How Russia allowed homegrown radicals to go and fight in Syria | World Defense

How Russia allowed homegrown radicals to go and fight in Syria

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How Russia allowed homegrown radicals to go and fight in Syria
For years Islamic militants in Russia were hunted by police. But then the authorities changed tack and allowed some to travel to the Middle East, sources say.

NOVOSASITLI, Russia – Four years ago, Saadu Sharapudinov was a wanted man in Russia. A member of an outlawed Islamist group, he was hiding in the forests of the North Caucasus, dodging patrols by paramilitary police and plotting a holy war against Moscow.

Then his fortunes took a dramatic turn. Sharapudinov, 38, told Reuters that in December 2012 Russian intelligence officers presented him with an unexpected offer. If he agreed to leave Russia, the authorities would not arrest him. In fact, they would facilitate his departure.

“I was in hiding, I was part of an illegal armed group, I was armed,” said Sharapudinov during an interview in a country outside Russia. Yet he says the authorities cut him a deal. “They said: ‘We want you to leave.’”

Sharapudinov agreed to go. A few months later, he was given a new passport in a new name, and a one-way plane ticket to Istanbul. Shortly after arriving in Turkey, he crossed into Syria and joined an Islamist group that would later pledge allegiance to radical Sunni group Islamic State.

Reuters has identified five other Russian radicals who, relatives and local officials say, also left Russia with direct or indirect help from the authorities and ended up in Syria. The departures followed a pattern, said Sharapudinov, relatives of the Islamists and former and acting officials: Moscow wanted to eradicate the risk of domestic terror attacks, so intelligence and police officials turned a blind eye to Islamic militants leaving the country. Some sources say officials even encouraged militants to leave.

The scheme continued until at least 2014, according to acting and former officials as well as relatives of those who left. The cases indicate the scheme ramped up ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics because the Russian authorities feared homegrown militants would try to attack the event.

The six Russian militants and radicals identified by Reuters all ended up in Syria, most of them fighting with jihadist groups that Russia now says are its mortal enemies. They were just a fraction of the radicals who left Russia during that period. By December 2015, some 2,900 Russians had left to fight in the Middle East, Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB, the Russian security service, said at a sitting of the National Anti-terrorist Committee late last year. According to official data, more than 90 percent of them left Russia after mid-2013.

“Russian is the third language in the Islamic State after Arabic and English. Russia is one of its important suppliers of foreign fighters,” said Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a senior analyst for International Crisis Group, an independent body aimed at resolving conflicts.

“Before the Olympics, Russian authorities didn’t prevent departures and a big number of fighters left Russia. There was a very specific short-term task to ensure security of the Olympics … They turned a blind eye on the flow of radical youth” to the Middle East.

Moscow is now fighting Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria that the Kremlin says pose a threat to the security of Russia and the world. The Kremlin has justified its campaign of air strikes in Syria by saying its main objective was to crush Islamic State.


FREE TO GO: Saadu Sharapudinov, a radical from the Russian province of Dagestan, says he was helped by Russian authorities to leave the country. He is pictured here at a location outside Russia in late December 2015. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova

But now, according to Sharapudinov, the FSB officer said he was free to leave Russia and that the state would help him go.

"They said: ‘Go wherever you want, you can even go fight in Syria,’" Sharapudinov told Reuters in December. He recalled that the Olympics came up in the negotiations. “They said something like, ‘to let the Olympics pass without incidents.’ They didn’t conceal they were sending out others as well,” he said.

NEW NAME

Sharapudinov had his own reasons for leaving Russia. There were tensions between him and the local emir, who was also the commander of the militant group to which he belonged. When Sharapudinov told his mother of the FSB’s offer, she tearfully asked him to take it, he said, because she did not want him to be a fugitive any longer.

The plan required the involvement of more state machinery: Sharapudinov needed a new passport to leave Russia, according to the former local official who acted as a go-between.

“Since he was on the wanted list, they couldn’t send him out otherwise,” the former official told Reuters.

Sharapudinov said he was handed a new passport when he arrived at the Mineralnye Vody airport in southern Russia in September 2013, where he was escorted by an FSB employee in a silver Lada car with darkened windows. Along with the passport he got a one-way ticket to Turkey.

Sharapudinov showed Reuters the passport that he said had been supplied by the Russian state. It had a slightly different name and date of birth to those recorded for Sharapudinov on an official list of wanted militants. The photograph showed Sharapudinov, who had a beard when he was interviewed for this article, as shaved. He said he had got rid of his beard for the new passport.

