ISIS runaway: a Russian citizen tells about his life with jihadists
Saeed Majaev spent half a year in ISIS. He managed to run back to Russia where he was imprisoned. He is free now and shares with us what he experienced with the extremists.
The actor Vadim Dorofeev was a young and successful person He left his wife and children a few months ago for Syria. To explain this, he only said: “This is the will of Allah!” Sometime later, his wife received the following text message: “Vadim died while fighting with the terrorist group “Islamic State” which is forbidden in Russia”.
A 19-year old student of the Moscow State University Varvara Karaulova was stopped by the Turkish-Syrian border. Supposedly, the young woman planned to join the “Islamic State”.
These are widely known cases. Unfortunately, there is almost no information about hundreds of young people who manage to secretly cross the border. Their relatives do not push panic because they do not want to be condemned or persecuted. They are also not aware where their sons, husbands or brothers left for. According to the head of the Federal Security Service Alexander Bortnikov, about 1700 Russian citizens have joined ISIS and other forbidden groups in Syria or Iraq. Bortnikov asserts that there are twice as many people there now compared to the last year.
Why do they go to war? How does it happen that they take large amounts of money from home and then ask to send them some money for food? How do they manage to return?
22-year old Saeed Majaev is from Grozny. Two years ago he left for Syria to fight on the side of the jihadists. He says now: “I understand that they threw dust in my eyes the way they did it to people like me”. However, neither his mother nor his pregnant wife could prevent him from going there at that point.”
Saeed Majaev with the mufti of the Chechen Republic after being discharged (the face is covered at Saeed’s request)
Saeed is lucky. Due to his injury, he managed to escape the jamaat half a year later. He was convicted and imprisoned. Once he did his time, he was discharged.
— Everybody started talking about a net of recruiters after Vadim Dorofeev and Varvara Karaulova stories. They say that girls are recruited by means of some psychological methods and men are attracted by big money they assertedly can earn there. This was not the case with me. Recruiters take advantage of common sense of justice. This is the most horrible thing…
Saeed’s way to jihadists started with a video clip. Saeed says that these videos are sent to all young guys from Caucasian republics.
— You receive them on Viber, WhatsApp and other social media. The content of all of them is the same: they show how women and children are murdered in Syria. The message of these videos is also similar: “Where are you, true Muslims? You should defend your coreligionists…” At first I did not pay any attention to this kind of plea. At some point I joined this theme-based group and started talking to the guys who were there. Half a year later I thought that if something like that happened to my family in my home city, somebody would come to help me. “Why am I here and do nothing about this”, I wondered. Succumbed to these ideas, I decided to leave.
There was no any recruiter as it is. At the beginning I believed that I kept in touch with the guys like me who explained to me that coming to Syria is a duty of every faithful Muslim. Eventually, I believed them.
I thought that I was going there to protect helpless women and the elderly tortured by Assad forces. I was so struck with this idea that I did not even think about seeking for an alternative point of view so that to find out what is going on in Syria.
— What did you say to your relatives? Did you explain them where you were going and what for?
— Of course, not. They did not know the real causes for my departure. Otherwise, they would go to the law enforcement agency. I told my relatives and my wife that I wanted to continue my studies in Turkey. They trusted me.
— Did not you think that to leave a pregnant wife and go to an alien war is too much?
— It was not an easy decision to make. But at that point I thought that it is quiet in our place and my relatives could take care of my wife. I thought that except for me and those alike, nobody would help people there.
— Could you comment on your religious ideology?
— Do you mean if I was radical or not, if I was a religious fanatic or not? Clearly, I was not.
Saeed mentioned that about three months before his departure, he started contacting a person who was supposed to direct his activities.
— Was he a recruiter?
— I do not think so. He was more like the one who directed me step by step. We were always in touch with him. He explained to me what to do. Once in Istanbul, I had to buy a new SIM-card and to call a certain number. I should have said his name if asked who I came from. After that, a car was to arrive to take me. I did everything accordingly, but they could not meet me at the airport. Instead, they told me to buy a bus ticket and get to the Turkish-Syrian border.
— How do they check whether you are a spy or not? It is unlikely that they give these telephones to anyone?
