Fresh information gleaned from social-networking sites and former classmates and teachers has provided new insights regarding two Russian-speaking men accused of being Russian spies and purportedly shot execution-style in an Islamic State (IS) video.
One of the men, Zhanbolat Mamaev, is reportedly from Merki, in Kazakhstan. The second man, Sergei Ashimov, appears to be a Kazakhstan-born Russian convert to Islam who traveled to Syria in 2010.
On January 13, IS published the video showing the two men "confessing" to having been recruited by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) to spy on Russian-speaking militants in Syria and to provide information about an IS leader whose name is blanked out of the video footage.
The first man identifies himself as Zhanbolat Mamaev and says that he was born in 1976 and is from the Zhambyl region of Kazakhstan.
The second captive appears to be an ethnic Russian and identifies himself as Sergei Ashimov, who says he was born in 1984
The two men later appear to be shot by a young Kazakh boy.
The second man shown in the IS video, Zhanbolat Mamaev, said that he had been living in Istanbul and was sent to Syria by the FSB to gather information about Russian-speaking fighters.
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Radio Azattyk, spoke with a former classmate of Mamaev's, Mukhametzhan Muzaparov, who said that he studied with Mamaev at School No. 48 in the village of Oytal in Kazakhstan's Merki district.
Since the Mamaevs left the region years ago, Muzaparov said he had not heard from them.
"Since then, we don't know anything about them. I don't know where they moved to and whether they've got any relatives here still. He lived in the village of Bolshevik and went to our school. His dad was a Kazakh and his mother was a Karachay," Muzaparov told Radio Azattyk.
Radio Azattyk also spoke with Bakhit Alipbaeva, the deputy principal of School No. 48, where Mamaev reportedly studied as a child.
Alipbaeva said that Mamaev had attended the school until ninth grade, leaving before the 1991-92 school year. He was graded as a "two" -- meaning "unsatisfactory" -- in some subjects, she added.
Russian social-networking site Odnoklassniki also has a profile for a Zhanbolat Mamaev, which includes one photograph of a man who looks very similar to the man appearing in the IS video. The photograph was uploaded to the site on April 14, 2013, and shows the man with a young child. The profile gives Mamaev's date of birth as March 15 and says he is 38 years old and a resident of Merki-Karachaevsk in Kazakhstan.
The VKontakte social network has a profile of a man calling himself Seyfullakh Mamaev, who looks very similar to the Zhanbolat Mamaev appearing in the Odnoklassniki profile and the IS video.
It is a very common practice for Russian-speakers to adopt an Islamic given name to replace their previous secular given name when joining groups like Islamic State.
The VKontakte profile says that Mamaev studied at School No. 48 in Oytal, Kazakhstan. There is one photograph of Mamaev, again with a child, on the profile, which also includes links to two Islamic State nasheeds, or Islamic vocal music. The profile was last updated on April 11, 2014 and last accessed on October 8, 2014, apparently from Merki in Kazakhstan.
Russian social-networking website Odnoklassniki has a profile of a man named Sergei Ashimov. The profile, which was last updated on August 9, 2011, contains numerous photographs of a man who appears extremely similar to the man identifying himself as Sergei Ashimov in the IS video. Ashimov's profile says that he was born on March 30, though it does not give a year, and gives his place of residence as Kazan in Russia.
Some of the photos and their captions indicate that Ashimov visited Syria in 2010.
Another photograph -- undated but uploaded in July 2011 -- shows Ashimov in Turkey with a young man. The photo caption says the young man with Ashimov is from Denmark.
The photographs also reveal that Ashimov undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca sometime before July 2011.
Russian newspaper Kommersant offers some additional information about Ashimov, based on social networks and sources who asked to remain anonymous.
The sources -- whose anonymity means that their information cannot be independently verified -- told Kommersant that Ashimov was born on March 30, 1984, in Karaganda in Kazakhstan. An orphan, Ashimov was raised in an orphanage and then a boarding school. He then trained as a driver and mechanic (Ashimov's photographs on Odnoklassniki include several images of long-haul trucks, which Ashimov says he likes). Less than a decade ago, Ashimov moved to Kazan in Russia, according to the source, and obtained Russian citizenship.
The source said that Ashimov wanted to go to Moscow State University and also considered an acting career or attending the FSB Academy. In reality, however, the source told Kommersant that Ashimov got a job as a janitor. A year later, he resigned and started selling perfumes.
Kommersant's source said that Ashimov described himself as a Russian convert to Islam. In 2010, he traveled to Mecca and a year later he undertook the full Hajj pilgrimage.
Ashimov disappeared a year ago, according to one of his friends, who said that his wife did not know of his whereabouts.
Signs Of Torture?
In the IS video, it is noticeable that Ashimov twitches and blinks a great deal during his "confession." The head of the Russian NGO the Committee Against Torture told Kommersant that the twitching may be a sign that Ashimov had been tortured or beaten. However, Kommersant also noted the comments of a friend of Ashimov's who said that Ashimov was known to blink a lot when he was excited.
Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (NSC) intelligence agency has denied that the two men appearing in the IS video are Kazakh citizens. In a press release issued via its website on January 15, the NSC said it had carried out "necessary checks" on the video.
"It has been established that the individuals shown in the video are not citizens of Kazakhstan," the NSC said.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk