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The charges against Gadzhi Magomedov included fighting in an illegal group in Syria and trafficking weapons.

"He served in [Islamic State] and threw rocks at police" is how Russian daily Kommersant described Gadzhi Magomedov, a Daghestani man sentenced to 17 years in a penal colony this week.

A court in Rostov-on-Don found Magomedov, 27, guilty of participating in a 2012 "mass disturbance" in Daghestan, fighting in an illegal group in Syria and trafficking weapons.

Magomedov admitted participating in the disturbance but denied the other charges. In fact, Magomedov claims never to have been in Syria at all.

That and other elements suggest that Magomedov's case might represent the latest instance of Russian officials deliberately positing an erroneous claim that a suspect who fought in Syria was with the militant group Islamic State (IS).

Just how strong is the evidence that Magomedov fought alongside IS in Syria?

Details of the prosecution's case suggest that, if Magomedov was indeed in Syria for just over two months with the group they allege him to have fought alongside, it is unlikely he could have been a formal member of IS.

Sabri's Jamaat

The prosecution alleges Magomedov was a member of Sabri's Jamaat (SJ), a Russian-speaking, predominantly Uzbek militant group.

A small group based in Aleppo province, SJ had been involved in the Syrian conflict since at least the first months of 2013: its first leader, Abdurahman, died in a March 2013 battle at Al-Duwaryrineh in Aleppo. The group was one of several groups involved in the July 2013 offensive to capture the Menagh Airbase in Aleppo.

Sabri's Jamaat pledged bay'ah, or allegiance, to IS in March 2014.

Kommersant, which published the most detailed account of the prosecution's allegations against Magomedov, said that the Daghestani had returned from Syria to Egypt in March 2014 -- at the same time that SJ pledged allegiance to IS's ethnic Chechen military commander, Umar Shishani.

But if the prosecution's case is true, and Magomedov did go to Syria and did fight alongside SJ -- both allegations he denies -- it is very unlikely that he pledged allegiance to IS.

The Prosecution's Case

The prosecution alleges Magomedov provided clothes and food to militants in Gimry in Daghestan.

In November 2012, Magomedov then took part in a "riot" in the village of Vremmeny in Untsukulsky district, when around 500 protesters blocked a road and demanded that police release three men detained on suspicion of weapons trafficking. When police tried to stop the protest, some protesters -- allegedly including Magomedov -- threw stones.

Magomedov, who worked as a muezzin in a local mosque, testified that he had been returning home from prayers on the morning of the protest, and joined the protesters.

The prosecution further alleges that, in January 2013, Magomedov returned to Egypt to study at Al-Azhar University, known as a highly influential source of Sunni jurisprudence.

Magomedov testified that he first went to Egypt in 2009 and that he returned there in 2013 after some time in Daghestan.

But he denied allegations that in January 2014 he left Egypt for Turkey and Syria.

According to the prosecution, when he arrived in Syria in January 2014, Magomedov met another Daghestani who took him to the city of Homs, then under government siege. A week later, Magomedov was taken to a base and introduced to a commander who taught him how to fire a Kalashnikov rifle.

Infighting

Magomedov was allegedly taken to Kafr Hamra in northern Aleppo province, where he joined SJ and met its leader, Abu Usman. SJ then fought against Syrian government troops in Hama, where Magomedov allegedly spent two months guarding "IS checkpoints," though exact locations are not given.

IS -- or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), as it was then known -- did have a presence in some parts of Hama province during January and early February 2014. But IS was then embroiled in infighting with Syrian rebel groups, including Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate the Al-Nusra Front.

It is not impossible that SJ fought alongside IS in Hama province, but it is far more likely that the group was dispatched to fight alongside Nusra and other Syrian groups against government forces. Another Russian-speaking group, the then-Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, was also dispatched to Hama to fight alongside Syrian Islamist groups at that time.

That SJ fought alongside Nusra and not IS in Hama seems even more likely when the faction's next move is taken into account.

In the first week of February 2014, the group fought alongside Syrian Islamist groups including Nusra in a failed attempt to storm the Aleppo Central Prison (the group's new leader, Abdullah al-Toshkandi, was killed in that operation). IS was not involved in the prison offensive.

The prosecution argues that in March 2014 -- less than three months after Magomedov allegedly came to Syria -- he returned to Egypt.

Magomedov was detained in Alexandria in November 2014, after his foreign passport expired. He was deported to Russia and arrested. A search of his home a month later allegedly revealed detailed instructions for making explosives and ammunition. (Magomedov's defense said the search was undertaken without witnesses and Magomedov's fingerprints were not found on any of the confiscated weapons.)

