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The danger-zone mosques Why the security police have declared war on Dagestani Salafism

Source: Meduza
Photo: Daniil Turovsky / Meduza

Over the past several months, law enforcement units in Dagestan have shut down Salafi mosques wherever worshipers profess ultraconservative Islam. Even the largest communities, found in Makhachkala, have been defenseless against the police, who believe the Salafi mosques are recruiting for the Islamic State. Congregants have been put on “watch lists” en masse that limit their movements in the republic and Salafis are regularly detained. Meduza’s special correspondent Daniil Turovsky went to Dagestan to talk with the security police and the people they label "potential terrorists."

The ‘East’ mosque

Imam Muhammad Nabi Sildinskii hasn’t left his East mosque located on the outskirts of Khasavyurt since January 31, 2016. He feels relatively safe there, as the building is constantly guarded by twenty men.

To reach his office, you must pass quickly through a spacious courtyard with a sink for washing, a cafe, three flights of prayer rooms, and a corridor with rooms for religious lessons. In Muhammad Nabi's office, a snow white monitor sits on a table (when the computer goes to sleep, a background with a rainbow appears on the screen). On the wall near the front door, there’s a frame depicting a white-on-black shahada (the main Islamic prayers) in Arabic: "I testify there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger."

"The authorities want to make me out to be a terrorist,” Nabi explains. “They’ll frame me. They surround my house all the time. I'll be here as long as necessary.”

Muhammad Nabi is one of the most respected Salafi preachers in Dagestan. Around the East mosque, he’s gathered Khasavyurt adherents of "pure Islam," which denies religious innovations that emerged after the Prophet Muhammad’s death.

Security officials believe the imam is one of the local Salafist leaders, and they see Salafis as potential terrorists, Wahhabis, or local "forest" militants of the Caucasus Emirate terrorist organization, or the soldiers for the Islamic State.

On January 31, OMON agents, operatives from the Interior Ministry's anti-extremism unit, and the FSB came to the small Salafi “North” mosque in Khasavyurt. They welded the front door shut and declared the mosque closed. About 20 masked men in camouflage holding Kalashnikovs stayed behind to keep watch. One congregant was indignant: "It’s time for the evening prayer! Commander, what’s going on? Let us perform namaz!”

The security forces explained that they closed the mosque because it didn’t have an imam—the last one was jailed for possessing a grenade launcher, and the new one hadn’t been appointed. "They can find anything, if a person meddles,” Murad Dibirov, the deputy imam of the East mosque, explains to me. “They often find grenades and ammunition on us. Do not be surprised if they start to find tanks and airplanes in homes." “They can’t hold him for very long, but we’ve managed to soften the case,” says Muhammad Nabi, the imam of the East mosque. “They gave him eight months in jail." According to Nabi, the imam police accused of carrying a grenade will be released soon.

Security officials told congregants that the closing of the North mosque is connected to the fact that supporters of the Islamic State were meeting in the mosque. Murad Dibirov denies this, saying, "Friday sermons aren’t even held there. It’s more a prayer room than a mosque."

The next morning, after the closing of the North mosque, thousands of congregants gathered near the East mosque. Nabi Muhammad spoke to the crowd: "We are not terrorists who lawlessly kill people like they accuse us! We don’t violate other people’s rights and we don’t seize someone else's mosque!" After this, three East mosque employees set out to negotiate with the city administration. They came back with nothing—they weren’t even granted an audience. Then Nabi Muhammad called all his supporters to go to the mayor's office. Five thousand protesters (about 130,000 people live in Khasavyurt) marched to the city administration chanting "Allahu Akbar!" and "Give us back our mosque!"

One congregant told Meduza that “Dagestani ISIL militants” reached out to people over instant messaging apps and supposedly called on Salafis to abandon peaceful protest tactics and instead take up arms and "declare jihad on the authorities."

"We marched so the people responsible for closing down mosques understand that the crowd and young people need to go somewhere. And if they close all the mosques, then other people will open their doors to the youth and lead them astray. There are a lot of calls to arms from various groups on the Internet,” Dibirov explains. “The [Khasavyurt] administration is afraid of us going out into the streets. But we can still easily gather 50,000 people in two days. We can take them and block the railway. It’s not far from here. We have nothing to lose. But at any moment they could frame or shoot us."

After the march, Muhammad Nabi and Murad Dibirov were let into the administration building. The officials and security forces agreed to reopen the North mosque.

