Russian crackdown on Muslims fuels exodus to Islamic State

AP News
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Posted: Nov 25, 2015 6:14 AM
Russian crackdown on Muslims fuels exodus to Islamic State

KOMSOMOLSKOYE, Russia (AP) — Rashid Magomedov had had enough, his father said. The devout Muslim was detained several times by Russian security police, spent two months in jail on charges that later were dismissed, and complained that police repeatedly planted weapons at his home as a pretext to arrest him.

So it was no surprise that the 30-year-old man fled to Syria to join the Islamic State group, leaving a pregnant wife and two children behind in Dagestan, Russia's southernmost republic.

"The fact that he left for Syria — the police are to blame. They wouldn't leave the boy alone," said Magomedov's elderly father, Zaynudin.

The heavy-handed security presence in the predominantly Muslim area is an outgrowth of two separatist wars in nearby Chechnya in the mid-1990s that spread an Islamic insurgency throughout the North Caucasus region of Russia. Militants carried out countless attacks, including suicide bombings and kidnappings, to pursue their goal of establishing Islamic fundamentalism, or simply to seek revenge against corrupt officials.

This culture of violence has fostered a generation of hardened fighters, which combined with the continuing crackdown by police and other security forces, has made areas like Komsomolskoye a fertile recruiting ground for the Islamic State group.

Few efforts are made by Russian authorities to stop young men from leaving. Many in Dagestan see the intimidating security presence as not only fueling the exodus but also serving to rid the region of potential militants by encouraging them to flee.

As a result, almost everyone in Komsomolskoye seems to know someone who has left for Syria to join the Islamic State group.

Dagestani police say 11 people have left Komsomolskoye to become IS fighters in Syria, but when residents are asked to list the names of those who have left, the number appears to be far bigger.

Nearly a third of the estimated 3,000 Russians who are believed to have gone to fight alongside IS militants in Syria are from Dagestan, a republic of 3 million people, the regional police say. They are men and women from both rich and poor families, from villages where young girls wear the hijab, to towns where women walk around in short skirts.

Komsomolskoye is one of several places where officials routinely announce "counterterrorist operations" and send SWAT teams to raid houses of suspected militants at dawn. The main road in and out of the village is guarded around the clock by security officers armed with automatic weapons, and hundreds of residents are under surveillance, with their names kept on a so-called Wahhabi list.

Those on the list can expect to get stopped at police checkpoints and sometimes detained for hours. They are visited at home and get phone calls at any time of day from police asking about their plans and whereabouts. They are often required to provide DNA samples and fingerprints.

Magomed Magomedov, deputy editor-in-chief of Dagestan's respected weekly newspaper Chernovik, said the systematic repression of the ultra-conservative Salafi Islam community is pushing its members to the margins of society.

"If someone goes to the wrong mosque, he knows that when he leaves he could be taken to the police station, where he would be questioned, he would be fingerprinted for the 20th time," said the editor, who is not related to the Magomedov family in Komsomolskoye. "This system of keeping people on edge alienates and embitters them, and one in 10 may just decide to take radical steps and go to Syria."

Russian officials have defended the police profiling and raids on the homes of suspected militants, describing them as steps designed to stave off radicalization and deter possible terrorist attacks.

Officials at Dagestan's Interior Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The Associated Press spoke to more than a dozen residents and activists who described how IS extremists use the resentment over the police tactics to recruit new followers.

After Friday prayers last week, police rounded up about 50 worshippers at the main Salafi mosque in Dagestan's capital of Makhachkala. The men were taken to the police station, and some were fingerprinted and asked to give blood samples, according to the Caucasian Knot, a major Russian website that covers the region.

Russia's military operation in Syria that began Sept. 30 has not received unanimous support among Muslims in Dagestan because President Vladimir Putin is seen as siding with Syrian President Bashar Assad in a war against the Sunni opposition. Most Russian Muslims are Sunni.

Putin said one of the goals of the air campaign in Syria was to prevent Russians fighting alongside the Islamic State from coming back. The Russian Defense Ministry said its warplane that was shot down Tuesday by Turkey was on a mission against "illegal terrorist groups whose members include a great number of militants from Russia's North Caucasus."

Most of the young people fleeing Dagestan to escape repression and police persecution have no intention of ever returning because they would almost certainly face long prison terms.

Rustam, a Komsomolskoye villager who refused to give his last name because of fears he would end up on the Wahhabi list, said residents could get put on the list simply by going to the same mosque as a known militant.

Unlike some villages that have a centuries-long history of opposing the Russian government, Komsomolskoye was founded only in 1957 around a giant collective farm on a plain in northern Dagestan and named for the Communist youth league. It became the home for thousands of people who were deported by the Soviet government from mountain villages in western Dagestan to work the land, not their traditional occupation.

Rashid Magomedov, who was detained repeatedly by police, was described by relatives as a quiet man who dreamed of studying Arabic and the Quran. He first ran into trouble last year.

