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‘Congratulations, your brother’s become a martyr’ How Moscow’s migrant workers became Islamic State fighters

Meduza
Photo: SIPA / Scanpix

Fighters from the world’s largest terrorist group, the Islamic State of Syria and Lebanon (ISIL), have threatened to open a new front, this time in Central Asia. In April 2015, in the Tajikistani capital Dushanbe, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov spoke of the threat of an invasion of Tajikistan by ISIL, which could, in turn, threaten Russia. Russia promised the country support, and is planning to send 70 billion rubles ($890 million) for weapons and to secure the border with Afghanistan. Meduza correspondent Daniil Turovsky set off to Tajikistan and found that the majority of new fighters in the Islamic State are being recruited by “Chechen groups” from migrants working at Moscow’s construction sites. As a result of their efforts, 2,000 to 4,000 Central Asian migrants have already departed for Syria.

Gulru Olimova is from the Tajikistani city of Kulyab, 30 kilometres from the Afghan border. She has dreamt of becoming a doctor or nurse since she was a child. Her dreams didn’t come true. When she was 16, Gulru met a local drug dealer by the name of Loik Rajabov on the streets of the city. He took a liking to the girl, and a few days later he came to her house and asked her family for her hand in marriage.

Gulru refused. So did her mother, Mairambi Olimova, who told me her story. Her would-be son-in-law promised her that if they did not give the girl over to him, he would “bury them all.”

Mairambi was bringing up her children on her own. Her husband had died a few years ago, and her sons were still young and could not help in resistance or defense .

Gulru and Loik were soon married in a Muslim ceremony, and Mairambi’s daughter went to live in her husband’s house on the outskirts of town. Aside from Loik, several of his brothers also resided there. Mairambi said they were all vovchiki, using the word Tajiks have used for radical islamists since the time of their civil war in the 1990s.

I asked Mairambi to show me a photo of her daughter, but she shook her head. Loik had burned them all.

Mairambi Olimova
Mairambi Olimova
Photo: Daniil Turovsky / Meduza

Soon after the wedding, Loik began beating his wife, and one time he slashed her forehead with a knife. Over the course of eight years they had three children. Loik frequently left for Moscow to earn money. After one trip to the Russian capital, Mairambi told me, they hung an Islamic State flag outside their house.

In autumn 2014, Loik took his wife and children to Moscow. He had been offered work in a construction brigade building dachas (summer houses) in suburban Moscow. A few months later, Loik called Mairambi from an unknown number. He said that he and his wife and children had moved to Syria and asked her not to tell anyone. But Mairambi, who had worked as a cleaner for the local KGB, and then the Tajikistan State Committee for National Security (GKNB) for 30 years, couldn’t keep such information from the authorities. The GKNB asked her to tell them about Loik and Gulru and about their circle of friends. Now she periodically gets called in by the security services to find out if she has any news from Syria.

“Most of all, I want them to bring him [Loik] here, pour 10 liters of gasoline on his head, and set him on fire,” Mairambi spits.

Gulru has called her mother from Syria several times. During the last conversation, which took place at the start of April, she said that the Islamic State gave them $30,000 for their journey to the Syrian city of Aleppo. They settled into a four-bedroom apartment with a television, refrigerator and carpeting. Gulru also said that they’ve found work. Her husband Loik barely takes any part in military activities. He inspects cars on roads for alcohol and cigarettes, which ISIL has banned.

The Islamic State pays them $35 a month in child benefits for each of their three children. Gulru herself, whose mother never before thought her to be a religious radical, now maintains that “the Caliphate will come to Tajikistan, so that Muslims will be able to live with Allah.”