The watch list

"They gave laid down conditions specifying that we find an imam [for the North mosque] who wasn’t on a police list,” says Dibirov. “We found one. But just ten minutes before our meeting, he called to say that he was summoned to the police station. Now he’s on the list. "

Security officials are suspicious of all the local Salafis: most of the congregants of Salafi mosques are on preventative watch lists people have nicknamed "Wahhab-lists" ("Wahhabi list"). Interior Ministry officials began filling these lists up in mid-2013, just before the Sochi Olympic Games. Not only do congregants of mosques find themselves on a watch list, but so do any Dagestanis resembling a Salafi. (This includes following the Quran, wearing pants tucked in at the ankles, and having a long beard). According to the Caucasian Knot, police in Dagestan have registered about 100,000 cases (in a population numbering more than 3 million people).

And Russian law enforcement agencies don’t consider just Salafis to be potential terrorists. There are many supporters of jihad among the adherents of "pure Islam" (also known as the Wahhabis or "fundamentalists"). They’ve accepted the idea of Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s radical ideologue, that mankind is divided into the "Islamic world" and the “World of Ignorance" (you need to conquer and correct the world of the ignorant). The same idea undergirds the Caucasian Emirate, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State.

Throughout the 2000s, the jihad of Dagestani "forest militants" has been primarily directed against the police, who to them symbolize state power (they currently attack the police several times a month).

"We were persecuted for following the Quran, that is, for our faith," a congregant from one of the mosques tells me. “They only put those genuinely suspected of involvement in the criminal underground on the watch list,” objects my interlocutor from the Khasavyurt Interior Ministry office.

The authors of the report "War Without War: Human Rights Violations in the Russian Authorities Fight Against Underground Militants in Dagestan,” released by Human Rights Watch in June 2015, believe the authorities apply a "broad approach" in their fight against terrorists that actually turns all followers of Salafi Islam into suspects.

"Anyone placed on a list goes through the same process: their fingerprints, saliva, and blood are taken, their gait is photographed, voice recorded, and they're asked to write an essay and read on camera," says Hasan Hajiyev, the head of the Makhachkala movement "For Muslim Rights." The data is collected so that individuals will be easier to identify, if they become active militants.

Those who refuse to participate in the registration process encounter various problems. The Human Rights Watch report tells the story of Shamsutdin Magomedov from Shamkhal, a suburb of Makhachkala. In January 2014, he refused to give a DNA sample. A month later, a group of police appeared at his home and accused him of collaborating with the armed underground. According to the official report, the police found explosives during the search. He was arrested and tortured—beaten and made into a "swallow" (his wrists and ankles were tied behind his back). During the torture the police told him that all of this was because he refused to "participate in the collection of Wahhabis’ DNA samples." A few months later, the court sentenced Magomedov to six months for weapons possession, which he had already spent in pretrial detention. He immediately forked over the DNA samples upon his release.

Falling on the "Wahabb-list" means you are under constant surveillance, says Muhammad Abu Hamza Magomedov, a representative of the Makhachkala Salafi Mosque. "Three people call you several times a week,” he says. “First, a district police officer asks where you are. Then the precinct inspector calls to ask whether the policeman called. And then there’s another inspector on top of the first inspector. He checks to make sure the other two called."

"All of this is ‘food’ for them [the police],” says Imam Muhammad Nabi. “You have to pay 8,000 to 10,000 rubles [$112-$140] to get off the list."

Muhammed Nabi in his office.
Photo: Daniil Turovsky / Meduza

My interlocutors from the Salafi mosque leadership believe that the "watch list" turns moderate believers into radicals. "Imagine the life of young man on the list,” says Murad Dibirov, deputy imam of the East mosque in Khasavyurt. “He can be stopped at a road checkpoint, hauled to the police station for two or three hours, and sometimes it can be half the day. They come and search his house. They’re constantly calling him. If he goes to another town, he has to report it to the district police. Do you consider the Caucasian mindset or imagine how all this causes a man trouble in front of his wife. And then we can understand how a young man feels when he sees on the Internet a fellow villager who’s gone to Syria sitting in a big truck with a big gun and tells how he’s completely free and unhumilitated."

Police simply kill some of the men they suspect of aiding insurgents. "They declare a KTO [a counter-terrorist operation], surround the house, blow it up, and get themselves a star," said one the representatives of the Salafi mosques. Such special operations occur in Dagestan every three or four days.