Blame IS

Whether Magomedov really was in Syria will likely never be known. But this is not the first time that Russia has apparently deliberately made the erroneous claim that someone fighting in Syria was with IS.

Russia says that a Chechen national, Said Mazhayev, was the "first Russian to escape from IS" when he himself said he fought alongside a completely different group.

In Magomedov's case, the allegation he was an "IS militant" possibly reflects a lack of nuanced understanding of militant groups in Syria.

But the prosecution's reference to Islamic State is also part of Russia's strategy of deliberately labelling all groups fighting its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as "IS."

The strategy has been good for domestic counterterrorism narratives. Russia has used the "IS threat" to justify arrests of Muslims and labor migrants.

Labeling Magomedov -- a Salafist who was active in a local mosque and who studied in Egypt -- as "IS" helps Russia link the local militancy in Daghestan with dangerous foreign Islamists.

Kazakhstan (Finally) Designates IS As Terror Group

An Islamic State video titled Race Toward Good showed Kazakh nationals, including children, in training in Syria.

Kazakhstan has formally designated the Islamic State (IS) group as a terrorist organization, according to reports in local news media on November 2.

An announcement of the ruling by an Astana court was posted on the website of the committee on legal statistics and special accounting of the Prosecutor-General of Kazakhstan.

Although the announcement states that the court decision was made on October 15, it appears not to have been published until November 2.

In designating IS as a terrorist organization, Kazakhstan has lagged behind other Central Asian states and Russia.

As the informburo.kz news website noted, "Until now, IS has not appeared in the list of banned extremist and terrorist groups in the Republic of Kazakhstan."

Russia's Supreme Court issued a ruling in December 2014 that recognized IS's activity as terrorist and banning it throughout Russia.

A court in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, followed suit in March, ruling that IS was a terrorist and extremist group.

Tajikistan's Supreme Court designated IS as a terror group in May, after a scandal in which Gulmurod Khalimov, а U.S.-trained commander of Tajikistan's elite police force, defected to IS.

And news reports have said that IS is banned in Uzbekistan, though the group has not been formally designated a terrorist organization.

Why The Delay?

Kazakhstan's delay in formally designating IS as a terror group is somewhat surprising given the Central Asian state's concerns about IS recruitment and radicalization, and Astana's extreme sensitivity to reports of Kazakh nationals fighting alongside IS.

These concerns have led Kazakhstan to issue widespread bans on Internet resources that it deems show IS propaganda.

In November 2014, Kazakhstan banned an "illegal" video showing ethnic Kazakh children appearing to undergo IS training.

Kazakhstan has also blocked websites, including foreign news sites, that it says are showing IS material. Last month, a court in Astana ruled to block access to the video-sharing site Vimeo on the grounds that it is promoting IS propaganda.

So why has Kazakhstan only now officially designated IS as a terror group?

"I'm surprised Kazakhstan hadn't already done this. Entire families have left Kazakhstan for Syria and Iraq," says Bruce Pannier, RFE/RL's Qishloq Ovozi blogger on Central Asia. "I'd like to think IS just slipped through the cracks of Kazakhstan's terror group list, but I doubt it."

Kazakhs In IS

One reason for Kazakhstan's move to formally designate IS could be part of an attempt to crack down even harder on IS recruitment and radicalization.

Over the past months, Kazakh nationals fighting alongside IS have become more visible, including on social media.

It is increasingly hard for Kazakhstan to block access to IS-related materials showing or in some cases produced by Kazakh nationals.

Last month, a Kazakh IS militant who calls himself Abu Aisha Kazakhi shared a video showing a small child undergoing military training in IS-controlled territory.

Abu Aisha, who lives in Mosul. has also published photographs of his son and other Kazakh children in IS-controlled Iraq.

Coinciding With Kerry?

Could Kazakhstan's decision to publish its announcement that IS has been formally designated a terror group have been timed to coincide with the November 2 visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry?

Kerry had already visited Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and was set to also visit Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. His tour of Central Asia is intended not only to boost commercial links between Central Asian states but also security cooperation in the face of the IS threat.

Kerry's tour comes as Moscow is using the "IS threat" to boost its own influence in the region.

Days before Kerry's Central Asian tour, Russia issued another dire warning about the threat posed by IS militants seeking to infiltrate the region from Afghanistan.

The head of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), Aleksandr Bortnikov, said that IS poses an increased threat to Central Asia and warned militants were creating cells in order to carry out "terrorist and diversionary attacks" in CIS countries.

During his own visit to Kazakhstan earlier this month, Putin -- who has been using the IS threat to push for increased military cooperation with Central Asia since December -- said that Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries could create a joint task force to protect the grouping's external borders against the threat of terrorist infiltration from Afghanistan.

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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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