Russia & Syria Spotlight: “Jihad for Export” Part I
Amid ongoing reports that fighters from the North Caucasus — particularly Chechnya — are involved in the Syria conflict, Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP) is writing a several-part series, “Jihad for Export”, examining how Russian-speakers are traveling to Syria and how they are getting involved with fighting there. KP sent two of its reporters, Aleksandr Kots and Dmitry Steshin, on a “jihad trail” to Syria.
The reports, while providing information about Russian-speaking fighters heading to Syria, also offers insights into some Russian attitudes and viewpoints regarding these issues, and in particular how Russia projects the concept of the “jihadist threat”, in the light of its own struggle with radical Islam and insurgency in the North Caucasus.
Part 1 is translated below; we will post Part 2 later this week.
(The opinions of KP are not necessarily those of EA.)
Jihad for Export
The northern part of Syria, at one time the country’s industrial center, is rapidly emerging as the capital of world terrorism. An endless flood here from neighboring Turkey is supplying cannon fodder obsessed with jihadi ideas. Islamic recruits from all over the world are not interested in the political dissent in Syria. For them, the situation is incredibly simple — they are coming for dar al-harb (“the house of war”) — the land of war, to turn it into dar al-islam — the land of Islam.
Having gone through a practical course of this sort of “Islamism”, many of them go home. And the civilized world really doesn’t like that. In Belgium and Germany, they are tightening legislation on mercenaries, France has warned that it will not allow those who wish to fight in the Middle East to have a peaceful life, and in Australia, they just don’t allow their citizen jihadists to return home.
Russia, too, has also reacted to this disturbing trend. In November, Article 208 of the Penal Code added a phrase, “in foreign countries”. But the possibility of a six year prison term is not deterring homegrown Islamists.
From the interrogation of S.S. Ahmedov, upon his return from Syria to Russia:
“I discussed the events in Syria with brother Tamerlan. We gathered at the brothers house, in the meetings, Khalikov Timur, Muslim name Khalid, also took part. In May 2013, we got interested in the possibility of waging “military” jihad in Syria.
The story of Ahmedov, who was detained on his return from Syria, is typical of all those Russian citizens who travel to the war. In video footage from Syria, field commanders from Chechnya or Dagestan talk about the wonders of jihad and agitate for traveling to the “Land of Sham” (as the Arabs call Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan). In Russia, those recruiting people to go to the hotspot speak carefully — it’s not to fight but to provide humanitarian aid. Money and macaroni and meal for co-religionists, for example, is what the Dagestani Salafist preacher Israil Ahmednabayev, or Abu Umar Sasitlinsky, calls it. And in passing he gives a lecture about the usefulness of “spilling the blood of the martyrs”.
Young recruits understand: it is these calls from Sasitlinsky that played a major role in their decision to leave (for Syria). To apply for the position of “martyr”, they only have to fly to Istanbul. Luckily there are direct flights from Makhachkala to the Bosphorous.
KP’s special correspondents got tickets for a “jihad trip” from one of these guys.
THE WAR ARRIVES IN TURKEY WITHOUT DEMAND
We fly on a half-empty airplane from the Caspian to the Marmara. Istanbul. Here the epic congress of the National Coalition of Syrian revolutionaries and opposition forces has just ended. Serious men in expensive suits spent several days in a luxury hotel deciding the fate of Syria and perspectives for participation in Geneva-II. But, without having decided neither one thing or the other, they left for Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
We asked opposition leaders about their further plans, but they did not have time for Russian journalists. But the Turkish politicians were very talkative. They were, to put it mildly, frustrated that almost-European Turkey had suddenly turned into the rear-guard of jihad.
Or if you prefer, the front lines of the undeclared Islamic war.
Local journalist Aydemir Gulesh compares the invasion of Syrians to a natural disaster. The refugees did not bring capital – only working hands, which Turkey already has enough of. But there are other issues that officials tend not to talk about. This is the partial loss of sovereignty.
” Right now Turkey cannot control its territory near the border with Syria, in fact, we have lost this territory, having placed hundreds of thousands of Syrians in refugee camps,” said plain-talking Aydemir. “The de facto border of Turkey has moved.”
Those refugees who are richer rushed to buy property in Turkey. And not near the border. In the same Istanbul there are whole neighborhoods that are 95 percent Syrian. However, our source did not make far-reaching conclusions from the above. Perhaps out of a sense of patriotism. But all the same, we understood. Turkey, floating in the wake of Western policy, has been forced to sacrifice part of its sovereignty to become a springboard for a full-fledged “anti-Assad” opposition. Of the consequences of this, Turkey ‘s Western partners did not warn…
How can Russia put up with us?
In recent months, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to make up for the electoral failure caused by the effects of support for the Syrian opposition, began handing out citizenship to Syrian refugees. Next year, there will be a presidential election here.
“Erdogan’s policy change came too late,” said the author of “The Syrian equation ” Mustafa Erzhemol. “I’m amazed at how Russia still puts up with us. You can simply shut off gas to Erdogan. Now global terrorist routes are passing through Turkey. Once I was riding the bus to Hatay, a town near the border with Syria. Nearby sat a Chechen, we got to talking. He said he was going for religious studies. Hatay is actually not the best place for this. In the end, he confessed: “I came to become a martyr.” There are loads of these from Dagestan, Azerbaijan, Chechnya. These are the people that blew up the subway in Moscow. And they are ready to blow up and kill all over the world.”
