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The Strange Tale Of The St. Petersburg Fashion Student Turned IS Recruiter

A video shared on social media showing Russian-speaking Islamic State militants apparently taking part in clashes in the countryside around the Syrian town of Kobani.
A video shared on social media showing Russian-speaking Islamic State militants apparently taking part in clashes in the countryside around the Syrian town of Kobani.

The Federal Security Service (FSB) in Russia's second city, St. Petersburg, opened a criminal case this week against an 18-year-old woman and former fashion student who has allegedly tried to recruit Russians to the Islamic State (IS) group.

According to the St. Petersburg-based news website Fontanka, the suspect, Maria Pogorelova, flew to Istanbul on November 17, 2014, and went on to join IS militants in Aleppo province.

Why did a Russian teenager who had previously flirted with far-right groups and who had no ties to radical Islam, run away from home to join an extremist Sunni militant group in the Middle East?

Pogorelova grew up in a two-room apartment on Prospekt Khudozhnikov in the north of the city. As a child, she went to dance classes and became fascinated by the works of William Shakespeare, Fontanka learned.

In a whimsical aside, Fontanka suggests that it was perhaps Shakespeare's works, at least in their Soviet interpretations, that awakened a sense of social justice and activism in Pogorelova. Othello, for example, "was set in such a way in the U.S.S.R. so that the viewer became filled with sympathy for national liberation struggles in Africa."

Pogorelova grew up to be interested in racial politics, of a sort. In 2012, the teenager allegedly became mixed up with St Petersburg's far right, even going so far as to get a swastika tattooed on her neck, according to Fontanka. (The teenager's mother reportedly made her go back to the tattoo parlor and have the swastika redesigned into "incomprehensible geometrical shapes.")

Pogorelova later began to study hairdressing at a St Petersburg college, but dropped out. Fontanka claims that Pogorelova had some brushes with the police, including once being arrested.

According to Fontanka, Pogorelova became interested in radical Islam after becoming tired of neo-Nazism. The teenager, who at one point got a job in a branch of McDonald's, told her mother she had become a Muslim and began to wear a niqab.

Fontanka reports that Pogorelova -- who was now going by the name Maryam -- met a man on an online dating site for Muslims. The man, whose online nickname was "Abu Bak," was apparently in Syria fighting alongside IS. Pogorelova was sent the money to pay for her airfare to Turkey, where she was met on the border and driven to Raqqa where she met up with "Abu Bak."

According to the Russian pro-Kremlin news agency Life News, which has close ties to the security services, Pogorelova is thought to be involved with recruiting others to join IS.

Fontanka, which has seen some of Pogorelova's messages from Syria, reports that her correspondence has a "nostalgic flavor."

"She asks [recruits] to bring her Russian 'Lastochka' chocolate candies, buckwheat and is interested in a recipe for borscht," Fontanka wrote.

Pogorelova is not the first Russian citizen to join IS in Syria after converting to Islam.

In January, reports emerged that a popular Russian actor, Vadim Dorofeyev, had been killed fighting alongside IS militants in Syria. Dorofeyev had converted to Islam in January 2014 and left his wife and two small children to join IS.

Membership in IS is illegal in Russia. The Russian Supreme Court banned the group in December, declaring it a terrorist organization.

-- 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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