On Tuesday, I posted a translation of the first part of a special report by Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP), who sent two reporters on what it dubbed the “Jihad trail”, following the paths of Russian-speaking jihadists seeking to fight in Syria.
The piece is interesting not just for the information it brings about how Russian-speakers, mostly from the North Caucasus, are making their way to Syria, but also for what it reveals about Russian attitudes to the Syrian conflict in general, the participation of Russian nationals, and Russia’s own fears over the ongoing insurgency in the North Caucasus.
It is notable, for example, how KP conflates the “armed opposition” with extremist groups, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham and with affiliated groups comprising fighters from the North Caucasus. KP’s entry point into the refugee situation in Turkey is by highlighting concerns that Turkey is “losing sovereignty” over part of its territory along the border, but does not mention the battles between ISIS fighters (including from the North Caucasus) and the PKK along the border. The piece also confronts Russia’s own part in the Syrian Civil War, via Moscow’s ongoing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
A major concern for KP is what will happen when the Russian-speaking jihadists return to the Russian Federation.
Below is the second part of KP’s special report.
It turned out not to be easy to find a legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. There was a whole chain of negotiations: Skype, phone calls, recommendations, guarantees… For starters, they dispatched a political director of one of the battalions of the Free Syrian Army to meet with the Russian reporters. Abu Khaldun smoked a lot, looked at us with curiosity, and started off by giving us a whole thesis about the history of the three-year conflict in Syria. A bloody regime wanted to put down the people’s social protests, the people took up arms…
“We’ve been your friends for 60 years,” continued the zampolit (political commissar) continued to shoot off cliches. “But now Syrians are very badly disposed toward the Russians, because you’re killing us with Russian weapons. I would advise you not to flaunt your nationality here.”
“Aren’t they badly disposed toward the terrorist groups?”
“The Islamist groups,” Abu Khaldun corrects. “They act in the interests of the regime, who is happy to dub them the opposition. Half the victims of this war are the “servants” of the Assad regime, the other half, are on the conscience of Russia.”
Our conversation is joined by an FSA general named Adib Aleui. At some point, he, a Sunni, was a pilot in the Government airforce. But he felt, as he put it, a second-class citizen among the Alawites. At the start of the war, he didn’t think twice about joining the opposition. “I couldn’t bomb my parent’s house.”
“During the time of Brezhnev and Andropov, we were very friendly,” he puts on the same old record. “I had a
Russian teacher, we all studied together for the progress of Syria, but this knowledge is now being used against the people.”
“Is Russia guilty because of what it taught you?”
“All the weapons were bought from Russia, and now these weapons are being used against the people,” the general stuck to his guns. Let his army fight with some other weapons…
WE CAN’T GUARANTEE YOUR SAFETY
According to the general, the revolutionary army controls 70% of the country. And
the opposition-held territory, there is a poor, but democratic rule with religious pluralism and tolerance. We ask for a permit to take a look at these new sprouts. And to go into the nearby Syrian countryside, which is controled by the FSA.
But our innocuous request is met with a stupor by our acquaintances. The opposition leaders talk amongst themselves for a long time, then ask advice from someone on Skype, and in the end they tell us that they cannot guarantee our safety and people there are very, very badly disposed toward Russians.
But do they worry so very much about our safety?
“Islamist groups often set up posts on the roads,” explains Professor Mukhiadin Bananekh to us in Russian. He is the man responsible for helping refugees. “They could take you for spies, and our guys could be accused of conspiring. That’s no good for anyone.”
The FSA general cannot guarantee the safety of his guests on his own territory! Because on that territory hold sway multinational gangs of Islamist-fanatics.
“Of course, those who come to us, to the war, only prolong it,” opposition Sheikh Yasim Aubad surprisingly agrees (as you guessed, he started out by talking about the Soviet-Syrian friendship). “If Russia wants the war to finish now, it has to say firmly, ‘Bashar, please, goodbye’. One man — and it’s all because of him!”
“And the two armies, who are shooting each other, will make peace?”
“Bashar hasn’t got an army. Saddam in Iraq had an army of a million people. When the US took Baghdad, where did that army go? They changed to civvies and fled.”
HOW BOZIGIT DIED
Our interlocutors are not the highest links in the opposition hierarchy, they’re more like mid-ranking. But they are valuable in understanding the situation — they at least spend time in Syria. And they live very close by its border, and even travel in cars with Syrian plates. Our translator apologizes that her mother forbade her to have anything to do with Russians. And she tells us a long story about the crimes of the regime army, about the victims of airstrikes, about arrests and people being disappeared. And we have no reason not to believe her. But on the other hand, how can you not believe the residents of the Christian regions of Homs, who hug us like we are their relatives? Or refugees from the Christian holy town of Maaloula, who attest to the atrocities of the FSA? Or the video footage with the decapitation of Christian priests?
The war does not have a single truth, which would suit everyone. But death does not choose between the righteous and the sinners. We see the next in the line of the “jihad-hit”: 18-year-old Dagestani Bozigit Abullaev, wounded in the kidney, does slowly and painfully. He tries to mouth a prayer, but pain screws up his face with convulsions. His associates sit nearby, someone shouts in accented Russian, “What the heck, can’t you find a car?” Bozigit’s eyes roll back, he’s not breathing anymore.
He was less lucky than his fellow countryman who escaped the war.
From the interrogation of S.S.Ahmedov (a fighter who returned to Russia from Syria):
“I returned to the base, where I asked the Emir if I could quit the armed opposition and go home because of serious family circumstances. He gave his agreement and said that he was no longer responsible for my life.”
The international jihadi brigades are spread out practically across the entire north and northwest of Syria. Some bands are trying to unite, others are trying to do the opposite and split from the influential groups and set up their Islamic State in some separate, captured village. For 50 kilometers of track from the border to Aleppo, you can meet both staunch adherents of Sharia Law and mercenaries chasing after petrodollars, and professional kidnappers, and – naturally – fighters for Al Qaeda from the Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS, predominantly Arabs.
The problem is that even when you are in Syria, it’s impossible to get a real estimate of the forces. Even more fantastic are the shouts in Geneva offices by the representatives of the opposition about a mythical unified command.
But the FSA with its verbose political officers and generals, who don’t even control the nearest roads, are hardly suitable for this role…
THREE TOURISTS, THREE SAD GUYS
From the Turkey-Syria border, we return to Dagestan. Awaiting us there is a meeting with those for whom the jihad excursion ended in arrest. And with the harsh indictment: “participation in illegal armed formations”.
This journey — there and back again — has been undertaken by hundreds, if not thousands, of Russian citizens from the North Caucasian republics. These lads, born in the mid-1990s, are of various psychological types, but share a common faith. According to “jihad tourist” Shamil Ahmednabayev, he didn’t get to fight. He worked in refugee camps. And in general, he said he “came to Syria to help other Muslims”.
“I saw on the internet how kids and adults were dying and being killed.”
The conversation with the second “fighter” is rich with quotations from the Quran. He was enchanted with the Syrian jihad.
“That wasn’t what I wanted to see there,” said Zhabrail Saligulayev sullenly, glancing at his laceless sneakers. “They called everyone ‘brother’ but in reality it was those who paid who got to climb into politics. Fame at any cost. Did you hear how Banat chopped off the heads of three priests? They told him that day, don’t do that! And they told the priests, don’t be afraid. Abu Banat was like, yeah, yeah. He waited til the evening, when the elders had left, and he chopped off the heads. Fame.”
“He who promises to defend the faithless and kills him, will carry the banner of perfidy on the Day of Judgement,” we remind our interlocutor. “That’s what it says in the Quran?”
Our interlocutor nods sadly. He’s surprised that we know quotations from the Holy Book. But it will be our turn to be amazed when we meet with Omar Ibragimov.
He got to Syria via the standard route: Makhachkala – Istanbul – Hatay – Reyhanli. He wound up in a suburb of Aleppo, where he fell into an “international” brigade of fighters.
“There were lots of people from Europe, from Turkey, the Near East. I wound up in an Uzbek jamaat.”
“A large one?”
“120 people. Various ages. The older ones had all lived in Moscow. They got to Syria on Uzbeki passports. And if they wanted to go to Russia, they traveled about using internal passports. So nobody counted them as tourists.”
At some point in the conversation, Omar got carried away. He proudly related how there was mutual assistance between the jamaats. He bragged about a new order in the territories liberated by the opposition.
“All life there goes on according to the Quran. It’s forbidden to sell cigarettes, women go around completely covered up. If they uncover themselves, they are punished with beatings. Most people are happy with the Sharia Law. They say, “Allah help us.” They ask, where are you from. You say, from Dagestan! They don’t get it, so you explain that it’s next to Chechnya. They hug you, they say, you’re our guests.”
“How do they deal with captives? Do they execute them immediately?”
“Nah, it’s OK, they give them food. If a guy accepts Islam, then they let him go straight away. If he doesn’t, then of course he’s executed.”
P.S. Omar, of course, did not take into account that he would run into such serious problems when he returned home. He thought that it would be quite the opposite. Like the three Davudbegov brothers who returned home from Syria to Khasavyurt (in Dagestan) in October, and immediately started to wage jihad in their motherland. Within weeks, the brothers were eliminated by special forces — in Syria, they simply were not taught conspiracy. But in the domestic Wahhabist underground, there are specialists in that area too, who are prepared to coach any young ‘brothers’ with invaluable fighting experience.
Np one knows how many “tourists” have returned or will return from Syria and join the North Caucasus jamaats. Only those who enter the country via passport control can be counted. But after all, there is an indirect, contraband route between Azerbaijan and Georgia. According to the most modest calculations, there are about 1,000 fighters from the North Caucasus, Tatarstan and Bashkiria in Syria. The jihadists themselves say the “Russian presence” is around 4,000 fighters.
It’s hardly reassuring that this is not just our headache. According to the Western press, there are around 200 Australians, hundreds of Belgians, 50 Germans, 150 French citizens, 80 Dutch, and 40 Norwegians fighting in the Syrian opposition.
Jihad-tourism has hot tour packages all year round.
(Featured image: Omar Ibragimov, who allegedly fought in Syria. Credit Aleksander Kots, Dmitri Steshin, Komsomolskaya Pravda.)