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The Martial Arts Champions Of Islamic State

A picture posted on the Instagram account of Valdet Gashi, a German mixed martial arts fighter who has joined Islamic State
A picture posted on the Instagram account of Valdet Gashi, a German mixed martial arts fighter who has joined Islamic State

In certain circles in Bangkok, 29-year-old Valdet Gashi from Germany is revered as a "foreign fighter."

Twice crowned world champion in Muay Thai, a combat sport created in Thailand, Gashi is listed as a star attraction for anyone wishing to train in the sport at the Elite Fight Club in the Thai capital, Bangkok.

"Ilya Grad, Valdet Gashi, Leo Montero, and several other top foreign fighters train out of the gym so you won't have a hard time finding skilled training partners," the club's website reads.

When Gashi hit the headlines this week, it was also because of his renown as a "foreign fighter," but in Islamic State, not Muay Thai.

Gashi left his life as a martial arts champion to join IS in Syria in January, according to the Swiss SRF Rundschen website.

However, the exact timeline of Gashi's move to IS-held territory is not clear. On March 18, he "checked in" on Facebook as being at the Central Mosque in Yala, Thailand.

The former resident of Singen, Germany, is now in Syria, he claimed in an interview this week with Rundschen.

Gashi told the Swiss outlet that he is married with two small daughters and lives mainly in the IS-controlled Syrian city of Manbij. He said he supports the establishment of IS's self-declared "caliphate" and that his work for IS includes patrolling along the Euphrates River and spotting smugglers.

MMA Training For Militants

News reports suggest that Gashi may have been involved in recruiting other martial arts fighters to IS.

Before he left for Syria, Gashi had set up and run a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) training project in Winterthur, Switzerland, according to the Swiss 20 Minuten news website.

Gashi's "MMA Sunna" project was reportedly suitable for devout Muslim men: no women, music, swearing, or insults were allowed during training.

At least three young men -- Christian "Sandro" Visar (also known as Abu Malik) V.L. and Ibn Muhamed al-Kurdi -- who trained in Gashi's project in Winterthur also traveled to Syria, according to 20 Minuten.

Al-Kurdi, 21, is believed to have been killed in a U.S.-led coalition air strike in Kobani in March.


It is not known how, where, or when Gashi was radicalized and recruited to IS.

Could he have fallen in with radical Islamists while in Germany? Or did he meet IS recruiters or radical preachers during his time in Thailand?

It is thought that Gashi's three young MMA disciples in Winterthur all prayed at the town's Al-Nur Mosque, according to Rundschen.

But the president of the mosque association in Winterthur told Swiss media that there are no radicalizing elements at his mosque.

While his transformation from martial arts champion to IS militant remains a mystery, Gashi has documented some of his thoughts and feelings about Islam on his Facebook page, alongside photographs and videos of his Muay Thai successes.

Some of these, such as the idea that Muslims are being persecuted and oppressed, reflect ideas and narratives that have appeared in IS propaganda.

On December 31, 2012, Gashi wrote that he could not celebrate New Year's because "there's still kids hungry and die, muslims [sic] in Syria and Burma and other places being hunted and killed."

'Don't Judge Me'

Gashi has not explained why he joined IS.

But in the aftermath of the reports that he had gone to Syria, the martial arts champion took to social media to criticize those who had "judged" him.

"DON'T JUDGE before you know the whole story," he wrote on Facebook on June 3.

Gashi also seemed to suggest that he believed he was "helping" in Syria.

In a later Facebook and Instagram post on June 4, Gashi wrote, "Helping or fighting ??? To all those who talk bad about me and insult me... If you really know me, you would know that I don't do something stupid."

Toli Makris, the co-founder of Elite Boxing and the promoter of the Bangkok-based Muay Thai event series Thailand VS Challenge, in which Gashi took part on several occasions, told RFE/RL via email that Gashi was always "more than correct around us."

Gashi, who trained "a couple of times" at the Elite Fight Club gym in Bangkok, which has Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist fighters and staff, had "always shown respect and never even opened the topic about religion or politics," Makris said.

"I am not supporting his decision to be in Syria now, but I can’t say anything bad as he has always shown respect to us and the sport," Makris added.


Gashi is not the first martial arts champion to join IS.

The extremist group has attracted a number of promising sportsmen.

Among them was Alan Chekranov, Tajikistan's three-time national Mixed Martial Arts champion, who died fighting alongside IS in Kirkuk in February.

Just as with Gashi, it is not known why 21-year-old Chekranov ditched a promising sporting career to join IS.

But it is thought that he could have been radicalized alongside Tajik migrant workers during his time in Moscow.

Another IS militant with an interest in the martial arts, 20-year-old Chechen Hassan Edilkhanov, claimed to have spent time training at a fight club in Bangkok.

Edilkhanov argued in court that he had never been to Syria. But the Chechen Supreme Court upheld a guilty verdict against him in May.

From Soccer To 'Jihad'

It is not only martial artist champions who have joined to IS.

IS has also attracted a number of soccer players.

The former captain of Kazakhstan's FC Akzhaik, Aybek Gubaydullin, is thought to have fought alongside IS in Syria, and was placed on an international wanted list on January 12, according to Russian media reports from May.

And Fabio Pocas, a promising young footballer from south London, also joined IS in January, the BBC reported.


That sports champions have joined IS is likely just a reflection of the fact that a wide variety of individuals from all walks of life and nationalities have been attracted to the extremist group.

But IS has also boasted about attracting "sports stars" as a way to promote itself by showing that it can attract such talented individuals.

In some cases, its claims have been exaggerated or misleading.

In March, the now defunct Chechen IS website FiSyria bragged about a Chechen "boxing champion," known as Abdullah, who gave up his career to fight and die for the extremist group in Syria.

FiSyria posted a photograph of Abdullah alongside Chechen boxing star Zaurbek Baysangurov and a Ukrainian boxing promoter, Alexander Krassyuk.

But Abdullah's identity remains unknown and there do not appear to have been news reports claiming that a famous Chechen boxer died fighting alongside IS.

FiSyria went on to claim in April 2014 that a former Arsenal footballer had joined IS in Syria.

The footballer was wrongly identified in the media.

The real identity of the militant that FiSyria boasted of is thought to be a Portuguese man who had been living in East London and who may have attended coaching sessions at Arsenal.

-- 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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