— Of course not. There were some acquaintances of mine there. They looked up my background through them. There must be someone who would pass word for you.
— Did they pay for your ticket to Istanbul?
— No. I paid for it by myself. They do not send money to anyone. As I was explained, this is not safe.
— The word is that there is a Russian community in Turkey which train and take recruits to Syria.
— I have heard about this too. I did not live in Turkey. I bought a bus ticket and got to the border on the day of my arrival. I was told to wait at the station there. Some hours later, a man came over to me. We got into car where there were 10 guys who had arrived before me. The whole process was managed by the conductor who was to convey us to Syria. He was a Turk, but could speak some Russian too.
— How did you cross the border?
— There were about 30 of us. We were running across the field for about 20 minutes. The border guards noticed us from the towers and started fire. Thanks God that nobody was injured. I know some cases when people were seriously wounded and died. There was a woman who could not run quickly.
“You come here to die. So, you do not need a passport any more…”
A group of people with Saeed got on another car on the other side. They got to the camp for recruits.
— They check who you came from, what your goals are and what beliefs you have in the camp. How do they check it? They ask you various questions. For example, they ask you whether you came there in order to earn money or for the sake of your ideology. They ask if you are ready to fulfill everything the amir (leader) orders you. We should have sworn an oath there. I should have sworn that I would obey the amir till my dying day.
Saeed assures us that he did not swear an oath.
— I said to them that I needed some time to think and see what was going there. In other words, I managed to get out of it.
Six days later, Saeed was sent to jamaat. He says that he joined “Caucasus emirate” which a forbidden in Russia terror organisation.
— It has the same goals as ISIS. We were all together, but I did not belong to ISIS as it is.
— Did they examine your physical condition there or before your arrival? Did they ask you whether you had any military experience?
— Did not you think that it is not quite right? Did you think that you might have been used as food for powder?
— I realised this once I went across the border and they took my passport away. I did not want to give them my papers, but they said: “What for do you need your passport? You come here to die, didn’t you?’ I said that I would rather live some more time. Then I was told that it is an internal rule to hand over passports. The rules cannot be broken here.
— What kind of service did you do?
— At first I did not do anything in particular. They did not give me any weapon. Three weeks later I was provided with a rifle. I was explained how to use it. I was told to guard weapon warehouses. I did not take part in military operations as I did not have experience.
— Could you tell us where these people were from? Why did they come?
— There were guys from Germany, France, Nigeria and even from Brazil. Why did they come? Everybody I talked to wanted to help the oppressed Muslim brothers. It was forbidden to ask each other personal questions. When I tried to ask some guys where they were from and whether they had a family, a security guard would come up and say that curiosity might turn out to be very costly. They spied on us. They traced what we were doing and what we were talking about. They made sure that we did not take pictures of any facilities or send text messages to anyone. Sometimes I saw someone reading next to me, but it turned out that he was watching you. Once in the camp, we were told that it would be better if we did not take our mobile phones with us. We were told that it might come to a sticky end if we took pictures of the fighters.
— Did you keep in touch with your relatives?
— We occasionally called home. I telephoned my wife for the first time only a month later after my arrival. There was no Internet there for us. They explained to us that it distracts us from our goals.
— Did you tell your relatives where you were when you managed to talk to them?
— I told this to my wife only. I warned her not to tell anyone about this. I said that I arrived there by mistake and did not know how to leave the place. But I reassured her that I will find a way out shortly.
— Did they pay to you? According to some experts, militants can get three-five US dollars per month.
— I do not know how much the amirs get and who pays to them, but common soldiers like me did not earn anything. All of us came there for the sake of the idea which turned out to be false as I realised later.
— Most of the time our jamaat was busy with dealing with other units. There are many groups there. They seem to be united by the same idea which is to fight against Bashar Assad and create the “Islamic State” on the territory of Syria. In reality, they quarrel and fight with each other. They rob money, houses and weapon calling it all “trophies”. It does not look like a global idea at all.
Amirs aim at taking a center cut and rob as much as it is possible. There are many mansions of rich people there. Their masters left them because of the war. Amirs occupy these palaces, settle down in them and enjoy themselves in the swimming pools there. There are so many mansions over there that some amirs move from one to another.
— Were there any real tactical operations?
— Sometimes they countered Assad’s army strike. However, most of the cases were just mock operations. The amirs chose some empty house which they captured in advance. They told cameramen that an enemy was there.
Then they imitated capturing of such a house and they threw grenades. They sent the video clips to sponsors and downloaded them in the Internet. The idea was to call Muslim brothers for help. Trustful young guys like me were bought into it.
— What for do they need new fighters?
— Wake up for reality, Anastasia. They make money this way. The more units they have, the more money they can ask from their sponsors.
— Does that mean that you did not seen murders of women and children like the ones in video clips?
— They did not care about common people. They sorted out their relationships. Yet, there was a horrible situation. The group which was located next to us killed a few dozens of women and children. They shot them down. In their words, those people were traitors.
How can 12-14 years old teenage boys and the elderly be traitors? The video clip was spread all over the world. This made me focus on finding a way out of the place.
“If the runaway was caught, he would be slaughtered…”
Saeed survived due to his injury.
— By that point I was guarding the near border territories. I tried to run from one house to another when a bullet pumped into me. It ploughed through my leg.
I walked with crutches for a month and the wound did not heal. I complained about the severe pain I suffered from and said that I needed to go to Turkey for medical treatment. The most difficult bit was to get my passport back. I was lucky enough as our commanding general temporally went into hiding due to some issues with the other group. They could not get through to him during two days and they had nothing but to take my word for it. They gave me my passport back.
— Could you simply escape?
— We were never alone. There were always two or three of us. Even if there was a group of us, it would be impossible to escape. There must be a conductor who could convey us across the borders. They know how to avoid mine stripes. All the conductors are connected with armed gangs. They have to have a permission to convey any fighter across the border.
— Did anyone try to escape while you were there?
— There was one guy. He said that he was going to the market and would be back two hours later. He left and was never back. They made a search for him for a week.
They were shocked when they realised that he ran away. Nobody could understand how he managed to escape and nobody caught him or even noticed how he went across the border. There were some situations when people tried to escape but they ended up by having been blown up by a land mine.
I realised that I could not risk that much. I wanted to find some sensible way out. Otherwise, if they caught me, it would be over. The Syrians call it “halas”.
— Do you think they could shoot you down?
— They could slaughter me. Traitors are not to be forgiven…
Saeed arrived in Syria on July 11th, 2013. He went back across the border in the beginning of January, 2014. Saeed called his mother straight away and asked to come for him. He had to stay in Turkey for some more months.
Saeed left for Turkey on May 15th, 2014. Saeed remembers that he returned to Chechnya, chilled out for few weeks and decided to turn himself in to police.
— My mother persuaded me. She said that something would leak out anyway and it would be better if I would come myself and confess to what had happened. I came to Shatoy District Office of Internal Affairs on June 11, 2014. As I found out later the criminal case was initiated against me taking part in illegal armed groups on June, 2014. I did not know about this. There was no notice. Moreover, I was released once I wrote an explanatory report.
Two weeks later, Saeed was taken into custody at the investigator’s. Initially, he was sentenced to ordinary confinement for two years and restriction of liberty for one year. However, Saeed managed to appeal against the judgment. Saeed says that he voluntarily stopped taking part in illegal armed group and turned himself in to police. Eventually, the prison term was reduced to eight months and one year of liberty restriction.
— I am wearing an electronic bracelet now and can go around four districts of Grozny only. I understand though that it is much better than being a prisoner or a fighter in Syria.
— What would you say to the guys who are thinking of going there?
— I would advise them to learn from my mistakes and not to succumb to online barkers’ stories. They believe that they are going to defend ordinary people. But this is not true. I want everybody to know that it is easy to get there, but it is very difficult to go away and come back…
“Taking thousands of dollars from home and asking to send them at least a hundred dollars later…”
Berikey is not a big settlement in Dagestan, Russia. There are no more than three and a half thousand people living here. About 38 volunteers left for Syria within the last half a year from here.
The head of the reconciliation and agreement of Dagestan Southern district centre Sevil Novruzova talks about quite a complicated situation in the settlement. Our organisation used to be called “Committee for adapting people who stopped extremist and terrorist activities to peaceful life”. The centre worked with the guys who decided to “go to the mountains”, persuaded them to come back. We worked with their relatives and militants’ wives. Once we managed to cope with this “disease”, there came up another one called “Islamic State”.
— “It seems like the best of the best young men leave for IS,” – sighs Sevil. “All of them are from decent families and well-educated. Berikey settlement is not the one with regard to this. There are many settlements alike in Dagestan.
Sevil draws a representative example of one guy. Let’s call him Anvar. He is 28 years old and the only son in his respected and quite wealthy family. He graduated from the sociological faculty of a prestige university. He had everything one could wish for: a three-storey mansion not far from Moscow, a few flats in Derbent, a job and a family.
— A few months ago he said to his mother that his duty is to go to Syria and rescue the suppressed Muslim brothers there. He has gone.
— According to some experts, guys are recruited by means of some psychological methods and money.
— This is nonsense. Many of them give their money instead. Then they write to their friends and family: “Send me some money. I need to buy food and medicine”. For example, Anvar has never been short of money. Instead, he brought more than six million roubles to Syria. He sold his car worth four million roubles and took two more from home.
“As for a hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming and other crazy ideas, they are nothing compared to the ideology promoted,” continues Sevil. “Under the influence of an ideology, an individual loses sense of fear. He is not anxious about death and counts on his afterlife promised by the preachers”.
I thoroughly studied Anvar’s account on Facebook and found a dozen of video clips of the same content there. The highly respected sheikh explains that if there are military actions in a Muslim country and the country cannot resist an enemy, Muslims from all over the world should come there to support. These guys believe these sheiks.
Sevil and her team try to react in the same way. They attract imams to work with the young people from a risk group.
— It is worth noting that strange as it may seem, the so called Wahabi imams come to help in the most difficult situations. They explain that there is no jihad in Syria and that Muslims kill Muslims there and going to Syria is a mistake and a sin.
We manage to talk some people out of going there. There are not so many people we managed to persuade of the need to return. Stories of the guys who returned from there is a powerful argument for those who consider going there.
— One guy has managed to return. When he was leaving, he hoped to see brotherhood of co-religionists here. In reality, he turned out to be there just a slave. At first, he was made to cook porridge which they poured out on him afterwards. “Everyone is trying to grab something for himself there – land or wealth. They just take advantage of people like us…” – Sevil cites his words.
Sevil thinks that most of the guys are recruited in Moscow.
— They go to work at construction sites and make temporary registrations and have foreign travel passport issued there. We are planning to raise this issue to the country government. The thing is that all the guys of a risk group are on file with us. If they wanted to have a travel passport issued, we would not issue it to them. When coming to Moscow, they can receive it within two weeks. I am sure that an extensive network of recruiters is involved in this.
— Did they tell you what they had been doing while there?
— There was a guy who managed to keep in touch with his relatives on WhatsApp despite the fact that it was forbidden there. Regrettable, this guy was killed. He told us that he was trained in the camp for new recruits for about three weeks. He was provided with weapon and conveyed to Raqqah city. He was seriously injured there on the first day.
Before his death he sent a message to his parents that if he died, they would receive a text message from his number. One week later, the following text message arrived: “Uma has become a shahid, inshaAllah”. This means that he became a shahid by the Will of Allah. This is not the first time I read such a text message. When I walk in Derbent, I sometimes see mourning in some of the courts. You can understand that a young guy died. When I ask what has happened, whether it was an accident or some disease, they show you the text message.
— Are there any women among those who left?
— Yes, there are. There are women even among those 38 from Berikey. One of them left there for her husband. She was pregnant with her fourth child and took her three children with her. There was another woman who delivered a baby in Syria. There are women who left for Syria to fight. Some are recruited by their friends who are there. They send them pictures and find them militants that are eager to get married to them.
I am astonished by Varvara Karaulova’s father perseverance. He was able to make a fuss about this situation and eventually, they found his daughter. It is not important whether she will be convicted or not. The main thing is that she will be alive.
Our young people leave for ISIS on a regular basis, but their parents are anxious about making a fuss. Consequently, they receive the text message: “Your son died…”