"There are ideological guys who talk about wanting to blow up the government,” fumes Muhammad Abu Hamza Magomedov, the deputy imam at a mosque on Hungarian Fighters Street in Makhachkala. “They have little brains and are total idiots. But now what? Kill every idiot? How could you? He also has a brother, a son, a father. What will happen when someone’s son is shot or sent to prison? There’ll be revenge. They'll turn to hate. They'll retaliate if they get the chance.”

Makhachkala’s mosques

An official from Makhachkala’s Ministry of Internal Affairs told me that the cleansing of Salafi mosques is linked to the nationwide campaign against ISIL. The directive to “restore order” in Dagestan came down from Moscow. According to him, if the "Wahhabis aren’t pacified and shut down, we’ll need to drive them out of the country" to some so-called "distant forest" like Syria. According to various estimates, 900 to 5,000 people have left Dagestan for ISIL.

In recent months, Interior Ministry officials have conducted arrests at Salafi mosques in Makhachkala (on Kotrov and Hungarian Fighters Streets, in the cottage village of Palmyra, and the village Shamkhal, Leninkent), in Derbent (the imam there is accused of rape and his supporters scuffled with the police), Kizilurt , Buynaksk, and the village of Novyi Kurush. Security forces didn’t allow congregants to go to Friday prayers, arrested many, and put them onto buses and took them to the OVD. These operations are always carried out unofficially and the ministry refuses to comment.

Prayers in the mosque on Hungarian Fighters Street in Makhachkala.
Photo: Daniil Turovsky / Meduza

During such unofficial actions, all the imams of Salafi mosques get suggestions from security officials to resign, in order to be replaced by imams approved by the Muslim Spiritual Administration of Dagestan (DUMD). Attached to these proposals are phrases like: "Otherwise, we’ll completely close down the mosque," "We’ll find a grenade launcher," or "You don’t want to end up like Alibakov." (Imam Omarakhab Alibekov was found burned to death in his car in 2014. The crime is still unsolved).

Like law enforcement officials, DUMD publicly denies involvement in pressuring Salafi mosques. At the same time, DUMD and the Salafis are in an irreconcilable conflict over the most very basic issues: Salafis think the Sufis who dominate the DUMD (Sufis are a mystical branch of Islam that preaches self-improvement) are collaborators because of their cooperation with the secular authorities. Salafis don’t support the secular state and Sufis do. "Whether he’s Sufi or Salafi, a man isn’t a Muslim if he doesn’t dream about sharia," Abu Umar Sasitlinskii, one of the Dagestani Salafi leaders, said in 2011. Sasitlinskii was forced to leave for Lebanon after being accused of financing ISIL. (The Russian television network REN TV aired an incriminating story about him).

By the end of 2015, security officials turned their attention to the An-Nadir mosque and a mosque on Hungarian Fighters Street in Makhachkala. Both were considered recruitment centers for militants. Not long before this, Nader Medetov, one of the most popular Dagestani preachers, had left the latter mosque for ISIL. On November 20, the An-Nadir Mosque was seized by well-built young men who said they were DUMD supporters. Onlookers described them as either athletes or disguised security forces. A few people were injured in the skirmish. Afterwards, Muhammadrasul Saaduev, a DUMD representative and imam of the central mosque in Makhachkala, went inside. He reassured the congregants that he was surrounded by guards. "Everything was done today to prevent locking the mosque door,” he said. “The authorities said: Go close this mosque. . . We had to take this step to save this mosque from the rumors and publicity. But it was done so the mosque remained open, so people could come here."

That same day, DUMD appointed Davood-Hadji Tumalaev, the vice rector for public relations of the Dagestan Institute of Humanities, to serve as imam for An-Nadir. Four days later, another person was made the imam. Then, on November 29, the mosque’s doors were closed for good. Two on-duty police cars were put at the gate. They're still sitting there today.

"It’s closed and will never reopen,” one of the policemen tells me. “This a recruitment headquarters. No one is allowed in. We drive away those who come to pray."

Muhammad, a bearded man dressed in sports pants tucked in above the ankles, sits down on the sidewalk opposite the police. He says he came to look at the mosque that he'd attended for several years.

"This whole situation is very unnerving," Muhammad says. The district police call him two or three times a week. He is stopped on the street at least once every two weeks, taken to the police station, checked against the database of the extremists, and asked the same questions ( "Why haven’t you gone to Syria?", "Why do you have a beard?"). "If I have a beard it means I'm a potential terrorist,” he says. “If I’m a potential terrorist it means I can go to Syria. There was an explosion at a checkpoint and they immediately called me [there’s a video of the explosion in Derbent on February 15, 2016, available here.] They asked where I was. And you always need to have an alibi otherwise there will be many problems. I would like to go into hiding, even in the woods, even in Syria."

On November 29, 2015, the Spiritual Administration called for the imam be replaced in the Salafi mosque on Hungarian Fighters Street. According to the Dagestani newspaper Novoe Delo, it was "due to the geopolitical situation in the region."

There have been repeated clashes between congregants and Interior Ministry officers who conduct raids on mosques. Sometimes there’s even gunfire. Ibadullo Nabotov found a grenade and drugs in the mosque’s muezzin. He was sentenced to six months in prison.

The mosque on Hungarian Fighters Street.
Photo: Daniil Turovsky / Meduza

The same mosque is located away from the center of Makhachkala. On the fence near the entrance, a sign hangs advertising "cupping" (cupping therapy), nearby there’s an open tent with halal pies. Muhammad Abu Hamza Magomedov, one of the mosque’s preachers, arrives in a black, tinted Lexus. Without waiting for questions, he begins to make excuses for why Nadir Medetov, who at one time led lessons for children and preached in the mosque, left for ISIL.

"He is colorful preacher, spoke emotionally, many in Russia liked him,” Magomedov says. “But there’s also underground propaganda! We didn’t notice at first, and only then noticed. The imam warned him several times and then kicked him out."

After his expulsion from the mosque, Medetov continued to spread his sermons on YouTube. In October 2014, he was arrested with a pistol and put under house arrest for two months. In May 2015, Medetov posted a video on his own channel in which he swore allegiance to ISIL, making an oath to Abu Jihad, the closest ally of Umar Al-Shishani, one of the Islamic State's leaders.

According to Magomedov, Medetov still has supporters among the mosque’s congregation. "We are doing our best to explain properly. We explain that Nadir made a mistake," he says.

In addition to the pressure on mosques and the massive watch list in Dagestan, there’s the murder of imams. In December 2015, unknown persons shot Imam Suleyman Suleymanov. Earlier, in September 2015, Magomed Khidirov, the Sufi imam of the mosque in the village of Novyi Kurush, was shot. After the killing, the security forces closed the village’s Salafi mosque. (The gunmen who killed the imam allegedly attended this mosque.)

Imams do their best to protect themselves. For example, Muhammad Nabi from Khasavyurt always moves through the city accompanied by two or three cars of supporters. "The killing of imams is an intimidation tactic,” says Mohammed Abu Hamza Magomedov of the Makhachkala Mosque on Hungarian Fighters Street. “They want to send the understanding: If you rock the boat too much, we will eliminate you. And that’s the message to the population."

Friday prayers

By noon, on February 19, 2016, about a thousand people had gathered in the prayer halls of the East mosque in Khasavyurt for Friday prayers. There’s no police on the street to the surprise and delight of the congregants. While they wait for Imam Muhammad Nabi to start his sermon, some congregants are reading the Quran from their mobile phones. Many people entering the hall, have tucked in their pants (they don’t go like this on the street to avoid attracting too much attention).

Murad Dibirov, the deputy imam, squeezes closer to the front row and sets up a camcorder to record the sermon so he can later share it on social networks.

The East mosque in Khasavyut.
Photo: Daniil Turovsky / Meduza

During the sermon, Muhammad Nabi encourages the audience to endure. "People are working to get us to abandon our religion. They search for our mistakes 24 hours a day,” he says. “We need to be sure. You need to put up with a lot of things for religion."

After the prayer, a few congregants admitted to me that they are ready to defend their mosque with force. One of them, a serious guy of twenty years, says, "Most of all, we want them to leave us alone and let us live the way we want—by Sharia."

"No one is looking for a war, but you don’t need to tamper with issues that can’t be tampered with—like faith,” says Imam Nabi. “They want panic in the city. They want some kind of incident. But Russia is a big country, there are Muslims everywhere, and when they don’t allow them to live in peace here, they can explode in another region."

Daniil Turovsky

Khasavyut – Makhachkala, Dagestan