year-old widow from Zhuldys, a residential complex on the outskirts of Oral in northwestern Kazakhstan, had heard from Maria in nearly two years.

Back in July 2013, Ainash's 27-year-old son, Talghat, walked out of the family home, taking his wife Maria and their baby daughter Sofia with him. Later that year, the Kazakh National Security Committee (NSC) informed Ainash that Talghat was in Syria.

Maria's message dashed Ainash's hopes that Talghat would come home. Talghat was dead, Maria wrote, killed when the car he was in was hit by an air strike.

What made Talghat Toreev take his family to Syria and join IS?

Ainash told RFE/RL's Kazakh service, Radio Azattyq, that her son had become depressed after his promising soccer career ended. He had problems with employment, too. Ainash also blamed the NSC, saying they had failed to prevent Talghat from leaving Kazakhstan.

From Football To Fanaticism

Growing up, football had been Talghat's life. As a teenager, he showed promise and was selected for the FC Uralsk Zhastar club.

In 2005, he was accepted into the West Kazakhstan Agro-Technical University to study mechanical engineering. When combining soccer and studying proved too much, Talghat dropped out of school.

But Talghat's dreams of becoming a premier league player were dashed in 2009, when he failed to pass a trial in Turkey.

"Talghat faded immediately," his mother recalls. "He tried to work in various sectors, like trade and oil and gas, but he never stayed long anywhere."

Then, Talghat found religion, telling his mother that he was going to start praying. He lived with Ainash in a rented apartment but spent less and less time at home and more and more time in the mosque. He grew a beard and refused to eat home-cooked food, telling his mother she was "unclean" because she did not pray.

'On The Right Path'

Alarmed, Ainash went to the local imam for help. Then she went to the Department of Religious Affairs, who talked to Talghat and told his mother not to worry, he was "on the right path."

Finally, Ainash went to the NSC, where officers interviewed her and said they would check on Talghat. But if they did, they failed to tell his mother about his radicalization.

Talghat married Maria in 2011. The couple was strictly religious. When Maria went outside, she wore a head scarf and even a medical mask. Talgat refused to let house guests talk to Maria, insisting that his wife sit in a different room with baby Sofia when people visited.

Then Talghat, Maria, and baby Sofia went to Syria.

After Talghat left, Ainash says she heard nothing for five months. Then she got a WhatsApp message from Maria, who said the family was in Turkey. The next message came on January 20, 2014, when Maria said the family had crossed into Syria.

"If the NSC even hinted that my son could go there, I'd have done everything possible to stop him leaving the country," says Ainash. "None of the government representatives were able to help me. The NSC knows who's going to go [to Syria]. Why don't they prevent such things?"

Ainash says she has heard nothing from Maria since the message informing her of Talghat's death. But she prays every day that her Maria and Sofia will come home.

The NSC refused to confirm or deny to Radio Azattyq the reports of Talghat's death or provide information about the fate of Maria or Sofia.

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