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Radicalized In Moscow, Killed In Syria: The Story Of An IS Sniper

One of the last known photos of Abu Zarr al-Ingushi -- an Islamic State militant from the North Caucasus who was killed by a U.S. air strike in Syria.

The photo shows a bearded militant in military fatigues and a black woolen hat. He squints into the sun, smiling shyly as he holds a large sniper rifle. A pick-up truck painted in camouflage colors is in the background. The photo was taken in Syria.

In a second snap, the militant is pictured in front of a children's playground in Iraq. He has taken off his woolen hat and is holding it in his hand instead of the sniper rifle. A giant plastic palm tree and a giraffe ride are in the background, incongruous next to the man's camouflage jacket.

This was the last time the militant was photographed alive. Abu Zarr al-Ingushi, an ethnic Ingush from Russia's Northern Caucasus region who fought with the Islamic State (IS) group's main Chechen-led faction, Katibat al-Aqsa (KAA), was killed in a U.S.-led air strike in March.

"He was my very best friend, Abu Zarr al-Ingushi the Magnificent, a martyr, inshallah [God willing]!" a eulogy accompanying the photos reads.

The man who claimed to be Abu Zarr's best friend is a Chechen militant who goes under the name Khamsa Abu Usman. In his eulogy to Abu Zarr -- which has been widely shared this week on the Russian social networking forum VKontakte -- Abu Usman describes how he met the young Ingush in Moscow, radicalized him, and persuaded him to come to Syria and join IS.

The eulogy sheds light on how North Caucasus men are recruited by IS, in particular how the recruiters themselves operate, the tactics they use, and how they perceive themselves and their activities.

Abu Usman describes how he met Abu Zarr in Moscow.

"I got to know him in Moscow, when he was studying at an institute, he was a quiet and modest brother, he didn't say superfluous words," Abu Usman writes.

Radicalizing Preacher

According to Abu Usman's account, Abu Zarr was already an observant Muslim when the two men met in the Russian capital.

Abu Usman describes his own role in Moscow as being that of a radicalizing preacher who targeted those who were already practicing Muslims. He says he started off talking about the correct way to practice Islam, and then introduced other matters, including praising militants.

"I loved [Abu Zarr] for Allah's sake because he adhered to the religion and was zealous in his worship. And being in Moscow, I undertook daw'ah [preaching] to the brothers, I called for the correct aqidah [creed] and more and more I talked about the taghut [idolators] of the present day, and at the same time I praised the mujahedin [jihadist fighters] and I talked about their dignity," Abu Usman writes.

After preaching like this for some time, Abu Usman describes how he tried to recruit Abu Zarr to IS.

At first, Abu Usman probed Abu Zarr about his plans for the summer, but seeing that Abu Zarr was not interested in going to Syria, he did not push the matter with him.

"One day, I was talking to the brothers about hijra [emigration] to the caliphate [IS's name for the lands under its control], and Abu Zarr came along and I asked him about his plans for the summer. He replied that he wanted to buy a car and that he had saved enough money, and I thought that he was a long way from a conversation about hijra so I didn't continue but changed the subject," Abu Usman says.

Seed Of 'Jihad'

But the seed of "jihad" must have been sown in Abu Zarr's mind because, according to Abu Usman's account, the next time he saw his "best friend" was in Istanbul.

"One day, when I had decided to make hijra, I flew to Istanbul and the brothers and I were sitting in our apartment, actually in the kitchen, where we were drinking tea, and from time to time I looked out at the street...and at one point I looked out and I saw someone coming, and I looked more closely because I recognized him... I recognized Abu Zarr, he came into the apartment," Abu Usman recalls.

Abu Usman says that the decision to become a militant had changed Abu Zarr "completely -- from a quiet and calm [man] he became joyful and joked a lot."

The two North Caucasus men crossed into Syria, and joined IS, Abu Usman says.

Abu Zarr took part in the fighting in Kobani, Abu Usman recalls, where the bond of friendship between the two men made them forget about the fear of the U.S.-led coalition air strikes on the Syrian town.

"By Allah, I was so glad to see [Abu Zarr] that I forgot about the airplanes that were flying around bombing all the time, he was so tired but through all that exhaustion he smiled with joy and hugged me," Abu Usman recalled.

After returning from Kobani, the two men spend "entire days together, and we made plans that we would get married and we would live together, side by side," Abu Usman writes.

Abu Zarr's greatest wish was to get married, but he did not manage to achieve this life goal before his death, or as Abu Usman puts it, he "did not wait for a bride, but thank God he got married to the best," a reference to the jihadist belief that Muslim men who die as martyrs will be married in heaven to "houris," beautiful, heavenly maidens.

Abu Usman writes that when Abu Zarr and the group next went off to fight, he was not able to join them, because "my mom had come for a visit and I wanted to be with her for a bit."

That was the last time Abu Usman would see Abu Zarr, who was killed -- not on the front lines of battle, but when a U.S.-led air strike hit the house where he was holed up, "and an oven fell on him, and he gasped and went to his maker."

Abu Usman wrote in a separate post on VKontakte that he recalled a time when he and Abu Zarr had drunk tea together in a "villa" [most likely a reference to the group's base].

"By Allah, what a wonderful day that was, we talked about that day, about our surprise meeting in Istanbul, about our hijra, about our final journey. We reminded each other how wonderful it will be in heaven. And about how we will be together there," Abu Usman wrote.

Eulogies And North Caucasus Militants

Abu Usman's eulogy to Abu Zarr is not unusual among North Caucasus militant factions in Syria, which are close-knit and even function as something like extended kinship groups. When militants die in battle, eulogies often include stories illustrating how the dead militant was a good member of the group, and a good Muslim.

Other types of eulogy common among North Caucasus militants are "martyr videos" where images of militants before and after their death are shown to a dirge-like soundtrack. (Abu Usman has also created and posted a "martyr video" for Abu Zarr.)

The eulogies are in part intended to provide other militants with good examples of how to behave, and to instruct them that death in battle is something to desire, not fear. The eulogies take care to emphasize the jihadi belief that "martyrdom" is a good and positive thing and that the dead militant is in "paradise" [in Abu Zarr's case, Abu Usman reminds us that he is now "married" to houris]. Yet the eulogies often also reveal genuine grief felt by militants at the loss of a "brother" and in the case of Abu Usman's eulogy to Abu Zarr, a much-loved friend.

What the eulogies do not tell us is who the dead militants really were, beyond idealized "jihadists" who died in battle after demonstrating the qualities of a good friend and comrade.

What was Abu Zarr's real name? What had he been studying in Moscow before he dropped out to go to Syria? Who are his family, and do they know he has been killed?

-- 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.


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