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"Do you think you're safe from the fires of hell?" asks a fund-raising ad published on VKontakte by the Russian-speaking battalion of Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front

"Do you think you're safe from the fires of hell? Give yourself a chance -- help mujahedin on the path of God!"

Thus reads a new fund-raising advertisement published on the VKontakte social network this week by the Russian-speaking battalion of Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front.

The fund-raising campaign is fronted by Abu Rofik, 23, a self-described "publicist and blogger" who operates as a fund-raiser and trainer for Nusra's Uzbek-led, Russian-speaking battalion, known as Liwa al-Muhajireen or Katiba Sayfullah.

The main thrust of the campaign is to raise money to help wannabe militants in Russia who have signed up to join Nusra but who cannot afford the travel costs to get to Syria.

'We're Not Millionaires!'

To motivate donors, Abu Rofik accuses Nusra supporters who have not given generously of not caring about "jihad."

"Brothers who wanted to come to us, and who needed support, could not come because of our lack of zeal in the way of God, because of indifference," the campaign reads.

"[There are those] who say, 'Why can't the emir [commander] of your battalion help,' as if we work with millionaires and there's enough [money] left to send to brothers for tickets."

Unlike in past efforts, the Nusra fundraising campaign does not openly include details of how potential donors can give money. Previously, both Russian-language Nusra and Islamic State (IS) militants openly used the QIWI Koshelek service in Russia.

Openly Recruiting

The fund-raising campaign asking Nusra supporters to fund travel costs for new militants suggests that Nusra's Russian-speaking battalion is undertaking a recruitment drive.

The recruitment activity follows a period when IS and Nusra social-media accounts warned that it had become harder for would-be recruits to cross into Syria from Turkey.

In another post on November 2, Abu Rofik wrote that "several brothers have successfully arrived here, thank God. There is a route, God willing...."

The Al-Qaeda publicist asked would-be militants not to contact him openly on VKontakte. "Don't post your details and photos here and don't write everything openly," Abu Rofik adds, advising recruits to contact him via the Telegram messaging service instead.

Telegram, which claims to be more secure than other messaging apps like WhatsApp, appears to be becoming more popular among Russian-speaking militants in Syria as concerns about spying and infiltration from security services increase.

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.

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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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