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How Moscow’s migrant workers became fighters for the Islamic State

By Daniil Turovsky

Journalist, Meduza

Fighters from the world’s largest terrorist group, the Islamic State of Syria and Lebanon (ISIL), have threatened to open a new front, this time in Central Asia. In April 2015, in the Tajikistani capital Dushanbe, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov spoke of the threat of an invasion of Tajikistan by ISIL, which could, in turn, threaten Russia.

Russia promised the country support, and is planning to send 70 billion rubles ($1.3 billion) for weapons and to secure the border with Afghanistan. Meduza correspondent Daniil Turovsky set off to Tajikistan and found that the majority of new fighters in the Islamic State are being recruited by “Chechen groups” from migrants working at Moscow’s construction sites. As a result of their efforts, 2,000 to 4,000 Central Asian migrants have already departed for Syria.


Gulru Olimova

Gulru Olimova is from the Tajikistani city of Kulyab, 30 kilometres from the Afghan border. She has dreamt of becoming a doctor or nurse since she was a child. Her dreams didn’t come true. When she was 16, Gulru met a local drug dealer by the name of Loik Rajabov on the streets of the city. He took a liking to the girl, and a few days later he came to her house and asked her family for her hand in marriage.

I asked Mairambi to show me a photo of her daughter, but she shook her head

Gulru refused. So did her mother, Mairambi Olimova, who told me her story. Her would-be son-in-law promised her that if they did not give the girl over to him, he would “bury them all.”

Mairambi was bringing up her children on her own. Her husband had died a few years ago, and her sons were still young and could not help in resistance or defense .

Gulru and Loik were soon married in a Muslim ceremony, and Mairambi’s daughter went to live in her husband’s house on the outskirts of town. Aside from Loik, several of his brothers also resided there. Mairambi said they were all vovchiki, using the word Tajiks have used for radical Islamists since their civil war in the 1990s.

I asked Mairambi to show me a photo of her daughter, but she shook her head. Loik had burned them all.

Soon after the wedding, Loik began beating his wife, and one time he slashed her forehead with a knife. Over the course of eight years they had three children. Loik frequently left for Moscow to earn money. After one trip to the Russian capital, Mairambi told me, they hung an Islamic State flag outside their house.

In autumn 2014, Loik took his wife and children to Moscow. He had been offered work in a construction brigade building dachas (summer houses) in suburban Moscow. A few months later, Loik called Mairambi from an unknown number. He said that he and his wife and children had moved to Syria and asked her not to tell anyone.

The Islamic State pays them $35 a month in child benefits

But Mairambi, who had worked as a cleaner for the local KGB, and then the Tajikistan State Committee for National Security (GKNB) for 30 years, couldn’t keep such information from the authorities. The GKNB asked her to tell them about Loik and Gulru and about their circle of friends. Now she periodically gets called in by the security services to find out if she has any news from Syria. 

“Most of all, I want them to bring him [Loik] here, pour 10 liters of gasoline on his head, and set him on fire,” Mairambi spits.

Gulru has called her mother from Syria several times. During the last conversation, which took place at the start of April, she said that the Islamic State gave them $30,000 for their journey to the Syrian city of Aleppo. They settled into a four-bedroom apartment with a television, refrigerator and carpeting. Gulru also said that they’ve found work. Her husband Loik barely takes any part in military activities. He inspects cars on roads for alcohol and cigarettes, which ISIL has banned.

The Islamic State pays them $35 a month in child benefits for each of their three children. Gulru herself, whose mother never before thought her to be a religious radical, now maintains that “the Caliphate will come to Tajikistan, so that Muslims will be able to live with Allah.”

It’s not just the locals who are discussing a possible invasion by Islamic State fighters from Afghanistan. These rumors regularly make their way into statements made by Russian and Tajikistani officials.

ISIL’s threat to Russia and Tajikistan

On April 2, 2015, at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Tajikistan is facing “real threats from the south in connection with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, where the Islamic State has already appeared.”

Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon called ISIL “the plague of the century and a serious danger for Tajikistan”

In his opinion, ISIL fighters are actively recruiting allies in Afghanistan and sending them to Tajikistan. The border is 1,350 kilometers (almost 840 miles) long and poorly guarded.

This means they’re also a real threat to Russia. Because of this, Russia is prepared to send 70 billion rubles ($1.3 billion) to help arm the country and shore up defense on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In Dec. 2014, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon called ISIL “the plague of the century and a serious danger for Tajikistan.”

In April 2015, a statement also appeared on the official Twitter account of the Russian defense ministry from Deputy Minister Anatoly Antonov:

“The Russian military base in Tajikistan [the base of the 201st Division in Kulyab] is our outpost, ready to defend this country and the CSTO from a possible terrorist threat. Groups of ISIL [fighters] have already appeared on the border of Tajikistan. By helping Tajikistan, we are defending Russia and the countries of the CSTO, our allies.”

He later clarified that an escalation of tensions in the north of Afghanistan and a possible “spillover” into Central Asia threatens Russia and her allies.

Ahmad Ibrahim, editor-in-chief of of the Kulyab newspaper Paik, whose correspondents have been covering Tajikistani fighters, agrees with officials:

“In Afghanistan, there have been groups of Islamic State fighters numbering up to 100 people for a long time now. There are Tajiks, there are Uzbeks. They’re being trained to attack their own states. They could seize Tajikistan within two days.”

According to him, this threat needs to be treated with utmost seriousness right now, given that Tajikistani fighters in ISIL have united around Nusrat Nazarov, a man who comes from the border city of Kulyab, which Russia considers to be an “outpost, protecting Tajikistan from terrorists.”

Who heads the Islamic State’s Tajik detachment?

In Syria, Nusrat Nazarov took the nom de guerre Abu Kholidi Kulobi. Kulobi himself told Ibrahim on the phone that he now leads groups from Syria, but is prepared to head to Afghanistan and attack Tajikistan from there.

In one of his most recent video messages (posted on March 19, 2015, but since deleted from social media networks), Nusrat Nazarov stands surrounded by men in military fatigues and announces:

“There are around 2,000 Tajiks here. You see them here and feel like you’re in Tajikistan. If this continues, there will be no one left in Tajikistan. They’ll all come to fight in Syria.”

At the end of the video, he says that his next message will be recorded from Tajikistan or the Kremlin. “We’re bringing Jihad to Tajikistan to establish the laws of Allah,” he concludes.

“He said that Tajikistan had to be changed. He said that it was impossible to live like this, that all around us was poverty and there was no work.”

Some say that it’s easy to find Nusrat Nazarov’s older brother Hairullo around Kulyab’s bazaar. But local journalists advise not to bother, since he seems to have disappeared from the city.

I ask around further, in hopes of finding him. Some people just shake their heads, but others tell me to “look for a man in red near a red car.” I work my way through the market and find a red car. There’s no one in it. A voice from behind me asks, “Taxi?” I turn around. There’s a man squatting and chewing chukri, a crunchy mountain grass, which tastes a bit like sorrel. He’s wearing a red T-shirt and red sneakers.

Sure enough, it’s Hairullo Nazarov, the brother of the head Tajik in ISIL.

In the summer of 2014, Hairullo was called in to the GKNB—a bad sign. That’s how he learned that his brother was in Syria. The agents even showed him a recent picture of his brother, in which Nusrat had a beard, was dressed in in a robe and was holding an assault rifle in his hand. Behind him was the infamous flag as a background. The security agents explained that according to what they knew, he had become the leader of the Tajik detachment of the Islamic State.

“I wasn’t that surprised. He was always so brash and hot-headed, such a problem person,” explained Hairullo.

According to him, Nusrat often ran away from home. In sixth grade he was expelled from school. Nusrat’s main dream, Hairullo tells me, was to live lavishly and easily.

“I’m sure that the KGB taps my phone. Why should I get involved?”

Nusrat turned 18 in 1993. He was drafted into the army, but ran off to Moscow five days later. There, he worked as a bombila—a driver in Moscow’s fleet of semi-legal private taxis. He returned to Tajikistan only in 1999 and he began selling cannabis at the bazaar. He found a wife, but didn’t take her with him to ISIL. She doesn’t even want to talk about him with relatives, Hairullo tells me.

In 2005, Nusrat, who had by that time gotten involved in trading heroin, was sent to prison. A year later, he got out and left again for Moscow. Throughout the 2000s, he traveled to the Russian capital five times.

“He became more and more religious. After 2013, he returned and began calling all those around him kaffirs [unbelievers],” his brother Hairullo says.

“He said that in Moscow he had met some sort of Chechens in the mosque on Prospekt Mira who opened his eyes to ‘proper Islam.’ He said that Tajikistan had to be changed. He said that it was impossible to live like this, that all around us was poverty and there was no work.

“Everyone who comes from Moscow now says that Chechens come to the mosques and the building sites, explaining to our migrants that they have to go live in Syria, where the Caliphate is. I think that those who go there, to the Islamic State, they hate Russia for the conditions and the labor which they have to endure to live. They’re in a situation with no way out.

Hairullo no longer answers phone calls from unknown numbers. “There will be problems if I talk to him” he explained, “I’m sure that the KGB taps my phone. Why should I get involved?”

The call of the Islamic State is an attractive alternative

On January 20, 2015, The International Crisis Group published a report called Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia. According to the researchers, in the last three years, between 2,000 and 4,000 people have come to Syria from Central Asia.

The Islamic State, in the authors’ opinion, is attracting not only those who want to fight, but also those who are searching for a “more pious and religious life.”

Between 2,000 and 4,000 people have come to Syria from Central Asia

“The call of ISIL—which says it wants teachers, nurses and engineers, not just fighters – can appear to some as an attractive alternative,” the authors speculate, adding that the new Caliphate is perceived by inhabitants of Central Asia as a change from “the post-Soviet life.”

“In Russia, migrants are marginalised, often finding themselves there illegally, they earn little money and find meaning and companionship in religion,” write the authors. They believe the situation in Central Asia is rapidly deteriorating, as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) unites with the Islamic State.

Who is recruiting guest workers to ISIL?

Beyond the first stalls of the Kulyab bazaar where they sell flatbread, meat, fruits and herbs, there are closed pavilions with small poorly-lit shops inside. Pipes and wires stick out of the walls. Here, they sell CDs with national pop music, and there’s also a small door to the “rear market”—the domain of the cannabis dealers and currency changers.

A lean Tajik man with very white teeth told me that he would definitely go to the Islamic State if they asked him to

Here, four men who used to work at construction sites in downtown Moscow confirm that “the Chechens” came to visit their construction trailers and to encourage them to join the Islamic State. According to the men, several groups of Chechen recruiters would go back and forth between the spots usually frequented by migrants, their construction trailers and dorms where they resided.

The recruiters came in groups of three to four people, and they were usually about 30 years old. They would come after 8 p.m., when the migrants would return home from work.

The recruiters would explain to the migrants why they should leave Moscow, and would go on to explain that in ISIL fighting wasn’t obligatory, that they would be able to lead a comfortable life and work without being humiliated or feeling demeaned.

At these meetings the recruiters didn’t talk about the need to wage war against Tajikistan, or the need to take part in terrorist activities, said the migrant workers. They would offer between $5,000 and $10,000 to help get a newcomer all set up, and if you had a family you could get two to three times more.

A lean Tajik man with very white teeth who had worked in Moscow on numerous occasions told me that he would definitely go to the Islamic State if they asked him to. “There’s a Caliphate there. You can live there as a Muslim and you don’t have to fight, Allah be praised. You can go and become a part of the only state of Allah. Without homosexuals, lesbians and other filth.”