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Did Riyadh, Grozny Fear Chechen Hajj Pilgrims Would Join IS?


Chechen pilgrims who visited Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj this month reported that the Saudi authorities had significantly tightened controls over them compared to last year. (file photo)

Chechen pilgrims who visited Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj this month reported that the Saudi authorities had significantly tightened controls over them compared to last year. (file photo)

Saudi Arabia stepped up security around pilgrims from Chechnya who travelled to that country to perform the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, according to Chechens who took part in this year's journey.

Chechens who visited Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj this month reported that the Saudi authorities had significantly tightened controls over them compared to last year, because they feared Chechens would travel to Syria and join militant groups like Islamic State (IS), the Caucasus Knot news outlet reported.

One Chechen pilgrim, who has traveled to Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj several times, said that this year there was notably heightened security around their group.

"There were plain-clothed Saudi security forces all over the place," the Chechen told Caucasus Knot. "Before departure our passports were not kept by our group leader, as usual, but by them. They only gave us our passports right before we boarded the plane, when we were already inside the airport. This never happened before. I know, because this year was my third time performing hajj."

The Chechen pilgrim suggested that the reason for the increased security measures was that last year, a member of the Chechen hajj tour party left the group and traveled to Syria, where he joined an armed militant group, likely the Islamic State group.

In 2013, Chechen pilgrims reported that a 20-year-old man from Chechnya's Shatoysky District had used the hajj as a way to reach Syria. The pilgrims also reported that a group of men from Daghestan had attempted to recruit members of their hajj group to join the fighting in Syria.

While the Saudis may have feared that Chechen pilgrims could use Saudi Arabia as a gateway to Syria, the Chechen authorities likely had the same concerns.

Some of the pilgrims said they believed the Chechen authorities might have requested that the Saudis keep close checks on their group, out of concern that Chechen pilgrims might try to travel on to Syria after completing the hajj.

It is not known exactly how many Chechens -- including Chechen nationals and ethnic Chechens from other states -- are fighting in Syria, but the numbers are likely to be in their hundreds.

Many of these militants are fighting with the Islamic State group, including in the Syrian town of Kobani. There are also unconfirmed reports that Chechen militants may be fighting with IS in Iraq.

ALSO READ: Did Riyadh, Grozny Fear Chechen Hajj Pilgrims Would Join IS?

In an attempt to combat the threat of blowback from Chechens and other citizens of the Russian Federation, Moscow toughened its antiterror law last year, imposing prison terms of up to six years on Russians who fight in armed conflicts abroad.

Earlier this month, the Chechen prosecutor's office announced that a 29-year-old Grozny man had been sentenced to three years in a penal colony for fighting in Syria. The indictment did not specify the name of the faction that the man, named as Rustam Kerimov, fought for, but there are signs that he was part of a Chechen faction linked to Umar Shishani and the Islamic State group. According to the indictment, Kerimov attended a training camp facilitated by a man named as Abu Ibrahim. Video footage released in April by Chechen militants close to Umar Shishani showed an ethnic Chechen named Abu Ibrahim Shishani running a training camp for Islamic State group militants. Although the Chechen faction linked to Abu Ibrahim and Umar Shishani did not formally join IS until December 2013, around the same time Kerimov left Syria, the group fought alongside IS in Aleppo province and had close ties to it.

-- 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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