From the testimony of S. S. Ahmedov
In Istanbul, a member of the armed Syrian opposition came to stay with us. He asked whether we had money for weapons. We said that we hadn’t got any money, and he said that, you know, they give you weapons in Syria. He gave instructions, and talked about the ban on mobility in places where opposition forces were permanently deployed. He put us on a bus that was going to Hatay, and gave the number of a taxi driver who we should definitely call when when arrived.”
Hatay is a little town in the southeast of Turkey. At one time it was a small tourist center. The narrow little streets wind around the modern, lit avenues, Christian churches stand alongside mosques. Hatay is very reminiscent of Beirut. Or Damascus. Recently, the town has been in the news for reasons far from tourism. A trailer with smuggled weapons to Syrian rebels is detained, there are suspicious types with components of chemical weapons in their trunk…
It was here that the best known in narrow circles, the Russian terrorist Abu Banat, was arrested (his secular name is Magomed Abdurakhmanov).
There, where you shouldn’t talk in Russian
The Turkish province of Hatay is geographically recessed into Syrian territory. The distances by Russian standards are tiny. A few hundred meters from the highway, and there is Syria . Signposts say that it’s only 65 kilometers to Aleppo. In reality there is no border. What we took for barbed wire fences were actually olive plantations. There are a few borderguards on watchtowers, and a bit further away is the battle. Pillars of gray and black smoke rising to the sky, they crawl, enveloping the horizon.
That’s the front-line city of Aleppo. And we’re going to the village of Reyhanlı — a transit town before future martyrs are sent for an internship.
From the interrogation of S.S. Akhmedov:
“Arriving in a small village Reyhanlı we boarded the bus. Two uniformed officers came and demanded that we show documents and hand luggage. Then there were two other men in civilian clothes, and after collecting our passports, went into the police station. After 20 minutes, they came back and gave the passports, wishing us a pleasant journey.”
Reyhanlı is the usual faceless eastern city that without regret exchanged its old buildings for concrete boxes with shops on the ground floors.
We were warned many times: don’t talk in Russian. We presented ourselves as Poles and lisped as much as possible. The familiar Turks were replaced with angry Syrians fleeing the war, resting after the war, getting ready to go to war …
Local people treat the influx with pity mixed with disgust. But they give up their homes. However, at a price that is unnecessarily above the market rate. For such a small town there are too many hostels, guest houses, inns. But virtually no free rooms.
Without even knowing it, we settled in a guest house considered a major transit point for “soldiers of Allah” from the North Caucasus and the CIS. The GPS in our smartphone shows the geographical point of our location as a “Caucasian cultural center”. However, we found no signage on the building, or other signs of cultural expansion.
A young man who looked like a journalist asks the receptionist in English: “Where is Sergei the Dagestani?” There are lots of Dagestanis here. In the pension there are even working language courses where volunteers teach colloquial Arabic.
Next to us at a table there is a very young Caucasian boy in national dress — a tracksuit, FBI cap and slippers — reading a book, “What You Need to Know about the Hajj. A Russian-Arabic phrase book”.
We know where he bought it – in a newspaper kiosk at Makhachkala airport.
“An informative book?” we start the conversation.
“I can’t make head or tail of it!” Our conversation partner, it seems, found an excuse to stop his study of colloquial Arabic. “And who are you?”
Aslan (as was his name) suddenly looks stressed out, but we show him our international journalist cards and the green color fades out of his cheeks.
“I’m going to help my brothers in the Holy War. If you’re a believer then you can’t stand on the sidelines. They’ve got tanks and airplanes, but we’ve got faith and only those who believe will win.”
“You’re not scared?”
“Everything’s up to the will of Allah. Death in jihad is the highest service before the Almighty.”
The next morning, a cheap jeep with Syrian numberplates turns up at the hotel. Aslan throws his sports bag into the car and shakes our hand. Clearly he hasn’t slept all night, he’s got circles under his eyes, and the paleness is obvious even on his pasty skin. Whether he comes back or not is up to the will of Allah.
From the interrogation of SS Akhmedov:
“They put me in a car and drove me to the border with a group of about 50 people, where we got out. We crossed the border at night, under fire from the border patrol, and crawled about 600 meters.
In Atma, members of the Syrian armed opposition were already waiting for us with cars. They were mostly citizens of Kyrgyzstan. They took us into the town of Anadan, in which people were divided into Jamaats. All of us wound up in the Jamaat named the Caucasus Emirate, led by a Chechen, Umar Shishani. It includes about 7 groups of around 25 – 30 people. In this Jamaat there were Chechens, Azeris, Lezgins, Avars, two Germans, one Turk, and two Russian citizens of Kazakhstan … “
Image: How to legally (and not so legally) get to Syria
Top line: START: Moscow or Makhachkala (plane)> Istanbul (bus)> Hatay (taxi)> Reyhanli (walk)> Turkish-Syrian Border (jeep)> Aleppo FINISH
The image says it costs:
$700 Ukraine to Turkey by ship
$1,000 Russia to Aleppo by car
$500 Azerbaijan to Iran to Iraq to Syria by car
(Featured image: Abu Umar al-Shishani earlier this year)
About the Author
Joanna Paraszczuk Joanna Paraszczuk is EA WorldView’s Managing Editor. An Israeli journalist, she covered Iran and the Arab World for The Jerusalem Post. Previously, she lived and worked in Russia and Ukraine. Joanna speaks fluent Hebrew and Russian and reads Persian and Arabic.