An ethnic Tatar man from Kazan in Russia's Republic of Tatarstan is standing trial on charges of fighting with a militant group in Syria.
Prosecutors on December 11 asked the court to impose a five-year prison sentence on 27-year-old Raif Mustafin, whose trial is being held in open court in Kazan. The court is expected to come to a decision on December 17.
It is the first case of a Kazan Tatar being prosecuted for fighting in Syria, and the details of the case offer some insights into one path by which young Muslims from the Russian Federation are radicalized and travel to fight in Syria.
Though Mustafin himself refused to testify in court, the judge revealed details from his interrogations, which provide information about how the defendant and his faction lived and operated in Syria. Mustafin has said he does not accept the information from the interrogation as testimony.
It is not clear when Mustafin first went to Syria, but a representative of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) testified that Mustafin left Syria in February after a disagreement among his faction. Mustafin returned to Kazan, but in May he decided to go back to Syria. He flew to Turkey but was arrested at the border and deported back to Russia, where he was arrested.
What Is The 'Tatar Jamaat'?
The group with which Mustafin allegedly fought in Syria was not named by the prosecutors -- a typical practice for trials in the Russian Federation involving returnees from Syria, and which likely stems from Russia's policy of considering all armed rebel factions in Syria as illegal armed terrorist groups. The details in the indictment and in witness statements suggest that Mustafin's small faction may well have fought with or alongside North Caucasian-led groups in Latakia Province, rather than Islamic State.
Prosecutors say that Mustafin used his fluent Arabic to first join an Arabic-speaking group and later became part of a Tatar "jamaat," or fighting group.
A prosecution witness who was granted anonymity and who is based in Egypt told the court that Mustafin had joined the "Tatar jamaat," which consisted of about 30 people from Tatarstan and neighboring regions. The Tatar jamaat was part of a larger armed group, the witness said, which contained other sub-groups based on ethnic origin and which included a Crimean jamaat, a Turkmen jamaat, and a Kazakh jamaat. The Tatar jamaat was led by a man named Abdullah from Naberezhnye Chelny, the second-largest city in Tatarstan.
In his interrogation Mustafin allegedly said that the house in which the jamaat members lived consisted of a ground-floor prayer room, dining area, and room to store weapons. The militants themselves lived on the first floor. The jamaat was run according to strict rules: the militants got up at 5 a.m. for prayers and then underwent military and ideological training.
An FSB representative testified that Mustafin had undergone military and physical training in Syria, and that his duties involved guarding roads and buildings held by his faction.
However, there are some confusing elements to the reports of Mustafin's time in Syria. According to one news report, Mustafin's group took part in the offensives against the Armenian Christian town of Kassab in Latakia. However, that offensive took place in March, after Mustafin is alleged to have left Syria. There were major rebel offensives in Latakia in 2013, however, but not in Kassab.
Radicalized In Egypt?
According to the indictment, Mustafin became interested in religion as a high-school student, when his mother and aunt began to attend a mosque. Mustafin studied at the Russian Islamic University in Kazan and then went to Egypt in 2008, where he wanted to continue his education at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo.
It was in Egypt, prosecutors claim, that Mustafin became radicalized. After he failed to pass the entrance exams to Al-Azhar, he allegedly fell in with a group of men who introduced him to "Salafist concepts," although no more details were given.
Mustafin's father told the court that when his son returned to Kazan he was a changed man, saying that he had fought in Syria.
"He had grown a beard, stopped listening to music even though he used to play in a band, he demanded that we remove images of animals and people from the apartment. He told me he'd been in Syria, where he had waged jihad and fought against the infidels, and he urged me to move to Syria with him," Mustafin's father said.
Mustafin is not the first Russian-speaking militant thought to have been radicalized in Egypt. A notorious militant from the Islamic State (IS) group, known as Abu Jihad, was also thought to have been in Cairo and associated with Al-Azhar University. Abu Jihad, real name Islam Atabiyev, who is known for being a close confidante of IS's military commander in Syria, Umar al-Shishani, and for his video and audio recordings about religious issues, is from Karachai-Cherkessia in the North Caucasus.
Similar Grozny Case
Mustafin's defense counsel argues that while Mustafin was in Syria, there is no direct proof of what he did there. His defense also argues that Mustafin should be exempted from criminal liability because he voluntarily left the militant faction he was with in Syria in the spring of this year.
Similar arguments have been presented at another trial of a returnee from Syria, to no avail. A Grozny court in November sentenced a local man, Said Mazhayev, to two years in prison for fighting in Syria.
Mazhayev's defense also argued that there was no photographic or video evidence to prove his direct involvement in the events in Syria. The Chechen also argued that he had returned home voluntarily after deciding to quit fighting in Syria and should therefore have been acquitted.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk