The photograph shared on social media shows a fresh-faced, clean-shaven young man. He is smiling. Three gold medals hang around his neck. A second photograph shows a bearded militant clad in military fatigues. He is carrying a gun.
The man in the first photograph is named Alan Chekranov, and he is (or, more accurately, was) Tajikistan's three-time national champion in mixed martial arts and a university student. The man in the second picture is Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki, a Tajik Islamic State militant who was recently killed in a U.S.-led air strike near Kirkuk in Iraq.
It is hard to believe, but Alan Chekranov and Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki are the same person. How did a promising young martial artist and student transform into an Islamic State (IS) militant in such a short time?
From Chekranov To Al-Tajiki
Reports that a notorious Tajik militant had been killed in Iraq emerged on social media earlier this month, after a series U.S.-led air strikes against IS hit near Kirkuk. Four Tajiks were killed, but the one who gained most attention was 21-year-old Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki, or al-Tochiki, who had become known after appearing in videos where he talked about "jihad" in Syria.
Russian-language social media came alive with speculation about the transformation of Chekranov to al-Tajiki.
According to RFE/RL's Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, Chekranov was born in 1993 in the Shahrtuz region in southwestern Tajikistan. His mother, Maria Chekranova, was an Ossetian and his father was a Tajik named Umar. Chekranov had been registered in official documents under his mother's maiden name.
In 2010, Chekranov graduated from School No. 4 in the Shahrtuz district and went on to study at the Tajik-Russian Slavic University.
Things seemed to go wrong for Chekranov, however; in 2012, he was expelled from the university for absenteeism and he went to Russia to work.
Radicalized In Russia?
A photograph purportedly of Chekranov shows the young man posing in Moscow's Red Square, his left index finger raised, a common sign used by militants to mean "one," an attestation of belief in tawhid, or monotheism. In his right hand, Chekranov holds what appears to be a pistol. The photograph is undated, but if it is indeed of Chekranov, then it must have been taken in 2012, since according to Radio Ozodi the young man spent just one year in Russia. During his time in that country, Chekranov fell in with a group of young men from the North Caucasus and through them, according to Radio Ozodi, he went to Iraq in 2013.
It is not clear when Chekranov -- who renamed and reinvented himself as Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki -- joined IS, but his comrades reported that before his death he was fighting against the Kurdish peshmerga near Kirkuk in Iraq.
Was Chekranov radicalized in Russia -- as has been the case with other young men and women from Central Asia who have gone to that country as foreign labor migrants -- or was he already interested in radical Islam before he was thrown out of his university?
There are no clear answers to that question, but Radio Ozodi's interviews with the young Tajik's former associates in Tajikistan suggest that Chekranov might have been radicalized in Moscow.
Radio Ozodi spoke by telephone with Chekranov's friend, Sharfor Tagoev, who said that he last saw the young man at the start of 2013, when he returned to Tajikistan after a year in Russia.
"Before, he used to go to training all the time and he only talked about mixed martial arts. But when he came back from Russia, he had a little beard, and he used different words. He looked disappointed and said that he wasn't going to go back to being a [labor] migrant and he was going back to the Slavic University to continue his studies. But later we found out he'd left for Russia," Tagoev said.
Why Would A University Student Join IS?
In his native Shahrutz region, Chekranov was known as a sportsman and as the son of "Umar the Bearded," Radio Ozodi discovered.
There appeared to be widespread disbelief among those who had known the successful young man that he would join IS.
Those who knew Chekranov said that they could not imagine why a student of the prestigious Tajik-Russian Slavic University would end up going to Iraq with an extremist group.
Local representatives of the Religious Affairs Department, whose duties involve working with young people to prevent radicalization, said they had not even been aware Chekranov was in Iraq until news of his death there emerged.
A local journalist, Adolat Saifulloeva, visited Chekranov's parents and reported that the family had learned -- either via the Internet or from the authorities -- that the young man had been killed. The family was in mourning and did not want to speak to reporters.
When Saifulloeva visited the family home, Chekranov's sister Sabina emerged and refused the journalist entry, saying that her parents did not want to see anyone.
Chekranov's second sister, Shahnoza, told the reporter that her brother was still alive and was in Iran.
The principal of Chekranov's former high school said that the authorities had taken all of the school's files relating to the former student, but said that she did not know the young man personally.
Tajiks In Syria And Iraq
It is not known how many Tajik nationals are fighting in Syria and Iraq. Official figures, according to Radio Ozodi, put the number at 300. According to Edward Lemon, who tracks Tajik fighters in Syria, there is online evidence of just 67 fighters, though there are likely to be more unreported Tajiks in Syria and Iraq.
According to Radio Ozodi, many of the Tajik militants fighting in the Middle East traveled to Syria and Iraq via Russia, where they had been working as labor migrants. As in Chekranov's case, the authorities only find out that these labor migrants had gone to Syria or Iraq after news of their deaths is reported on social media.
The director of the Shahrutz region's Religious Affairs Department, Alikhon Mulloev, told Radio Ozodi that there are several young men from the region in Syria but he was not authorized to disclose their names.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk