In July 2017, video of a naked child found in the ruins of Mosul circulated widely online. The boy, pointing to an Iraqi flag on one of the buildings, told the Iraqi soldiers it belonged to the unbelievers.
The 4-year-old, later identified as Bilal Tagirov, was a Chechen who had been brought by his father to join the Islamic State. News of his impending return to Chechnya was widely reported in Chechen and Russian media. And no one was more enthusiastic about the boy’s return than Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya, known for his love of social media and frequent Instagram postings.
Russian television showed Kadyrov talking by videoconference with the four-year-old, who was still in Iraq. Bilal was reportedly discovered along with his father, an Islamic State fighter found injured in the ruins of Mosul. Upon learning about the father and son, Chechnya’s leader immediately ordered assistance to ensure their quick return to Russia.
On his Instagram account, Kadyrov announced that Bilal would soon embrace his mother (the father took his son to Iraq without her permission). On Aug. 2, at the airport in Grozny, the highest officials of Kadyrov’s regime welcomed home a terrified Bilal.
Kadyrov, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, aspires to be the leader of Muslims throughout Russia. Rescuing innocent victims from Islamic radicalism in the Middle East allows the Chechen president to play that role, as well as that of a man ready to forgive his enemies.
But according to Russian-speaking fighters and sources in the Syrian opposition, there’s another explanation for Kadyrov’s seeming concern about orphans: He’s also collecting Chechens who were allegedly sent to infiltrate the Islamic State.
The Chechen leader has claimed there are between 70 and 120 children from the former Soviet republics still in orphanages around Mosul. Authorities in Moscow claim that up to 400 children, Russian citizens, may still be in Syria and Iraq, according to Anna Kuznetsova, Russia’s children’s rights commissioner.
Identifying them, especially the youngest ones, is difficult or impossible. Some speak only Chechen and may not even be from Russia, since many Chechens live in diaspora around the world. Many don’t know their parents’ names or know only the aliases they used during the fighting. Unidentifiable, the children remain in orphanages in Iraq and Syria, one legacy of what the end of the caliphate has left behind.
In mid-September 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that after the liberation of Mosul and Tal Afar, about more than 1,000 Islamist jihadis and their family members surrendered to the Kurdish Peshmerga. The men were supposed to be imprisoned, but according to a former Russian-speaking leader from the Islamic State, those captured were shot, and the women and children were placed in camps controlled by the United Nations.
The former Islamic State leader told me there were several dozen more fighters who fled from the Islamic State, along with their families, but were scared to give up for fear of being killed.
“If the Kurds would agree to negotiations, anything is possible, and [the fighters] would give up without a battle, and no one from either side would die,” he said. “These people don’t have any ties to the Islamic State anymore.”
Abadi said that half of the families detained after Mosul fell were Turks. The rest came from a dozen other nations, including Chechnya, Dagestan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, France, and Tunisia. The goal, Abadi said, is to return those women and children to their home countries.
In case of extradition to Turkey, women and children over 14 years old are interrogated by the authorities. Those who took part in hostilities are regarded as members of the terrorist organization and will be tried and possibly sentenced. The others, even if they are found not guilty, will be kept under surveillance. Only the youngest children of the Islamic State are treated as innocents. They will go to relatives, if their families can be located.
It’s impossible to know just how many orphans of the Islamic State are in Syria and Iraq. In addition to young children who were brought over by their parents, there are possibly thousands more who were born to foreigners who joined the Islamic State. What will happen to those children is still unknown. In Western Europe, officials have already said while the children may be innocent, the mothers may be held responsible.
“They are usually very young, but they can have been radicalised and need to be watched. The challenge for us is to turn them into citizens again,” she said.
Florence Parly, France’s defense minister, has said that returning children “are usually very young, but they can have been radicalized and need to be watched. The challenge for us is to turn them into citizens again.”
For those returning to Chechnya, repatriation is even more fraught. Kadyrov is collecting not only children, but also men and women. Women can be useful sources of information on the Islamic State once Russian security services interrogate them. And men are an even bigger target of the Chechen humanitarian operation.
At the end of October 2017, a special Russian military aircraft picked up seven women and 14 children from Qamishli, Syria, to take them back to Chechnya. According to Kadyrov’s representative in the Middle East, Ziyad Sabsabi, the women and children managed to break free from prison during a Russian military operation.
Kurdish sources quoted by local radio tell a different story. Russia didn’t conduct any military operations to free anyone around Qamishli. Instead, a large Russian cargo aircraft landed unexpectedly at the airport carrying a Russian delegation. The aircraft, which was purportedly there to pick up the 21 women and children, was capable of holding more than 100 passengers.
According to Kurdish media, on Oct. 17, on the eve of the evacuation of the women and children, Mikhail Bogdanov, Putin’s special representative for the Middle East, met with Kurdish authorities in Qamishli. The talks were supposed to cover the transfer of Islamic State fighters and commanders of Chechen origin who were captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces during the battle for Raqqa, the onetime capital of the Islamic State.
According to local media, and confirmed to me by a source in the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Russians sent the plane to pick up Chechens operating undercover in the ranks of the Islamic State.
In the fall of 2015, just as Russia leaped headfirst into the Syrian conflict, Kadyrov had announced his willingness to send Chechens to the Middle East, saying he was just waiting on permission from Putin. It’s unclear if that permission was received, since the Kremlin never admitted to conducting covert operations on the territory of the Islamic State.
Less than three months after Kadyrov’s offer, however, Furat, a Russian-language media effort started by the Islamic State, posted photos online showing the execution of a Chechen named Magomed Khasiev. In the propaganda film, Khasiev confesses his guilt just moments before his death. He says he worked for the FSB, the Russian intelligence service.
Kadyrov said he didn’t believe the killed Chechen worked for anyone. But just two months later in February 2016, on a major Russian state television program, Kadyrov announced that Chechnya had trained special agents who were sent to the Middle East to collect intelligence on Islamic militants.
Those fighting in Syria and Iraq doubt Kadyrov’s sudden interest in rescuing Chechens from the Islamic State. More likely, they say, he wants to rescue spies who worked for him. The former Islamic State commander I spoke with expressed doubt that the Russian government, which did little to stanch the flow of its citizens to the Islamic State, would now be so interested in rescuing them.
“Not so long ago, [the Russian authorities] allowed many to leave the country even though they knew that they were going to join the Islamic State, because they preferred to get them out of Russia,” he said. “Why would they want to take them and take care of them now?”
Yet the Russian government continues to insist its concern is for the Russian children left behind by the Islamic State. In a written statement to Foreign Policy, the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. strongly denied allegations that its efforts to return women and children were intended for anything other than humanitarian purposes.
“This is a tragedy for the families and for our society. We all want the Russian children to return home, to their Russian families, where it is possible,” they wrote. “The head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov plays a positive role in resolving this issue. He does it responsibly, dignified and as transparently as possible. It is hard to come up with anything more absurd than this attempt to present such a noble work as a secret operation.”
In Moscow, the government has even created a special committee to collect information on orphans of Islamic State fighters, and 4-year-old Bilal Tagirov’s return to Chechnya gave hope to families trying to recover children.
“In the last few days [since Tagirov’s arrival] we’ve received more than 30 letters with photos and descriptions of missing children,” said Kuznetsova, the children’s rights commissioner. The local Dagestani office of the commission has received more than 240 reports, but even that number is far from final. Many families are afraid to report cases to the police or to seek the help of the authorities, for fear of being labeled Islamic State supporters. Instead, they look for missing children on their own, often placing messages on Russian-language internet boards.
Kadyrov, who was recently banned from Instagram because he was added to the list of people under U.S. sanctions, continued to claim great success in recovering children. On Sept. 14, 2017, Kadyrov posted about another case on Instagram.
“Friends!” he wrote. “Today in the republic yet another joyful event — two children — Khadija and Adlan — returned to their native land from Iraq.”
According to Kadyrov, the two children both went to the Middle East over a year earlier with their families and are the only survivors.
“Do children forgive their parents for hell on earth that they inflicted?!” Kadyrov wrote in his post. “We will continue the humanitarian operation until we bring all the Russian children back from Syria and Iraq.”