“We’re bringing Jihad to Tajikistan”

It’s not just the locals who are discussing a possible invasion by Islamic State fighters from Afghanistan. These rumors regularly make their way into statements made by Russian and Tajikistani officials. On April 2, 2015, at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Tajikistan is facing “real threats from the south in connection with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, where the Islamic State has already appeared.” In his opinion, ISIL fighters are actively recruiting allies in Afghanistan and sending them to Tajikistan. The border is 1,350 kilometers (almost 840 miles) long and poorly guarded, with the Afghan side already under full control of the Taliban. The most radical Taliban have pledged their loyalty to ISIL and present a threat to all of Central Asia. This means they’re also a real threat to Russia. Because of this, Russia is prepared to send 70 billion rubles ($890 million) to help arm the country and shore up defense on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Already in December 2014, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon called ISIL “the plague of the century and a serious danger for Tajikistan.”

In April 2015, a statement also appeared on the official Twitter account of the Russian defense ministry from Deputy Minister Anatoly Antonov: “The Russian military base in Tajikistan [the base of the 201st Division in Kulyab] is our outpost, ready to defend this country and the CSTO from a possible terrorist threat. Groups of ISIL [fighters] have already appeared on the border of Tajikistan. By helping Tajikistan, we are defending Russia and the countries of the CSTO, our allies.” He later clarified that an escalation of tensions in the north of Afghanistan and a possible “spillover” into Central Asia threatens Russia and her allies.

Ahmad Ibrahim, editor-in-chief of of the Kulyab newspaper Paik, whose correspondents have been covering Tajikistani fighters, agrees with officials.

“In Afghanistan, there have been groups of Islamic State fighters numbering up to 100 people for a long time now,” he says. “There are Tajiks, there are Uzbeks. They’re being trained to attack their own states. They could seize Tajikistan within two days.”

Nusrat Nazarov
Nusrat Nazarov
Image: Raqqa Media Center

According to him, this threat needs to be treated with utmost seriousness right now, given that Tajikistani fighters in ISIL have united around Nusrat Nazarov, a man who comes from the border city of Kulyab, which Russia considers to be an “outpost, protecting Tajikistan from terrorists.”

In Syria, Nusrat Nazarov took the nom de guerre Abu Kholidi Kulobi. Kulobi himself told Ibrahim on the phone that he now leads groups from Syria, but is prepared to head to Afghanistan and attack Tajikistan from there.

In one of his most recent video messages (posted on March 19, 2015, but since deleted from social media networks), Nusrat Nazarov stands surrounded by men in military fatigues and announces that “there are around 2,000 Tajiks here. You see them here and feel like you’re in Tajikistan. If this continues, there will be no one left in Tajikistan. They’ll all come to fight in Syria.” At the end of the video, he says that his next message will be recorded from Tajikistan or the Kremlin. “We’re bringing Jihad to Tajikistan to establish the laws of Allah,” he concludes.

Who heads the Islamic State’s Tajik detachment?

Some say that in it’s easy to find Nusrat Nazarov’s older brother Hairullo around Kulyab’s Bazaar. But local journalists advise not to bother, since he seems to have disappeared from the city. I ask around further, in hopes of finding him. Some people just shake their heads, but others tell me to “look for a man in red near a red car.” I work my way through the market and find a red car. There’s no one in it. A voice from behind me asks, “Taxi?” I turn around. There’s a man squatting and chewing chukri, a crunchy mountain grass, which tastes a bit like sorrel. He’s wearing a red T-shirt and red sneakers.

Hairullo Nazaraov
Hairullo Nazaraov
Photo: Daniil Turovsky / Meduza

Sure enough, it’s Hairullo Nazarov, the brother of the head Tajik in ISIL.

In the summer of 2014, Hairullo was called in to the GKNB, which was a bad sign. That’s how he learned that his brother was in Syria. The agents even showed him a recent picture of his brother, in which Nusrat had a beard, was dressed in in a robe and was holding an assault rifle in his hand. Behind him was the infamous flag as a background. The security agents explained that according to what they knew, he had become the leader of the Tajik detachment of the Islamic State.

“I wasn’t that surprised. He was always so brash and hot-headed, such a problem person,” explained Hairullo.

According to him, Nusrat often ran away from home. In sixth grade he was expelled from school. Nusrat’s main dream, Hairullo tells me, was to live lavishly and easily.