While Reuters was unable to confirm the provenance of the passport, neighbours of Sharapudinov and the former official who acted as a go-between confirmed his identity and his story of how he got the document. Sharapudinov asked that the name in the passport, which he uses as his new identity, not be published.

North Caucasus security officials deny that Islamist radicals were intentionally helped out of the country, but agree their absence helped to solve security problems in the region. "Of course, the departure of Dagestani radicals in large numbers made the situation in the republic healthier," said Magomed Abdurashidov from the Anti-terrorist Commission of Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan.

A security services officer who took part in negotiations with militants from Novosasitli confirmed that a few fighters “laid down arms and came out” from hiding before later travelling to Syria. “Since they disarmed we stopped prosecuting them,” he said.

He said there were cases over a few years but that it had nothing to do with the Sochi Games. He said the security services did not help anyone leave. “If no measures are being taken against them, according to law, they have same rights as every Russian citizen,” he said. “They could get an international passport and leave.”

The security services officer said he did not know Sharapudinov’s case.


FSB FACTOR: Russian President Vladimir Putin with Alexander Bortnikov, right, director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 2014. Bortnikov has said that 2,900 Russians have left to fight in the Middle East. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov


“The departure of Dagestani radicals in large numbers made the situation in the republic healthier.”

Magomed Abdurashidov, Anti-terrorist Commission of Makhachkala


 

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When Sharapudinov got to Syria, he said, Islamic State was on the rise but did not control much territory. He joined a rebel group called Sabri Jamaat with other fighters from Russia and post-Soviet states. They were based in Al Dana near Aleppo, and Islamic State controlled neighbouring territory.

According to Sharapudinov, the two groups were friendly towards each other. Later, Sabri Jamaat pledged allegiance to Islamic State, though Sharapudinov said that by that time he had quit fighting and left Syria. He declined to say whether he had seen other Dagestani radicals in Syria.

Reuters independently found details of five other miltants who left Russia in similar circumstances to Sharapudinov. The five are either dead, in jail or still in Syria and unreachable.

Relatives, neighbours and local officials gave accounts of what happened to the men (see Other radicals allowed to leave Russia). The five shared some common threads: They were all from Dagestan, and Russian authorities had reason to deny them travel documents and prevent them from leaving the country. But according to relatives and local officials, in each case the authorities made their passage possible.

One of the five other militants who left Russia was Magomed Rabadanov from the village of Berikey. A local police officer in the village said that in 2014 his orders were to keep a close eye on Rabadanov and other suspected radicals as part of a new security policy established before the Sochi Olympics.


FATHER: Suleiban Rabadanov, seen here in his village of Kurdyukovskoye in Dagestan, said his son Magomed, an alleged Islamic State fighter, had been under house arrest yet was still allowed to leave Russia. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova

He said he was told to put potential radicals on a watch list and to telephone them once a month. “If they didn't pick up, we had to find them," the officer said in his office, showing a Reuters reporter Rabadanov's profile on his computer monitor. The police officer said that during preparations for the Olympics, Rabadanov was listed as a person "with non-traditional Islamic beliefs, Wahhabism" - the school of Sunni Islam known for its strict interpretation of the faith.

At one point, Rabadanov had been detained for keeping explosives at his home, according to his father, Suleiban Rabadanov, but had been released shortly afterwards and placed under house arrest instead.

Despite being under such restriction, Rabadanov was able to leave Russia: He passed through passport control at a Moscow international airport along with his wife and his son in May 2014, his father and the local police officer said. He later turned up in Syria, his father said. Government officials had no comment on Rabadanov.

Suleiban Rabadanov said he received a message on Jan. 2, 2015, from someone who said his son had been killed fighting with Islamic State militants against Kurdish forces near the Syrian town of Kobani, on the border with Turkey.

The father of another militant also said his son was allowed to leave Russia as part of a deal with the authorities. The former official who acted as the go-between in Sharapudinov’s case said two other militants were helped to get passports.

Residents and officials in Dagestan said that once Russian militants arrived in Syria they encouraged others from their home communities to join them. From the village of Berikey, which has a population of 3,000, some 28 people left for areas of the Middle East controlled by Islamic State, according to the local police officer. He said 19 of the 28 were listed in Russia as radicals.

In a police station near Berikey, a Reuters reporter saw a computer file on dozens of suspected militants. The file was entitled “Wahs,” an abbreviation the police use for “Wahhabis.”

