Why young Muslims from Russia’s war-torn republic are succumbing to the lure of the Islamic State.
- By Anna NemtsovaAnna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, covering Russia and the former Soviet states. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship and the 2015 IWMF Courage in Journalism award.
When the cold weather came, Liza Mazhayeva was busy with her daily routine: cooking food for four children, two grandkids, and her sick husband, even while doing her best to keep the ramshackle house clean despite its broken roof and windows. Her life was little different from that of thousands of other obedient and God-fearing Chechen housewives in Grozny, the capital of Russia’s Chechen Republic.
“My children haven’t seen much happiness in their lives,” she told me last week. “The war has never ended for them.” We spoke in her small living room, where her younger son, 18-year-old Ibrahim, was entertaining her two granddaughters and grandson with a big toy crocodile. “They grew up during the war against Chechnya and now the Chechen police fight a war against them every time they take one step off the path,” she said. Last November, the police detained Ibrahim every time he left the house to pray at the local mosque or hang out with his friends, many of whom seem to be on an official watch list under suspicion of extremism.
But there were bigger problems to come. Toward the end of 2013 she received a chilling phone call from her older son, 22-year-old Sayyed, a fan of Greco-Roman wrestling. She thought that he’d been in Turkey “on business” since early that year, but on that winter day, surrounded by chattering relatives discussing the latest family news and hardly able to hear his hoarse voice in the receiver, she discovered the truth: “Mom, I’m calling you from the war in Syria. I want to come home. Can you please help me?” Somehow, her son had made his way through Turkey to Syria and joined ISIS.
Feeling like “a wounded mother wolf,” as she put it, Liza borrowed money from her friends and boarded one of the weekly flights from Grozny to Istanbul. “Why Syria?” she kept asking herself. Looking back at Sayyed’s life, she tried to understand what had made her boy “go off the rails.”
One day especially stood out in her memory. It was in September 2011. Sayyed, 18 years old, was heading to the neighborhood mosque for an afternoon prayer. “Mom, come out, quick, the courtyard is full of soldiers!” her younger 7-year-old son called. As Liza raced out of the house, she saw several men twisting Sayyed’s arms. She begged them to leave him alone. But he was guilty, they said: He had written something “forbidden” in text messages to a friend. The men tried to push Sayyed into a police vehicle, but he twisted free and ran to hide in a nearby shed. Liza lost consciousness. “That was the day, I think, when his character began to change,” she told me. “He lost his temper more easily, became intolerant to police violence, irritable.”
When Liza finally met with her son in Turkey in early 2014, he explained his motives. He had seen pictures on the Internet of child victims of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Furious, he became determined to revenge the murdered children in the name of Allah. It did not take him long to connect with ISIS through other Chechens who had already joined. He arrived in the war-torn country in the summer of 2013 and stayed for four months. Meanwhile, his wife and newborn baby waited for him in Turkey.
Yet Sayyed didn’t like what he saw in Syria. “He thought ISIS were evil,” Liza explained. And soon his baby got sick. Somehow, he persuaded the jihadis to let him go back to Turkey to be with his wife and child. When she met him there, Liza managed to obtain new travel documents — his passport had been confiscated by ISIS recruiters — and brought him home. Current Russian law demands that returnees from ISIS surrender to police, so that’s what he did. He’s now serving a two-year term in prison.
Sayyed’s lawyer, Zaurbek Sadakhanov, told me his sentencing and prosecution were “absolutely illegal.” The article under which Sayyed was charged forbids participation in illegal military organizations but does not apply to activity in foreign states. “The court did not have legal grounds for prosecuting him, as there is no legislation in Russia which covers such cases,” he explained. Such illegal tactics are not uncommon. Russia’s security services, now awake to the problem of Russians joining the jihad, have not been shy about applying brutal and illegal measures in such cases.
At least Liza does not have to worry about Sayyed’s life for the time being. “He’s safer in jail,” she admits. But how can she make sure all her boys stay at home? Can they end up committing a crime in France or Ukraine? Will the prospect of fighting Assad in the name of Allah entice another of her boys? She conceded, with tears in her eyes, that it’s possible. At home, they are “lost and insecure.” Persecuted by local police, tracked by Russia’s frightening and lawless security services, their loyalty is not to their state, but to their religion. A poster reading “We are the Ummah of Prophet Muhammad” prominently featured on their wall. In 2011, Mazhayeva claimed, agents of the Russian FSB had tried to recruit Sayyed. They offered him a chance for a university education in exchange for his cooperation. “He refused to be an informer,” she said, “And even if he accepted their offer, we wouldn’t let him.”
On the day before we met, Jan. 19, Liza and her family joined a mass rally to express their indignation at the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. All of Chechnya seemed to be mobilize that day. Thousands of citizens from all over the republic marched along Grozny’s main streets to demonstrate their love for the Prophet. The protest, dubbed “We love Mohammed,” was organized by the republic’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his subservient clergy. The Chechen capital got a day off from work.
Kheda Saratova, a human rights activist who’s been helping Liza and her sons, told me that their story is all too common. “Mazhayeva’s story could be told about every second Chechen mother,” she said. “We know of 280 cases of young Chechens going to Syria. Many are harassed by police with and without reason, and this only speeds up their decision to go and fight.” She believes that Chechnya needs a long-term program to help unemployed young men who dream of holy war. Though Chechens may be united in their faith and in their hatred for anybody who humiliates Islam, society is deeply divided when it comes to unemployment and social rights. And this, more than anything else, may be driving Chechnya’s youth to seek meaning in a foreign war.
EPA-Vladimir VELENGURIN/AFP/Getty Images