Nusrat turned 18 in 1993. He was drafted into the army, but ran off to Moscow five days later. There, he worked as a bombila — a driver in Moscow’s fleet of semi-legal private taxis. He returned to Tajikistan only in 1999 and he began selling cannabis at the bazaar. He found a wife, but didn’t take her with him to ISIL. She doesn’t even want to talk about him with relatives, Hairullo tells me.

In 2005, Nusrat, who had by that time gotten involved in trading heroin, was sent to prison. He was amnestied a year later, and again left for Moscow. Throughout the 2000s, he traveled to the Russian capital five times.

“He became more and more religious. After 2013, he returned and began calling all those around him kaffirs [unbelievers],” his brother Hairullo says. “He said that in Moscow he had met some sort of Chechens in the mosque on Prospekt Mira who opened his eyes to ‘proper Islam.’ He said that Tajikistan had to be changed. He said that it was impossible to live like this, that all around us was poverty and there was no work. Everyone who comes from Moscow now says that Chechens come to the mosques and the building sites, explaining to our migrants that they have to go live in Syria, where the Caliphate is. I think that those who go there, to IS, they hate Russia for the conditions and the labor which they have to endure to live. They’re in a situation with no way out. You can’t work here, you have to break the law to make money here. In Russia the conditions are impossible, even if there’s a bit of money to be made. In the Islamic State they’re promised both money and freedom. Why not go then? There are already 5,000 Tajiks there.”

Hairullo no longer answers phone calls from unknown numbers. “There will be problems if I talk to him” he explained, “I’m sure that the KGB taps my phone. Why should I get involved?”

Nursat Nazarov’s acquaintances from Kulyab say that he set out for Syria from Moscow through Turkey. This is the usual route; the majority of Muslims heading to ISIL go through Turkey. Citizens of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are issued visas when they arrive at the border. In Turkey, foreigners are met by people from ISIL, are handed instructions and sent out in groups to the border cities, usually to Gaziantep near the Mursitpinar border crossing.

* * *

Nusrat Nazarov is now in Raqqa in the north of Syria, serving the Emir of the Khorasan Division, the aim of which is to spread the Caliphate across the historical territory of Khorosan, covering the modern states of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Nusrat occasionally calls home by phone. A few times he called a local religious leader, the former imam of the Kulyab Mosque, Hoji Mirzo. In March 2015, they had the following conversation, the recording of which was played for me in the office of Kuryab’s Paik newspaper.

Hoji: You people are chopping people’s heads off. What did they do to you?

Nusrat: It’s what they did and what they will do. In Tajikistan right now everyone is against Allah. They’ve declared war on Allah. We will come and we will kill them all, everyone will answer in blood. This will all happen in Tajikistan soon.

Hoji: If I come for you, will you come back?

Nusrat: So they can arrest me? 

Ahmad Ibrohim
Ahmad Ibrohim
Photo: Daniil Turovsky / Meduza

At the beginning of 2015 during a phonecall, Nusrat threatened the editor-in-chief of Paik for publishing photos of Tajik fighters. “He said to me, ‘We’re scary. We cut people’s heads off. We’ll set you all on fire, we’ve got people here,’” Ahmad Ibrohim tells me. In his hand he holds a mobile phone decorated with the Tajikistan flag. Behind him hangs a portrait of President Emomali Rahmon.

“He said ‘What would you say if in a couple of days my people in Kulyab were to come and burn your newspaper’s offices to the ground?’ This was January 6. Charlie Hebdo took place on January 7. He said that he was coming to Tajikistan to lay a path to Russia through Tajikistan. Yes. He lived in Moscow for many years. He was a guest worker there. Now he plans to fight Russia.”

Who is recruiting guest workers to ISIL? 

Beyond the first stalls of the bazaar where they sell flatbread, meat, fruits and herbs, there are closed pavilions with small poorly-lit shops inside. Pipes and wires stick out of the walls. Here, they sell CDs with national pop music, and there’s also a small door to the “rear market” — the domain of the cannabis dealers and currency changers.

