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Jihadi brides, ISIL charities, and online propaganda The anatomy of the Islamic State’s activities in Russia

Source: Meduza

On June 22, the Islamic State (ISIL) announced the creation of a new cell in Russia’s North Caucasus region. While Russia has proclaimed ISIL to be an illegal extremist terror group, ISIL representatives have stated that Russia, along with the United States, is one of the organization’s main enemies. As Abu Muhammad Kadarsky (a former ally of Chechen separatists who now leads Dagestani insurgents) prepares to take up the Islamic State’s Caucasian leadership, the Russian authorities and the media grow increasingly concerned about ISIL’s apparent influence over Russian citizens. Meduza’s special correspondent Daniil Turovsky looks at the anatomy of ISIL’s Russia cell, who in Russia has been found guilty of collaborating with the group, and how Russian women end up becoming “jihadi brides.”

Jihadi Brides

According to a source in the Russian Security Service (FSB), most relationships between Islamic State fighters and Russian women begin on the website, the largest resource for Muslim matchmaking in the world.

In order to view profiles on the website, you need to create your own profile, adding great detail about your life. You have to tick a box saying you are Muslim, reporting whether you were born into it or converted, select your level of religiosity (“very religious” or “not very”), and disclose your branch of Islam. You have to give your height and weight. You have to clarify whether you’re setting up an account for yourself or for a relative. The portal even has an app for smartphones that allows you to find more apps for Muslim dating, including one modelled on Tinder.

Online you can also find “instruction guides” for “brides of jihadists,” like the Al-Khanssa Tumblr page, run by a woman who moved to the Islamic State who explains what you need to bring along (don’t forget your hair-dryer and some warm clothes, but there’s no need to pack tea or coffee), answers readers’ questions (“Should I tell my parents I’m going to jihad?”—“Don’t.”) and discusses the Koran. When asked “what do girls do in ISIL?” she answers, “The main role is to support your husband and his jihad.”

There are at least 17 known cases of young women from Russia leaving or trying to leave for the Islamic State. The most widely-discussed is the case of Varvara Karaulova, a 19-year-old philosophy student at the prestigious Moscow State University.

Varvara Karaulova
Photo: Karaulova’s personal VKontakte page

Before departing from Moscow, Karaulova began actively studying the Koran and learning Arabic, and started wearing a hijab to her university classes. The security services believe that on May 27, 2015, she set off for ISIL to see an old online acquaintance of hers originally from the Russian city of Kazan. “The attraction was very strong. Her friend was offering her another world, with high ideals and values,” Karaulova’s lawyer told Russian newspaper Kommersant.

On the evening of May 27, she sent her mother a text asking her to walk the dog, and then disappeared. She changed her Whatsapp name to “Amina,” writing it out in Arabic. That evening, her parents went to the police. The following day, Varvara’s father, Pavel Karaulov, wrote a post on social media about her disappearance. “She’s been taken to Istanbul, most likely for transit to Syria.”

Varvara had flown to Istanbul, and then made her way to the Turkish city of Kilis, one of the primary transit points on the Turkish-Syrian border for those who want to join the Islamic State.

On June 4, she was arrested in Kilis by the Turkish security services. There were ten other Russians there who were also planning to cross the border. Among them were four women, two born in 1991, one in 1982, and one in 1983. On June 11, Karaulova was deported back to Russia from Turkey. The fate of the other arrested Russian citizens remains unknown.

In Moscow, Karaulova was questioned as a witness in a case relating to potential recruitment. Police has pressed no criminal charges, and Karaulova is currently at home and refuses to speak with journalists.

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Aside from Karaulova’s story, there are reports of at least four other Moscow women who have left for or have attempted to leave for the Islamic State.

In late May 2014, a 20-year-old Muscovite left for ISIL. Her name remains unknown. Moscow police have launched a criminal investigation against the “organization of a terrorist organization’s activities” and “taking part in the organization’s activities.”

On March 14, 2015, a 19-year-old student from a financial academy, Pitulai Abdulayeva, a native of Dagestan, left her home. She is currently on Islamic State territory, but is still in communication with her parents. She has informed them that she is studying the Koran and shares a room with another girl.

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In late May 2015, a tenth grader (whose name has not been disclosed) ran away from home with an acquaintance she had been in contact with for about two years through social media. They held an Islamic marriage ceremony and fled to a village near Makhachkala. From there, they planned to travel to ISIL. Within two days of the girl’s disappearance, FSB agents accompanied by the girl’s father took her from the home of her new “husband.”

On June 16, 2015, Mariam Ismailova, a second-year college student at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration went missing. She had been brought up in a Muslim family. Her father, Mansur Ismailov, says she took an independent interest in religion. “I was bothered by her love for dark colors. Her sister also wears hijab, but wears it nicely. She loves bright colors and fabrics. But Mariam was almost afraid of being the center of attention and always chose black,” he said. Mansur believes his daughter disappeared to the Islamic State.

ISIL recruits have also come from St Petersburg. 18-year-old Maria Pogorelova left for the Islamic State via Istanbul. The Investigative Committee has opened a criminal case against her under charges of “taking part in armed formations, not conforming to federal law, and taking part in an armed formation on the territory of another state.” Pogorelova was studying to be a hairdresser and had spent a lot of time among Russian nationalists in St. Petersburg.

In 2013, she was arrested for jumping on cars in the city center. According to the local St. Petersburg news source Fontanka, in the summer of 2014 she started wearing a niqab (a headdress covering one’s face with a narrow slit for the eyes). She switched to wearing black and wore a swastika necklace. According to an acquaintance of hers, she faced a difficult situation at home, with a single mother who drank.

Maria Pogorelova

A Meduza source close to the Petersburg FSB noted that the security services had uncovered Pogorelova’s conversations on social media, which indicated that she had met online Abu Bak (a native of Russia’s Kabardino-Balkaria region) and gone to be with him. In addition to radical Islamist posts, Abu Bak’s profile page also featured photographs of cats with guns. He captioned one of them, “Even kitties have started taking up arms, but some so-called men are still sitting around.” When she got to ISIL, Maria Pogorelova changed her name to Mariam Mariamova.

On May 18, 2015, 18-year-old Fatimat Jamalova, a student at the St. Petersburg State Pediatric University, left for ISIL via Istanbul. Fontanka revealed that the young woman later ended up in an apartment in Syria with other recruits, and then reached out to her parents for help via instant messenger. That was the last anyone heard from her. Today, she remains in ISIL.

The Islamic State has also attracted members from the Russian cities of Astrakhan, Belgorod, and Voronezh. Daria Itsenkova from Astrakhan, a student at the local medical academy, has been in Syria for a while now. It’s unclear when exactly she arrived. She is responsible for collecting donations for the organization’s activities. In mid-June 2015, two female students disappeared from Belgorod. According to news agency Interfax, they are suspected of having traveled to the Islamic State. Finally, on June 22, the investigative department of the Voronezh FSB launched an investigation into 25-year-old Kristina Presnyakova. In 2013, she went to Syria, joined the armed unit “Jamaat Abu Hanifa,” and currently lives in the ISIL-controlled city of Rakka.

ISIL’s franchise in the Caucasus

In a forest in the North Caucasus, several bearded men are carefully trekking through the snowdrifts. They wear camouflage and weapons are slung over their shoulders. A nasheed (an Islamic a cappella song) plays on one of their phones. The song is a recording of the pledge for “Mujahideen of the Caucasus Vilayat,” an area that emcompasses Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Karbardino-Balkaria. The recording first appeared online in mid-June 2015. “All-powerful Allah said: keep yourselves together and do not divide yourselves. We are declaring our oath to the Caliph, to listen and to obey both in love and in hate. We testify that all mujahideen of the Caucasus are united in this decision and there is no disagreement between us,” says a voiceover. The speaker calls on all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Caliph and to the head of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Bagdhadi. There are several more video recordings featuring emirs of the vilayats (which loosely translates to “district”), who pledge oaths of allegiance to ISIL. All recordings have been blocked in Russia by Roskomnadzor, the state agency that monitors the media.

The Islamic State’s propaganda division has created a montage of these recordings with added special effects. In one of them, the phrase “Unity of the Mujahideen of the Caucasus” appears on the screen, spins around, and flashes in various colors. It is followed by several monologues from ISIL fighters filmed in high definition. “By the will of Allah, the mujahideen of the Caucasus will now fight under one banner and one ruler,” says the first man. “The flag of jihad is raised in the Caucasus with a new force,” says another. “We want there to be a caliphate, sharia, and the law of Allah in the Caucasus,” says a third.

Abu Mohammad Al-Adnani, the deputy leader of ISIL, announced on June 22 that the Caucasus fighters’ pledges had been accepted. This means that a full-blown division of the Islamic State is operating on European soil for the first time ever. Abu Muhammad Kadarsky has been nominated as its leader. The number of fighters in the Caucasus Vilayat is unknown.

Abu Muhammad Kadarsky (third from the left, bottom row)

Kadarsky (who used to go by the name Rustam Aselderov) is a Dagestani fighter, an ally of the late Doku Umarov, and the leader of the Dagestan Vilayat (part of the Caucasian Emirate, an organization banned in Russia). Kadarsky was one of the first to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi in the Caucasus back in December 2014.

Even before the creation of an official ISIL detachment in Russia, the North Caucasus region was very important for the terrorist group. One of the ISIL’s military leaders from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, Omar ash-Shishani, said in an interview with a mujahideen website that he went to Syria in 2012 under orders from Doku Umarov. Umarov was then leader of the organization Caucasian Emirate (which is implicated in the 2011 Moscow Domodedovo Airport bombing, and an attempt that same year to blow up a high-speed Sapsan train). Ash-Shishani, one of the first to blaze a path from the Caucasus to ISIL, has been followed by hundreds of other fighters. Ash-Shishani has also said that Umarov, who was killed in September 2013, had funded Caucasian fighters moving to Syria and Iraq from the very beginning. In the same interview, he claims that he gave his “bayat” (pledge) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi under Umarov’s orders.

One of the Islamic State’s preachers told Meduza that Russian-speaking fighters “are highly valued in ISIL” and that “they are usually enlisted as elite troops because they are heroic, they are consistent, experienced, and want to sacrifice themselves.” He also noted that fighters in Caucasian groups of the Caucasian Emirate have been under ISIL control for a while, but since June 22, they can use the ISIL flag in Russia “officially.”

Arrested and convicted

Across Russia, dozens of criminal investigations have been launched in connection to the Islamic State. There are investigations of those who are fighting for ISIL, those are are recruiting, and those who are helping to fund the organization’s activities.

In October 2014, dozens of ISIL supporters were arrested at a Moscow auto shop on Volgogradsky Prospekt. A source in law enforcement says “they profess radical forms of Islam” and “had beards.” According to the source, “It had been reported that part of the money earned at the automotive service station could be going to Syria.”

In January 2015 in the small Russian city of Kostromа, a court sentenced a husband and wife to prison for attempting to join the Islamic State. They had three children. The husband worked at the local market, and his wife attended to their home. The security services believe that the wife had convinced the husband to convert to Islam and leave for Syria.

In February 2015 in Moscow, a man was arrested near the Savyolovo market. He had been running social media accounts for ISIL.

In early June 2015, Russian security services arrested supporters of ISIL in a cafe in central Moscow that included “both Russian citizens and illegal immigrants from Central Asia.” Meduza has revealed how many Moscow construction sites, where many migrant laborers from Central Asia work, have been frequented by “Chechen recruiters.” Several groups regularly move between places where migrant workers spend their time: construction trailers, dormitories, cafes near mosques. Construction workers at several Moscow sites confirmed to Meduza that they had been visited by “ISIL recruiters.” At one of the sites in the central district, a man said that ISIL recruiters also include ethnic Tatars (according to FSB data, there are about 200 fighters from the Volga region in ISIL).

Murad Nazirov (left) and Ruslan Ionov, Rostov-on-Don, June 19, 2015.
Photo: Andrei Boiko / Kommersant

In June 2015, a court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced Ruslan Ionov and Murad Nazirov to seven years and three years in prison, respectively. According to investigators, Ionov recruited people in Karachayevo-Cherkessia and sent them to the Moscow area, where they were met by Nazirov. He put them on a plane to Turkey, and from there they made their way to ISIL.

In the Russian region of Tatarstan, about a dozen cases have been launched in connection with illegal armed groups in Syria. “Four people have been arrested. There are also a number of cases in which it’s been established that people took part [in armed formations], but they are nowhere to be found. They’re off fighting,” said Tatarstan’s district attorney, Ildus Nafikov.

The Lefortovo Court in Moscow is currently reviewing the case of Saida Khalikova, a student at the Astrakhan Medical Academy. According to investigators, she took part in funding the Islamic State. Security services have established that she transferred 43,000 rubles ($765) to ISIL. She has been accused of “collaboration with terrorist activities.” Khalikova’s lawyer claims she was unaware where exactly her money was going. “She admits that she donated 43,600 rubles last year to a charity helping ‘needy Muslim youth.’ Then it was discovered that the charity was actually a front for ISIL fundraising,” the lawyer said. On June 10, 2015, the court extended Khalikova’s arrest until September 15.

On December 29, 2014, the Russian High Court ruled that the Islamic State is considered to be a terrorist organization. The Islamic State is banned from all activity on the territory of the Russian Federation.  

Daniil Turovsky