His relatives claim police planted grenades and ammunition at his home several times last year. His 78-year-old father, Zaynudin, even tried telling investigators that a grenade found in one of the raids was his, and was convicted and received a two-year suspended sentence.

Zaynudin Magomedov said his son was driven to despair.

"When he said: 'I'm going,' I asked him why, and he said: 'What else am I supposed to do? They are not going to leave me in peace,'" the father recounted.

His son left for the airport in February, telling his family he was going to Egypt.

"He didn't say he was going to Syria; he said he was going to study," said his 25-year-old wife, Assiyat, wearing a mauve hijab and a black dress. She held her 8-month-old son, Musa, on her lap in her sparse living room as a TV blasted the cheerful tunes of a children's show.

She earlier lost a brother, saying he was pushed into a car by unknown men as he left a mosque in 2012 and was never seen again.

Assiyat keeps a picture of her husband on her tablet, which seems to be her only valuable possession. In the photo, he is smiling and has a head of curly black hair.

He sent her a message via smartphone at the end of June, saying he was going away for 10 days. By July, word reached Komsomolskoye that he had been killed in Syria. She said she has no idea what he was doing there.

After Magomedov's death, his wife was visited by law enforcement officers, who continue to keep tabs on her and her children.

The family adheres to the ultra-conservative Salafi movement within Sunni Islam, rather than the Sufism that is traditional in the North Caucasus. The Salafi movement is extremely popular with young Muslims, who dismiss the Sufi preachers as serving the government — willing to condone or cover up official corruption and abuse. Some see Salafism as a chance to attain a purer, stricter religion; others simply do not trust the preachers, who are seen too friendly with the government.

Salafis are often viewed by authorities as sympathetic to the Islamic militants and thus considered a security threat, although only a small fraction of Salafis in Dagestan are believed to support the Islamic State.

Traditional Islamic leaders, who are backed by the government, said the perceived persecution is no excuse for joining IS.

"For a Muslim, no pressure from law enforcement officials can serve as justification, it cannot justify his radicalism and extremism," said Magomed Rasul Saaduyev, the imam of Dagestan's main mosque.

Many people interviewed by the AP in Dagestan said the security agencies not only fail to stop local men from leaving for Syria but often encourage them to go as a way of washing their hands of a troublesome lot. All refused to be identified, saying they feared for their safety.

On a recent Friday, the Salafi mosque on Kotrova Street in Makhachkala drew hundreds of young men for the weekly prayers, and many of them said they had to sneak out of work to attend. By the time the prayers began, the mosque and its yard were full, with men spilling out onto the street and closing one of the two lanes of traffic. Many used flattened cardboard boxes as prayer mats.

"They say about the Kotrova mosque that everyone who comes here are Wahhabis and extremists, but in fact no one here calls for violence or extremism," said Makhmud Kurbanov. Police often target those with longer beards, he said, adding: "It's not fair."

Worshippers criticized the Russian government for its support of Assad, who belongs to a Shiite sect. Three men exchanged stories about Assad bombing Sunni suburbs of Damascus, which in their eyes justifies their brothers' decision to fight against the Syrian president.

One man showed a cellphone photo of a boy standing on some rubble, holding a machine gun. The boy, dressed in a T-shirt and sandals, is the 16-year-old son of a former religious leader in Gubden, one of Dagestan's most prosperous villages, who reportedly was killed in an artillery attack in October. A relative in Gubden confirmed his death.

While impoverished and marginalized Dagestani youth have left for Syria in droves, children from more affluent families with largely secular backgrounds also have been recruited.

On the sun-drenched streets of Berikei, a village of 3,000 people on the Caspian Sea, young women without headscarves proudly showed off their long black hair on a recent afternoon, while the only mosque stood empty just before prayers.

Still, nearly 50 people are believed to have left for Syria from the village. Most are young men who went to work in Moscow and returned radicalized. A resident pointed to the homes of at least three families on one street whose sons or daughters have joined IS.

In one of them, a 64-year-old man named Saydulla still hopes for the return of his son, who was last heard from in November 2014.

Saydulla, who spoke on condition his last name not be revealed because he fears a backlash from security agencies, said law enforcement officers have already raided and searched his home and taken samples of his saliva for a DNA test.

His 30-year-old son, Magomed, worked at a construction site with his two brothers in Moscow when he bought a ticket to Turkey last year to study the Quran. Two weeks later, he called his brothers to say he was in Syria.

Saydulla refuses to believe that his son, who left behind a 2-year-old son and a newborn daughter, would join the Islamist fighters on his own, and he blames officials for not stopping him.

"They say, 'if your son is in Syria, he's got to be with the IS, he's a terrorist,'" Saydulla said, his eyes moist and red with emotion. "You can't explain it to everyone that I'm not like that. People don't want to know. If my word had any weight, I would have gone to Putin and told him everything."

Next to Saydulla's home is a new, two-story limestone house that he built for his son, hoping he would come back from Moscow to live there.

"I would have given my house, this house — everything — if only he was alive," the father said.