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Volleyball, Honor Roll, And Islamic State? The Double Life Of An Unlikely Islamist

Varvara Karaulova is pictured during a court hearing in Moscow on October 28.
Varvara Karaulova is pictured during a court hearing in Moscow on October 28.

Marking her 20th birthday last weekend, Varvara Karaulova had plenty of time to ponder the prospect of a decade behind bars.

The Moscow State University philosophy student, whose name has become synonymous to some with a creeping extremist threat to Russian society, was in the capital's high-security Lefortovo pretrial detention facility on November 29, more than a month after she was sent there over alleged ties to the Islamist militant group Islamic State (IS).

Court officials in Moscow say that Karaulova, who was detained by Turkish authorities near the Syrian border in June, has confessed to trying to join IS, although her lawyers dispute that. (She has changed her name to Aleksandra Ivanova, although her family continues to refer to her as Varvara.)

Pavel Karaulov insists his high-achieving and intellectually curious daughter was an unlikely candidate for recruitment by Islamic militants, although he also acknowledges that she appeared to be living a double life before her abortive trip, unbeknownst to her middle-class parents.

"We found out that she would leave home dressed in absolutely normal clothes for students -- jeans, sneakers, shirts, T-shirts, denim jackets -- but at the university she would change into Muslim-style clothes: long skirt and head scarf," Karaulov says.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Karaulov also says the rearrest in late October of his daughter came amid security officials' "discontent" after she refused to continue cooperating in the manner they desired with apparent efforts to uncover or ensnare her would-be recruiters.

Such an assertion casts new light on the high-profile Russian case, which has echoes throughout the West and could shed light on efforts by IS and other radical groups to lure young people into the maws of militant culture thousands of miles from home.

IS controls swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq and is suspected of recent terror attacks that include downing a Russian airliner over Egypt in late October and gunning down scores of people in coordinated attacks in Paris in November.

Secret Life

Karaulova's parents were shocked when their daughter disappeared in late May, only to be detained days later in Turkey, along with a group of women allegedly trying to join IS militants in Syria.

Karaulov flew to Turkey to return his daughter to Russia, where she was initially spared criminal charges.

Soon he learned his daughter had been leading her secret life for "nearly half a year prior to" the attempt to reach Syria.

Varvara Karaulova with her parents, who say they were not particularly surprised by their daughter's interest in learning Arabic.
Varvara Karaulova with her parents, who say they were not particularly surprised by their daughter's interest in learning Arabic.

Karaulova was an avid athlete, playing volleyball, attending wrestling classes, and frequenting the gym.

She first went to school in the United States, where the family spent several years.

More recently, her father says, Karaulova expressed an interest in learning Arabic that didn't particularly surprise her parents.

"She has won several intellectual competitions," he says, citing a gold medal for academic excellence and a cultural curiosity that runs in the family.

She already spoke fluent English and French, her father says, and shared his "keen interest" in learning foreign culture and languages.

"I dedicated most of my own life to studying, and therefore [my daughter's interest in Arabic] seemed perfectly normal to me," Karaulov says. "I actually encouraged it."

Anatomy Of A Recruitment

Upon their return to Russia, Karaulova admitted to having an online "relationship" with a "man" who introduced himself as 25-year-old "Vladislav" from Kazan, the capital of Russia's heavily Muslim Tatarstan Republic.

"Varvara loved sports. She was a football fan," Karaulov says. "There was an online group of sports fans, where they first met."

The father says Karaulova and "Vladislav" had been in touch for at least three years, during which their conversation developed from "the discussion of favorite football teams and music to Islamic topics."

Despite the "relationship," then-teen Karaulova never had a clear idea where "Vladislav" was based, her father says, and there were no phone conversations or Skype calls, only messages and chats.

Her father believes "Vladislav" gave Karaulova detailed directions about how to travel to Turkey. "She had instructions on how to behave [and] she was given the number plate of the vehicles that would pick her up," he says.

Karaulov says his daughter was "blindly following her feelings," which she later described as a "burning love."

Karaulova covers her face from photographers in a Moscow courtroom on December 1.
Karaulova covers her face from photographers in a Moscow courtroom on December 1.

Karaulova's mother, Kira Karaulova, suggested months after her return to Russia that a "dependency" on her virtual suitor left her "not quite conscious of her actions."

She underwent medical and psychological assessments after her return to Russia, her father says.

Falling Foul?

Karaulov speaks of Russian security agents in complimentary terms and describes some aspects of his daughter's case in terms that appear to reflect their findings, rather than first-hand experience with his daughter.

He says, for instance, that he doesn't rule out that "Vladislav" never existed and that there were possibly several people -- IS recruiters -- writing the messages to Varvara.

Varvara Karaulova with her dog in an undated photo
Varvara Karaulova with her dog in an undated photo

Upon her return, he says, Karaulova voluntarily handed over all her relevant messages to Russian security services and cooperated with authorities.

Karaulov says his daughter continued to contact her would-be recruiter under security agents' supervision, apparently in an attempt to unearth more information for authorities.

"Her every move, both online and offline, was under the authorities' control," Karaulov says. "I wanted this cooperation. Varvara wanted this cooperation. We wanted the authorities to find out the recruitment channels so the Russian security services could prevent a mass recruitment in our country."

Her parents say Karaulova told them it was increasingly hard for her to cope and that she was still drawn to the "man," even if he only existed online.

But at one point in September, her father says, she stopped using the Internet and swapped her smartphone for an ordinary mobile phone.

A month later, Karaulova was arrested over alleged ties with IS recruiters.

Her father says his daughter's decision "not to interact with anyone in the way the authorities wanted caused considerable discontent."

Despite the setbacks, the father expresses hope that "the terrible misunderstanding will be resolved soon."

Karaulov says neither the family nor the lawyers they hired in early November to replace his daughter's court-appointed attorney have been allowed to meet with Karaulova or speak to investigators. reports that a Moscow court on December 1 rejected an appeal against the refusal to let defense lawyers see her in pretrial detention.

Karaulova's mother and grandmother came to the courthouse to support her, but guards reportedly did not allow them to speak with her.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on an interview and reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Maryana Torocheshnikova
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    Maryana Torocheshnikova

    Maryana Torocheshnikova is an editor and presenter for the program You Have The Right, as well as being a court reporter. She has worked with RFE/RL since 2000. A former correspondent of the Agentstvo Sudebnoi Informatsii, a Russian judicial news outlet, Torocheshnikova was born in Tver, where she attended university and began her career at local newspaper Tverskaya Zhizn.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.