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‘Islamic State is now a global territory’ ‘Meduza’ interviews a prominent ISIL imam based in Berlin

Source: Meduza
Photo: Welayat Salahuddin / AFP / Scanpix

Despite airstrikes from an international coalition, the terrorist group known as ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is still gaining strength. ISIL fighters recently seized the cities of Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq. Many of the militants are recruited from Europe. From time to time, recruiters are arrested. In January 2015, the police conducted an operation in the south of France and arrested six people from Chechnya who had helped local Islamists make their way to Syria to fight. Arrests have also taken place in Germany. In mid-January this year, 250 police officers raided 12 private homes and a mosque in Berlin. Eleven people were arrested, nine of whom were later released. 

Meduza’s special correspondent Daniil Turovsky spoke to Murad Atayev, an imam working at the Berlin mosque raided by the police this year. Atayev is one of the main Russian-speaking clerics of the “Islamic State,” and German authorities consider his mosque to be a recruitment point and fundraising center for ISIL fighters.

Atayev is Dagestani. He was not arrested in the raid. After the searches, he posted a video on his social network page entitled “The Berlin Spectacle,” in which the imam walked around the mosque, talking to the viewer: “There was a search in the mosque last night. The pigs barged in and took 11 brothers.” Atayev is active on social media and runs a Twitter account where he posts news about ISIL and hosts an online radio program for jihadists called “ShamToday.” Listeners ask questions about whether they’ll be given weapons in ISIL (“Yes, but it’s better to bring your own”) , whether they can get medical care there (“Everyone can receive free medical services and medicine”) and so on. Atayev also gives lectures titled “Patience is the guarantee of success for the Mujahideen,” “The Ordeal of Muslims,” and “Rigor in Jihad.” He is a member of the media community “ShamToday,” which creates Russian-language groups on social media with the aim of propagating ISIL and recruiting fighters. The communities occasionally post notices about fundraising drives for ISIL (this money is allegedly sometimes collected via Russian payment systems). The founder of the media community, an ISIL fighter by the name of Ilyas Deniyev, was killed in Iraq about a month ago during the seige of an oil refinery.

In his interview with Meduza, Atayev talked about about how ISIL is structured, why fighters plan to raze Palmyra to the ground, and why he doesn’t consider journalist executions to be barbaric. 

Murad Atayev
Image: The Berlin Spectacle / Zelim Khan / VKontakte


Atayev tells his story

“This year, there were searches in my mosque concerning direct links to ISIL. There were various accusations [against members of the congregation], from sponsoring the Islamic State, to propagandizing it, to being a member of it. There were similar searches last year and even before that.

I’ve never been to the Islamic State. I’m still here under conditions that do not allow me to move freely. There’s a limit on movement here for certain individuals who end up on the state’s blacklist. I wouldn’t have given myself the honor of putting my name on such a list, but it’s true. But fate is an unpredictable thing. We’ll see.

I’m acquainted with all of them because the Islamic State is now a global territory. The caliphate has already been established online. Today, the Islamic State has no limits on the media landscape. I’m constantly talking to people who are over there. I talk to all the groups. One could say that I’m an information aggregator for the Islamic State. Because of this, I try to tell people what’s going on, because much of what they say in the media isn’t true. They talk about enslaving women and killing children, for example. There are no video reports of this, it’s just something they made up. Now they’re dredging up reports about how the Islamic State is losing territory. On the contrary, ISIL is seizing new territory.”

Police at one of the houses in Berlin after the raid. January 16, 2015
Photo: Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters / Scanpix

In August 2014, Islamic State fighters seized hundreds of women from Kurdish and Yezidi villages in Iraq. Those who managed to escape told the BBC “They forced us to take off our shawls so they could chose their next victims. Many were raped. Women were dragged out of their homes by their hair. We don’t know what happened to them. One of the women who managed to escape said they sell girls from the age of nine. Some men bought several at once. One of my friends slit her wrists to avoid falling into sexual slavery.”

On Palmyra

“Any expression of polytheism, be it historical or from the modern era, has no place on the Islamic State’s territory. They tarnish the image of the [Islamic] State. ISIL is a religious state based on the Koran as law, and this means the leadership must destroy any manifestations of polytheism. All these monuments and museums imply a sort of historical continuity, but for ISIL they are expressions of polytheism. In Palmyra, which was recently completely seized by ISIL, all these monuments will be absolutely destroyed.”

ISIS fanatics destroy Mosul's museum
Tube News

In February 2015, Islamic State fighters destroyed ancient monuments in the Iraqi city of Mosul. They published a video in which fighters knock statues off their pedestals and smash them with sledgehammers. In addition, fighters drilled through a statue of a bull with a man’s head which dated to the 7th Century BC. In Mosul, fighters also blew up a library and burned tens of thousands of books, including maps that dated back to the Ottoman empire. UNESCO has blamed the Islamists for the destruction of thousands of years of history and culture in Iraq.

On public executions and the work of journalists

“These days, the best way to enter an enemy country is to pretend to be a journalist. In ISIL, in order to work as a journalist, you have to get a security certification. Then they won’t cut your head off [according to the regulations imposed by this certification, one must swear allegiance to the caliphate — ed].

This is how things should be done in a sharia country. If a person obtains this certificate, he can peacefully go about and be protected. Upon the journalist’s departure, the photographs taken are examined. When people enter the territory of the Islamic State without permission, take photos, sniff out information and are then captured, in these cases they stop being guests. If you don’t have a certification, you are an enemy.

To some, the punishments appear barbaric and cruel. Others view them as entirely reasonable. There is the principle of “an eye for an eye.” The Jordanian Air Force pilot subjected the ISIL population to the cruelest violence through his attacks and the fires that accompanied them. They [the ISIL fighters] found support and permission for their actions in the text of the Koran. This person subjected people to burning, therefore they responded to him in kind. They burned him, then they covered him in earth and rubble. They showed that the principle of “an eye for an eye” works.

If you’re talking about Foley [American journalist James Foley was executed in August 2014 — ed], then it is a well-known fact that he had been in the American intelligence services, although he presented himself as a war correspondent. He was executed on the basis of several different accounts of his espionage on the territory of ISIL. ISIL proposed a prisoner swap, but the USA and the countries of the West wouldn’t allow it. ISIL had no choice but to seal the fate of this man for good by cutting off his head.”

In December 2014, Jihadists shot down a Jordanian air force plane that had been carrying out airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The pilot was captured. ISIL fighters then posted a video online which showed him burning alive in a cage, then being buried in earth and stone. 

ISIL fighters execute the Jordanian air force pilot
Image: YouTube

The journalist James Foley was captured in Syria in 2012. Members of ISIL demanded 100 million euro from the US government for his release. In August 2014, the jihadists published a video in which Foley is forced to his knees and has his head cut off. After his death, the Islamic State demanded one million Euros from his relatives to return his body. After the incident with Foley, the Islamic State sentenced other journalists to death. In January 2015, they executed the Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, and in September 2014, they executed the American journalist Steven Sotloff. The British war photographer John Cantlie is currently in custody in ISIL.

On the structure of the Islamic State

“The idea to establish a caliphate has been in the consciousness of Muslims for a long time. Why? It’s a sacred dream. A dream of a state where a person doesn’t feel that his rights as a Muslim are limited: he can grow a beard in peace, she can wear a veil, they can proselytize their faith freely. Neither in Russia nor in the West is this possible.

ISIL doesn’t limit itself to war; the state is involved in the social sphere of life as well. Now we’re setting up social services, roadbuilding services, a sharia-based morality police. To limit ISIL to being a military base, to fight all day and all night would not be right. In Mosul alone there are three million people, in the now-liberated Ramadi there are 900,000 people. They don’t fight, they just live under Sharia.

Crime rates have be driven down to practically zero. You can freely leave a shop open, leave your car doors open. Under the Baghdad regime, life was not peaceful like it is now. There were never such clean streets before. Before, there were kidnappings, murders. People who perhaps aren’t inclined to follow strict Islam will find it better living in a regime that the West understands as strictly Islamist, than under the Iraqi government’s dictatorial regime. Because no one threatens your life if you lead a normal, sober life. ISIL provides for a peaceful life within the framework of sharia.

Now, if a fighter were to wrong someone, any ordinary citizen can file a complaint against him. I know that recently three fighters were punished for improper behavior towards a citizen. The fighters had reprimanded him, but it had escalated to a degree of physical aggression.

When ISIL forces took Ramadi, people there were overjoyed and broke into celebration.”

Ramadi residents flee the city as ISIL fighters advance
Photo: Reuters / Scanpix

“No one in ISIL propagates any form of sin. Why? Because that sort of thing is being stamped out. There are committees for the prevention of sin and there is a morality police. They investigate sin like smoking, alcohol consumption, swearing. These are all punishable by whipping. 70-80 lashes for alcohol. A person is whipped for not coming to the obligatory Friday prayers. This is done in order to prevent this gangrene, these sins, from spreading.

Homosexuality is punishable by death. Homosexuals in ISIL will continue to be killed. This is a fundamental part of the legislation.

The majority of women in ISIL don’t work, but rather occupy themselves with their families. But there are a number of female departments where they can work. For example, schools, kindergartens and sewing shops for women’s clothes.”

The Islamic State is ruthless towards its enemies on captured territories. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in England, reports that between June and December 2014, the jihadists were responsible for killing around 2,000 people, including 1,175 civilians and 930 members of Sunni tribes fighting against ISIL in Syria. Among those killed there are also 120 fighters who tried to leave ISIL to return home. In November 2014, ISIL militants publicly executed 36 people (including 4 women and 3 children) by firing squad in a Sunni village in Iraq. Members periodically release videos of mass shootings. 

A suspected homosexual in ISIL was thrown from a roof and stoned to death

On Recruitment

“To be honest, it’s not possible to simply take a person and brainwash them to leave a comfortable life behind and take off. People who have convictions are prepared to sacrifice their lives for them to come to fruition. This is more the case if their convictions are such that their battles and actions will earn them a place in paradise. Those who are used to thinking rationally have difficulty understanding the motivations of such people, who leave behind their peaceful lives and go off to fight. But take Novorossiya, Lugansk [in Ukraine]. The majority [of Russians] who’ve gone there are volunteers, not acting military servicemen. Why do they go there to die? Who brainwashed them? Muslims also have their own values. The caliphate is an idea which preoccupied Muslim society since the very beginning. And if a person lives by the ideas of Islam, then he wants to see these ideas come to fruition in all their aspects. Not in a limited fashion, like in the West or in Russia.

I don’t think that someone can write someone on social media and recruit them that way. Today you don’t have to tell people about the possibility of going to ISIL. Propagandizing ISIL is enough. The videos that have been released are more than enough. You don’t need contacts. Everyone knows the road. You need to go to Turkey. Cross the border, and you end up in Syria. The crossings there are open. Turkey closes its eyes to everything. They have no other option – they don’t want conflict with ISIL. Turkey is not a country capable of military action. Conflict isn’t good for Turkey. They have a tourist industry which could be wrecked in an instant. And ISIL has an experienced army from the Chechen Wars, from Afghanistan, with so many nationalities from so many countries. They know the specifics of many different weapons systems.

The masses go there themselves, they don’t need help. It’s not hard to end up on ISIL territory. But yes, ISIL gives you money to get you set up and provides housing to people who’ve settled there.”

On Russian-speaking fighters

“Right now in ISIL there are many Russian speakers, about 4,000 to 5,000. Many are from the former Soviet Union – Uzbeks and Kazakhs. Up to 1,500 come from the North Caucasus – mostly Dagestanis and Chechens. The Chechens are from Pankisi Gorge [in Georgia] and from elsewhere. Many Chechens were scattered after the first war, and therefore they’ve come from those places. One of the leaders of ISIL is Tarkhan Batirashvili or Omar ash-Shishani [a Chechen from Pankisi Gorge]. He is among the five ruling people of the state and is the commander or the ISIL forces.”

Omar ash-Shishani (left) and Seifullah ash-Shishani

“They say that [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr] Al-Baghdadi is wounded. They say he’s been spotted in Odessa. But all of this comes from far away sources. He has no injuries. They’ll “kill” him again more than once. If he falls, then a military council will choose a successor, but nothing will change about ISIL when he dies. I can’t say who will be chosen as a new caliph, but Ash-Shishani can hardly be considered because he’s not a Qaryashi. They’ll choose someone from the lineage of the prophets.”

President Vladimir Putin said in mid-April 2015 that the Islamic State doesn’t present a threat to Russia. At the same time, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov has announced that “ISIL is creating a threat to Central Asia, and therefore to Russia.” Earlier, Putin criticized the bombing of ISIL forces by an international coalition. “A few airstrikes won’t counter [the threat]. What’s more, such actions are illegitimate as they exist without the direct sanction of the UN Security Council and in some cases without the consent of states on whose territories the bombings are being carried out.” Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, for his part, said “These bastards don’t have any relation to Islam,” following news that ISIL members had announced an award of five million Euros for his head.

On the threat to Russia and Central Asia

“ISIL can open a front in Central Asia. Anything is possible. ISIL is not simply a group - it is a state with colossal resources, both in terms of people and in terms of oil. There are tens of thousands of people in its regular army. Before, in Afghanistan, the Taliban posed a threat to Central Asia. Today, the threat comes from ISIL. Not the same ISIL with leaders in Iraq and Syria, but those groups in Afghanistan who have joined with it – its military wings. Before, Russia saw the Caucasian Emirate [recognized in Russia as a terrorist organization - ed] as a threat; now, the threat comes from ISIL. The majority of groups which were once under the leadership of the Caucasian Emirate are now under ISIL. The same threat that existed under the Emirate remains in the form of ISIL, but now it has taken a more dangerous form, because ISIL uses a harsher form of military actions.

Russian-speaking fighters are very highly regarded in ISIL, especially from the Caucasus. They are usually enlisted as elite troops because they are heroic, they are consistent, experienced, and want to sacrifice themselves.”

On Russian-language schools

“There are Russian schools and kindergartens in ISIL. These schools are located where the Russian speakers live. They are all religious in nature. The children of people from the former Soviet Union study at those schools - people from the North Caucasus and from Volga region, especially Tatarstan. In these schools, there is of course a separation of boys from girls. There, children study Russian and of course the state language, Arabic. They learn to read and write, and, most importantly, they learn about all aspects of their religion. We live in the real world, so they are taught math, but Darwin’s theory is not taught, for example.”

As of May 22, the Islamic State seized around half of the territory of Syria and a large portion of Iraq. ISIL is approaching Baghdad. The exact number killed in the civil war is unknown, but activists talk about hundreds of thousands of deaths. The number of registered refugees and IDPs is in the millions.

Many terrorist groups have announced they are uniting with the Islamic State, including the Nigerian group Boko Haram, the Caucasian Emirate, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and several Afghan Taliban groups. In March, Tajik detachments in ISIL threatened to open a new front in Central Asia.

In Summer 2014, a US-led international coalition formed to counter the Islamic State. The coalition includes Australia, Canada, France, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and since September 2014, it has carried out airstrikes on territories controlled by ISIL fighters. On May 6, 2015, US special forces carried out a ground operation in Syria, during which high-ranking ISIL member Abu Saif was killed. He was responsible for coordinating oil and gas extraction on ISIL territory.  

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Daniil Turovsky