Some pictures showed groups of bearded young men from Berikey and nearby villages, posing with guns. The officer said the photographs, found or received online, showed the men in Syria and Iraq.


REGIONAL CAPITAL: Makhachkala in Dagestan, a Russian republic where the influence of Wahhabi Islam is significant. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor
Other radicals allowed to leave Russia
By Maria Tsvetkova
Temur Djamalutdinov


MOTHER: Ludmila Djamalutdinova, from the village of Dzhemikent in Dagestan, shows a picture of her son, Temur, who fought with Islamic State in Syria, according to his family. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova

From the village of Dzhemikent in Dagestan, Temur Djamalutdinov applied for an international passport in September 2014 but was rejected because he owed unpaid alimony to his ex-wife, said his brother, Arsen.

The following month, Djamalutdinov was put on a police list of Wahhabis. He was subject to regular police checks, his family said.

Yet two weeks later, he managed to leave the country with a freshly issued passport, his brother said. A local police officer said Djamalutdinov had crossed the border legally. Arsen Djamalutdinov said he still does not understand how his brother managed to leave.

In late December 2015, Arsen said, fellow radicals messaged him from Syria and told him that Djamalutdinov had been killed near Kobani, close to the Turkish border, around the same time another Russian militant, Magomed Rabadanov, died there.

Government officials had no comment on the case.

Uvais Sharapudinov and Akhmed Dengayev

Both men came from the village of Novosasitli in Dagestan and were part of the same militant group as Saadu Sharapudinov (see main story), according to a former local official who said he acted as a mediator in the case of Saadu Sharapudinov.

The former official said Dengayev and Uvais Sharapudinov (no relation to Saadu) agreed a deal with the local FSB to stop fighting in exchange for avoiding arrest and shortly afterwards decided to leave Russia. The former official said he helped them to get passports. Every Russian passport has to be approved by the FSB.

In the summer of 2013, the two men left Russia and travelled via Turkey to Syria, where they fought for armed Islamist groups, according to multiple sources in their home village and a person who was in Syria with them. Uvais Sharapudinov was injured during fighting over the border town of Kobani and died in a hospital on the Turkish side of the border, according to several acquaintances.

Dengayev left Syria before his rebel group joined Islamic State and returned to Russia, according to friends and relatives. He was sentenced to jail under a law that bans Russians from engaging in fighting abroad that is against Russia's interests.

The security officer involved in the talks with militants from Novosasitli said: “I assumed they could leave for Syria. It was their legal right … Even realising someone could go to Syria, what could we do?”

Government officials had no comment on the case.

Akhmed Aligadjiev


PARTED COMPANY: Magomed Aligadjiev, seen here near the village of Gimry in Dagestan, said his son Akhmed was allowed to leave for Syria despite being on a wanted list in Russia. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova


A mugshot of Akhmed Aligadjiev can still be seen on old Dagestani billboards depicting wanted militants. His home village of Gimry is a hotspot for Islamist activity. In January this year, a heavily armed police unit was stopping all non-residents from entering the village.

Aligadjiev’s father, Magomed, said his son was put on a terrorist wanted list but in 2008 was offered a deal by the authorities. He said Aligadjiev and three other militants were allowed to get international passports and to fly out of Russia to wherever they wanted. They chose Syria. Aligadjiev senior explained his son’s choice by saying he had previously studied in Syria.

Aligadjiev senior said the authorities had been faced with a choice "to kill them, to jail them or to send them wherever they want." He said he does not know whether his son later joined the fighting in Syria because he broke off contact with him due to his radical views.

The village head in Gimry, Aliashab Magomedov, confirmed Aligadjiev was sent abroad by authorities in exchange for surrendering.

Government officials had no comment on the case.


—————

By Maria Tsvetkova

Photo editing: Simon Newman

Graphics: Christian Inton

Design: Catherine Tai

Edited by Richard Woods, Simon Robinson and Christian Lowe

How Russia allowed homegrown radicals to go and fight in Syria
 

remnant

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It just proves that at the end of the day, governments are inherently selfish and short termist in their approach to global issues. This perhaps informs Moscow's decision to send bombers to Syria with the goal of not only bolstering Assad but also taking the heat to the doorstep of the militator they allowed to leave and ended up in Syria. Talk of other countries cutting underhand deals with ISIS is also rife with Israel being among those mentioned. And this has precedents in the past like the Afghan conflict during the Cold War and presently, the cooperation between Pakistan and the Taliban and other dangerous militants through their intelligence agencies. The terrorists are getting a lifeline to fight another day.
 
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