Four men who used to work at construction sites in downtown Moscow confirm that “the Chechens came” to visit their construction trailers and to encourage them to join the Islamic State. According to the men, several groups of Chechen recruiters would go back and forth between the spots usually frequented by migrants, their construction trailers and dorms where they resided. The recruiters came in groups of three to four people, and they were usually about 30 years old. They would come after 8 p.m., when the migrants would return home from work.

The recruiters would explain to the migrants why they should leave Moscow. “You shouldn’t live like slaves. They don’t respect you here,” they said, and would go on to explain that in ISIL fighting wasn’t obligatory, that they would be able to lead a comfortable life and work without being humiliated or feeling demeaned.

At these meetings they didn’t talk about the need to wage war against Tajikistan, or the need to take part in terrorist activities. They would offer between $5,000 and $10,000 to help get a newcomer all set up, and if you had a family you could get two to three times more. They explained that ISIL wanted you to bring your family, because ISIL is a “real state” which promises accommodation, while leaving your family behind could lead to “manipulation of your relatives.”

A lean Tajik man with very white teeth who had worked in Moscow on numerous occasions told me that he would definitely go to the Islamic State if they asked him to. “There’s a Caliphate there. You can live there as a Muslim and you don’t have to fight, Allah be praised. You can go and become a part of the only state of Allah. Without homosexuals, lesbians and other filth.”

The guest workers didn’t know which regions in Chechnya these recruiters came from. One can assume that some of them are from the Pankisi Gorge, a region of Georgia with a historic Chechen community.

When I was in Pankisi, the locals told me that about 100 to 200 people had left for Syria. A Pankisi Chechen, Omar Ash-Shishani, is one of the leaders of the Islamic State and he is looking for new fighters. In December 2013, the Syrian ambassador to Russia announced that there were about 1,700 people from Chechnya fighting in ISIL. According to the organization SITE, which monitors terrorist groups, ISIL is paying particular attention to Russia as the result of an influx of people from the Caucasus.

“In Moscow they recruit around the mosque on Prospekt Mira after Friday prayers, when a small bazaar gets set up and people go off to little cafes to drink tea,” says Ahmad Ibrahim. “This is the type of place where young guest workers gather. Those who have a normal life, who aren’t hassled by the police at night, they don’t go to Syria. Many want them [ISIL] to come here and establish a new state, a state in which things will be different, not how they are now.”

Kulyab newspaper Paik. Headline reads “Nusrat Nazarov calls on Tajik religious figure Hoji Mirzo to come to Syria”
Kulyab newspaper Paik. Headline reads “Nusrat Nazarov calls on Tajik religious figure Hoji Mirzo to come to Syria”
Photo: Daniil Turovsky / Meduza

Hoji Mirzo, a former imam at a Kulyab mosque, told Paik that he often gets calls from his former congregation who are now in Moscow. “They tell me, ‘There’s a proper jihad there. We want to go there. What should we do?’” In March 2015, a young woman called Hoji. She admitted that she and her husband were going to Syria. She said that her husband was “negotiating over the phone” and ISIL was going to give them $50,000 to settle in Syria. Hoji advised her not to go there for any amount of money. A few days later, the woman turned off her phone.

“Poverty is one of the main reasons our young people get involved with extremist groups and participate in wars in Muslim states,” said Gulnazar Keldi, the author of the Tajikistan’s national anthem, at a special session of Tajikistan’s parliament. “Many of our young people are busy with difficult work, their lives are very hard and they live in a foreign country. At this very point, people appear who promise good money and heaven on earth, and they attract them into the jihad. Our young people, who are busy most of the time trying to find enough money to survive, to get an education and form families, give in to the temptation upon hearing these promises.” According to official Federal Migration Service data, in April 2015 about one million migrants from Tajikistan were residing in Russia.

“The call of IS is an attractive alternative”

On January 20, 2015, The International Crisis Group published a report called Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia. According to the researchers, in the last three years, between 2,000 and 4,000 people have come to Syria from Tajikistan.

The Islamic State, in the authors’ opinion, is attracting not only those who want to fight, but also those who are searching for a “more pious and religious life.”

“The call of ISIL – which says it wants teachers, nurses and engineers, not just fighters – can appear to some as an attractive alternative,” the authors speculate, adding that the new Caliphate is perceived by inhabitants of Central Asia as a change from “the post-Soviet life,”

“In Russia, migrants are marginalised, often finding themselves there illegally, they earn little money and find meaning and companionship in religion,” write the authors. They believe the situation in Central Asia is rapidly deteriorating, as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) unites with the Islamic State.

The IMU was founded in 1996. Its aim is the creation of an Islamic government on the territory of the Ferghana Valley, a ravine running between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The IMU has taken responsibility for bombings, kidnappings and attacks on Afghan security forces. The organization has links to the Afghan Taliban, and its recruiters and allies are to be found throughout Tajikistan and the Ferghana Valley.

The unification of the group with ISIL was announced on September 26 by the IMU’s leader, Usmon Gozi. “In the name of each and every member of our Islamic movement, I declare to the whole world that we are uniting with the Islamic Caliphate. That this is the duty of all of us in Islam, in this continuing war between Islam and unbelief. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan offers support to this young Islamic State as its duty and responsibility in faith.” His words were confirmed on October 6, 2014 by Uzbekistan’s security agencies. According to their information, military detachments and camps of the IMU are actively recruiting and training fighters in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Factions within the Afghan Taliban have declared its support for the Islamic State. In October 2014, the movement’s spokesperson, Shahidulla Shahid, sent an email to Reuters in which he wrote, "Oh our brothers, we are proud of you in your victories. We are with you in your happiness and your sorrow. In these troubled days, we call for your patience and stability, especially now that all your enemies are united against you. Please put all your rivalries behind you. All Muslims in the world have great expectations of you. We are with you, we will provide you with mujahideen [fighters] and with every possible support.” Officially the Taliban has not declared its unification with the Islamic State.

Sources speaking to the expert journal Iranian Diplomacy have stated Afghan fighters who have pledged to ISIL have changed their previous banners to the black flag of the Islamic State. “Now on the Tajikistan border there are up to 5,000 fighters from ISIL, and on the Turkmenistan border around 2,000. The Afghan provinces of Kunduz, Baglan, Sar-e Pol, Faryab and Jozjan have become assembly points for terrorists from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, the North Caucasus, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan,” according to the journal.

In January 2015, news broke of the arrest of dozens of members of the IMU, who planned to attack a police station in Tajikistan. The attackers had planned to sieze weapons and ammunition. The Tajikistani security services announced that the leader of the group had been recruited in Russia, where he had labored as a guest worker. Along with several fellow workers he formed a small IMU cell, which the leadership tasked with collecting money for the Islamic State’s war in Syria.

“Congratulations, your brother’s become a martyr”

Ibrohim lives in a small village near the Afghan border. He is the father of Bobojon Kurbonov, one of the fighters killed in the battle for Raqqa airport in Syria. His home is a dugout in a hill.

Ibrohim Kurbonov
Ibrohim Kurbonov
Photo: Daniil Turovsky / Meduza

Ibrohim is a gray-haired old man who walks with a cane. He doesn’t want to talk about his son. “What’s there to say? Why bother? I have disowned him,” he explains. “He never listened, did everything without permission. Then he went to Moscow in 2013. What did he go there for? How was I to know what he was doing there? Was he eating well? Was he living well? Had they gone to clean toilets there? I stopped talking to him after he left. When we came back, we didn’t see each other. Then he left again. I don’t understand how they could convince him to go [to Syria] if he wouldn’t even listen to me. He left his family — me, his children. He left and has dishonored us all.”

Ibrohim says that in September 2014, a stranger called another one of his sons and said, “Congratulations. Your brother’s become a martyr.” Bobojon was 41. He is survived by his four children.

“I expected something like this from him,” Ibrohim told me as we spoke in the rain next to the gate to his home. “But I couldn’t strangle him myself, they’d put me away for that. And now I’m suffering because of it. It would have been better just to strangle him.”

Daniil Turovsky

Kulyab, Tajikistan