A group of Islamic State (IS) militants from Russia's North Caucasus region are using the popular Russian QIWI wallet electronic payment system to raise money online.
The group's use of the QIWI wallet sheds light on how individual factions within IS carry out their own fundraising and outreach, and shows that this particular group has managed to raise cash openly using mainstream resources in Russia even though Moscow has banned IS and donating money to it illegal.
The militants involved in the fundraising are doing so through an unofficial Russian-language IS media activist group, ShamToday, which mostly comprises people from the North Caucasus who are with IS in Syria and Iraq.
ShamToday is closely associated with the Chechen-led IS fighting faction Katibat al-Aqsa, a group known to have been close to IS's military commander in Syria, Umar al-Shishani.
A key ShamToday figure, a Chechen militant named Ilyas Deniev, was killed last month in clashes in Baiji in Iraq.
Another figure associated with the group is a prominent social media activist who goes by the name Murad Atajev. It is thought that Atajev, who maintains accounts on Facebook and VKontakte, operates out of Turkey.
ShamToday first emerged in 2013 on Russia's VKontakte social-networking website, where the group initially had its own dedicated page. Since VKontakte banned its page several months ago as part of a crackdown on pro-IS propaganda, ShamToday has shifted to using a number of different VKontakte accounts and specific hashtags to spread its propaganda, a method used by other IS groups on various social-media platforms.
Unlike other IS media groups, ShamToday has not been involved in producing video propaganda.
Instead, its main activities are recruitment and outreach to IS sympathizers in the Russian Federation, mostly by spreading news about IS's activities in Syria and Iraq, sharing Russian audio recordings of lectures given by IS preachers and ideologues, and organizing online pro-IS seminars via its dedicated channel on Zello, a social-media app that is widely used by IS to broadcast sermons.
ShamToday's Zello sermons frequently involve IS's most prominent North Caucasus ideologues, including a Chechen named Musa Abu Yusuf Shishani, who has previously called on Chechens in Europe to carry out attacks against civilians, and Abu Jihad, an ethnic Karachai who is a close confidant of Umar al-Shishani.
Raising Funds For The 'Caliphate'
A recent advertisement published by ShamToday includes a request for donations via the QIWI wallet system.
The request for donations does not say what the money will be used for but uses an interesting call to action to persuade supporters in Russia and Central Asia to donate: the Koran's Surat al-Tawbah, which instructs Muslims to "fight against the disbelievers collectively as they fight against you collectively."
The donation request also includes an advertisement for two of ShamToday's Zello channels, including one named Novosti Khalifata ("Caliphate News") which the group uses to spread information about IS's advances in Syria and Iraq to a Russian-speaking audience.
Other Russian-speaking militants associated with IS are also using QIWI accounts to fundraise. A post on the "Official Page KHILAFA" account on VKontakte, which posts news about IS in Syria and Iraq, also includes a QIWI account number and requests for donations.
Why Use QIWI?
Ironically, the ShamToday militants prefer to use QIWI for the same reason as millions of security-conscious Russians: the service allows people to transfer money electronically without having to transmit sensitive bank account information, and without having to have a bank account in the first place.
IS sympathizers who want to donate to ShamToday can do so at a dedicated QIWI kiosk (Russia had over 169,000 of these in 2013) or via their smartphone, by transferring money from their own QIWI account to the ShamToday account number, provided by the group on its donation request.
Besides Russia, QIWI is also available to consumers in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. QIWI users in these countries even make transfers abroad, including to Turkey, where the ShamToday account is most likely based.
The account number provided by ShamToday is a Russian mobile-phone number, which is most likely an untraceable anonymous SIM card and not a working number belonging to a member of ShamToday. Attempts to reach the phone number produced an automated message that said the phone was switched off or outside its provider's coverage area.
Combating Terror Financing
The use of electronic payment systems like QIWI by banned groups is not new.
Russian lawmakers have taken steps to try to quash the use of electronic payment systems like QIWI for terrorist financing.
In January 2014, a group of lawmakers from Russia's United Russia party (including Shamsail Saraliev, the former External Affairs Minister for the Chechen Republic) and the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia put forward amendments to existing electronic payment legislation, as part of a counterterrorism package.
The proposed amendments initially called for banning all anonymous transfers over 5,000 rubles, a move that caused QIWI stock to plummet 19 percent on January 15, 2014.
However, when the final version of the amended law passed on May 5, 2014, anonymous payments under 15,000 rubles were retained, although the legislation did ban anonymous payments of any size if they were between individuals rather than companies or other organizations.
The open use of QIWI by ShamToday suggests that this legislation has not deterred some extremist groups from using the electronic payment system to raise funds in Russia.
In a response to an inquiry by RFE/RL about the use of its services by ShamToday, QIWI said that it "condemns and does not support terrorist, extremist and other illegal activities" and that it was operating in "strict compliance with applicable legislation including legislation to combat money laundering of criminal funds and terror financing."
"The company is taking all necessary and applicable legal measures to protect its services from penetration by criminal proceeds and also to minimize the risk of the company being involved in the laundering of proceeds from criminal activities and terrorist financing," QIWI said in an e-mail.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk