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ISIL's information aggregator How a Dagestani refugee became a Berlin imam working for the ‘Islamic State’

Meduza
18:30, 15 june 2016

The imam Gadzhimurad K. in a Berlin court on June 14, 2016.

Photo: Paul Zinken / EPA / LETA

On June 14, a Berlin court sentenced the Russian-speaking Imam Murad Ataev to two and a half years in prison for recruiting fighters for the “Islamic State.” The court took into account Ataev's remorse for his actions and his willingness to cooperate with investigators. Meduza looks at how Ataev ended up in Germany and what he did for ISIL.

Murad Ataev is the phony name of an imam working in Berlin. According to his identification documents, his real name is Gadzhimurad K. (The German court has not revealed his full surname.) In 2002, he illegally entered into Germany, fleeing his homeland in Dagestan. Once in Germany, he sought political asylum, stating on his refugee application a fictitious name. What reasons he gave for needing asylum in Germany are unknown. In 2003, German officials rejected his application and decided to deport him back to Russia.

Despite the demands of German officials, Ataev remained in the country. (According to other sources, however, he was never expelled from Germany because he allegedly faced political persecution back in Russia.) Now living as an illegal immigrant, he chose the name “Murad Ataev” and started answering only to this name.

In his first months living in Germany, Ataev started gambling and abusing drugs. In 2004, however, his behavior changed abruptly when he became a fervent Muslim. With time, his religious views grew more radical. By 2007, Ataev was an active member of Berlin's Salafi community. The following year, he started preaching to Turks and Muslims from the Caucasus living in Berlin. Finally, he joined a mosque in central Berlin and became an imam.

Within a few years, he came to support the “Islamic State,” even publishing a video calling on Muslims to join ISIL, and endorsing ISIL's decision to behead a journalist captured by the terrorist group. In October 2015, Ataev was detained on suspicion of recruiting ISIL combatants, supplying certain equipment to terrorists, and of publicly justifying war crimes. He's been in police custody ever since.

Less than six months before he was arrested, Ataev granted an interview to Meduza, where he discussed his relationship with ISIL. “I know them all because the ‘Islamic State’ is now a global territory. The caliphate on the Internet is already built. Today, the ‘Islamic State’ has no boundaries in the mediasphere. I'm in constant communication with the people who are over there. I'm in communication with all units. You might say I'm ISIL's information aggregator. That's why I'm trying to describe what's going on, because much of what's reported in the media is inaccurate,” Ataev said in May 2015. He also argued that many people feel executions “are perfectly acceptable,” endorsing the murder of the American journalist James Foley. According to Ataev, ISIL had “no choice but to decide this man's fate by beheading him,” insofar as Foley was a US spy and not a journalist, Ataev explained. This interview, along with several of Ataev's social media posts, served as part of German prosecutors' evidence against him.

In court, Ataev recanted his actions, saying he supported ISIL's crimes because he'd gone “blind.” He described himself as an uneducated man and stressed that he no longer believes ISIL's actions are justifiable. Ataev also asked the court to grant him the opportunity “to integrate [into German society] and receive a basic education.” The imam's two lawyers asked the court to give him a suspended sentence. 

Prosecutors demanded that Ataev be sentenced to three and a half years in prison, but the judge shaved a year off this request in the final ruling, on the grounds that Ataev repented and cooperated with investigators by naming other members of Berlin's Salafi community.