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My Son The Jihadist

A 2013 YouTube video showed Kazakh jihadists active in Syria.

"They have good living conditions and money to buy food and clothes. They drive brand-new Toyotas… And they only think about war."

That's how Mukhambetkali Danikhanov describes the life of Kazakhs fighting alongside foreign jihadists in Iraq.

He saw it firsthand after traveling to see his own son, and if the militant group his son joined is the Islamic State, Danikhanov isn't saying.

His oldest son, Yerzhan, has been on the Kazakh authorities' wanted list since January 2014. But they won't find him in Kazakhstan. When last seen by his father, the 28-year-old Yerzhan was living in a "city in Iraqi territory" along with his wife and their three children.

"I can't say the exact name of the place. I'm not allowed to," Danikhanov told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service recently.

Danikhanov says the journey he took from central Kazakhstan's Karagandy Province to Iraq was relatively easy.

The journey took just over two weeks altogether, beginning in late May and ending mid-June, and took him to Iraq and back via Turkey.

"The children wouldn't like me to talk about it," Danikhanov says when asked for specifics. "It would disclose the routes they take. Besides, it would have unfortunate consequences for me, too."

Danikhanov says Kazakh authorities spoke to him upon his return, but he says there are no official barriers preventing from visiting Yerzhan.

"The authorities were only interested in the route I took to go there," he says. "They told me there are no travel restrictions for foreign trips if all the documents are in order."

Coal Miners

Yerzhan was brought up in Kengir, an impoverished, remote village in Karagandy. Like many other local men, both Yerzhan and his father were coal miners.

Yerzhan married and moved to the nearby town of Satpaev a few years ago. According to family members, Yerzhan's wife, Yuldyz, graduated from university with "flying colors" and got a college instructor's job in Satpaev.

The house where Yerzhan Danikhanov grew up.
The house where Yerzhan Danikhanov grew up.

Danikhanov says Yerzhan left for Almaty in February 2013 and two months later his wife and young children joined him.

Soon the family left Kazakhstan, saying Yerzhan wanted to receive a religious education in Saudi Arabia.

Danikhanov explains that Yerzhan would call his parents "from time to time". He would only say he was doing well, but wouldn't tell what exactly was he doing, the father says.

"Sometimes he would call from Turkey," Danikhanov says. "We heard they had a third child."

Soon after Yerzhan's departure, officials from the local government and mosque began questioning Danikhanov.

They would ask, "Yerzhan has gone to Syria, hasn't he?"

Local authorities suspected that Yerzhan and three other young men from the village of Kengir had joined Islamic insurgents fighting against government troops in Syria.

Shortly afterward, a YouTube video emerged that purported to show a "Kazakh family" of 150 people -- men, women, and children -- preparing for jihad in Syria.

Kazakh authorities identified many of "jihadists" on the clip posted online on October 2013.

Danikhanov says Yerzhan wasn't in that video, but he had no doubts his son had joined the insurgents.

Danikhanov and many other parents of the jihadists have called on Kazakh authorities to help to facilitate the return of their children.

He says Yerzhan initially fought in Syria before moving to Iraq. Danikhanov says he met several other Kazakh fighters at his son's place in Iraq.

"I don't know where they get their money from. I'm an outsider to them. It's their internal matter," Danikhanov says. "They don't talk too much."

Danikhanov says the Kazakh jihadists he met "take part in war."

"They have their own leaders -- emirs. They say they want to create a caliphate."

"It's no secret that many of the Kazakhs have died there, I saw their photos," he adds. "They don't know where their bodies are buried."

When his son was fighting, Danikhanov stayed home with his grandchildren and daughter-in-law.

"The children study in Arabic and Kazakh," he says. "Some of the Kazakhs have diplomas and they teach children at home."

Danikhanov says his son and other Kazakh jihadists have no plans to return home.

"Perhaps their families would return," Danikhanov says. "They could send back their families anytime. There are no problems along the way. So far, only women whose husbands were killed have returned home."

Danikhanov is planning to visit his son and his family again next year -- and hopes to return with two of his grandchildren.

Written by Farangis Najibullah, based on an interview by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Asylkhan Mamashuly and other Kazakh Service reports.