A Tajik man who was formerly a promising student at Russia's prestigious Moscow State University (MGU) may have gone to Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, his father has told RFE/RL's Tajik Service.
Nasim Nabotov, 28, is from Farkhor district in southwest Tajikistan. He disappeared on March 5 after buying an air ticket to Moscow.
His father, Abdulmajid Nabotov, told Radio Ozodi on March 27 that his son had previously been a student at MGU, enrolling in the economics faculty in 2008.
But by the time Nasim was in the second year of his degree course, he had become far more interested in religion than economics, his father said.
Abdulmajid Nabotov believes that, instead of devoting himself to his studies, his son had somehow become mixed up with various radical groups in Moscow.
As part of his newfound interest in Islam, Nasim started to attend mosque, his father remembered.
Eventually, Abdulmajid Nabotov decided to bring his son back to Tajikistan so that he could keep an eye on him, he told Radio Ozodi.
Nasim dropped out of his studies in the second year of his course and went home to his village in the Farkhor district. There, he helped his father with the family's bakery business and even started a family, living along with his three children.
'We Didn't Recognize Him'
Although Nasim had been taken out of the immediate circle of his religious friends in Moscow, he retained an interest in Islam -- and "jihad."
"He would use the Internet a lot, and through that connection he came to the idea of jihad," his father told Radio Ozodi.
When Abdulmajid Nabotov asked his son what he was doing on the Internet, Nasim said he was "learning Koran verses," his father said.
"My son would talk about jihad all the time. I told him, "Son, you're wrong here, you're mistaken here. That is, I tried to stop him, but apparently it was all for nothing. I remember when I talked to him on the phone at the beginning of March, he went on again about jihad in Syria and I told him that it was very dangerous and that he didn't know what he was talking about," Abdulmajid Nabotov said.
A former classmate of Nasim's told Radio Ozodi that the young man was unrecognizable when he came back from Moscow.
"He was a very educated man; he was distinguished from the rest. But when he returned from Moscow, we didn't know him anymore. He talked about religion, and the different streams [of Islam]. He was somehow arrested by the police, but they didn't find anything criminal so they let him go," his classmate said.
Gone to Syria?
On March 5, Nasim went missing. Before he left, he didn't say a word about any plans to his family.
His family later learned that the 28-year-old had bought an air ticket to Moscow, where he flew from Tajikistan's Kulob airport.
A search by the Tajik authorities has so far failed to yield any information about what happened to Nasim, and his father, Abdulmajid Nabotov, is convinced that his son must have gone to Syria to join militants there.
The parents of another man from Farkhor district, 30-year-old Ubayda Naimov, told Radio Ozodi that the authorities told them that their son may also be in Syria. Naimov's parents thought their son was a labor migrant in St. Petersburg, but he stopped calling home two months ago.
There is evidence to show that a common recruitment pathway for Tajiks and other Central Asian nationals is for IS to target labor migrants who have traveled to Russia to work.
If Nasim has joined militants in Syria after being radicalized in Moscow, his will apparently be the first reported case of a student being recruited while at university in the Russian capital.
Tajiks In Syria
Exact figures for the number of Tajiks fighting in Syria and Iraq are not known.
Russia's Interfax news agency on April 1 quoted an anonymous source in the Tajik Interior Ministry as saying that at least 50 Tajiks have been killed fighting alongside IS, and that at least 300 Tajik nationals are currently in the ranks of the militants.
Radio Ozodi reported that the deaths of 60 Tajiks in Syria and Iraq has been officially confirmed. About 25 people from Tajikistan's Kulob region are thought to be fighting alongside IS.
Edward Lemon, a doctoral candidate at the University of Exeter who tracks Tajik militants in Syria and Iraq, says he has found online evidence for 70 Tajik militants in Syria.
"But there are likely to be more who have traveled and whose existence has not been reported in the media. I think a figure of between 100 and 200 would be fairly accurate," Lemon told RFE/RL last week.
Most Tajiks in Syria and Iraq are fighting alongside IS, Lemon says.
'Please Come Home'
Abdulmajid Nabotov, whose son Nasim is thought to have joined IS in Syria, issued a heartfelt plea to the young man, asking him to come home.
"Nasim, my dear, wherever you are, please think about your parents. Jihad is nothing more than striving to improve your life. If you try to elevate your fatherland, that's jihad, too. I'm asking you to come home. If you have really decided to wage jihad, then know that it is a mistake. You are being swindled; you've fallen into a trap. Please, come home," Abdulmajid Nabotov said.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk