“They said, ‘Go wherever you want, you can even go fight in Syria'”

Maria Tsvetkova writes for Reuters about how Russia encouraged Islamist militants to fight in Syria with groups such as the Islamic State — thus exporting a domestic problem while propping up its line that the Assad regime was defending the country against “extremists” and “terrorists”:

Four years ago, Saadu Sharapudinov was a wanted man in Russia. A member of an outlawed Islamist group, he was hiding in the forests of the North Caucasus, dodging patrols by paramilitary police and plotting a holy war against Moscow.

Then his fortunes took a dramatic turn. Sharapudinov, 38, told Reuters that in December 2012 Russian intelligence officers presented him with an unexpected offer. If he agreed to leave Russia, the authorities would not arrest him. In fact, they would facilitate his departure.

“I was in hiding, I was part of an illegal armed group, I was armed,” said Sharapudinov during an interview in a country outside Russia. Yet he says the authorities cut him a deal. “They said: ‘We want you to leave.’”

Sharapudinov agreed to go. A few months later, he was given a new passport in a new name, and a one-way plane ticket to Istanbul. Shortly after arriving in Turkey, he crossed into Syria and joined an Islamist group that would later pledge allegiance to radical Sunni group Islamic State.

Reuters has identified five other Russian radicals who, relatives and local officials say, also left Russia with direct or indirect help from the authorities and ended up in Syria. The departures followed a pattern, said Sharapudinov, relatives of the Islamists and former and acting officials: Moscow wanted to eradicate the risk of domestic terror attacks, so intelligence and police officials turned a blind eye to Islamic militants leaving the country. Some sources say officials even encouraged militants to leave.

Almost 3,000 Russians Join the Conflict

The scheme continued until at least 2014, according to acting and former officials as well as relatives of those who left. The cases indicate the scheme ramped up ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics because the Russian authorities feared homegrown militants would try to attack the event.

The six Russian militants and radicals identified by Reuters all ended up in Syria, most of them fighting with jihadist groups that Russia now says are its mortal enemies. They were just a fraction of the radicals who left Russia during that period. By December 2015, some 2,900 Russians had left to fight in the Middle East, Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB, the Russian security service, said at a sitting of the National Anti-terrorist Committee late last year. According to official data, more than 90% of them left Russia after mid-2013.

“Russian is the third language in the Islamic State after Arabic and English. Russia is one of its important suppliers of foreign fighters,” said Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a senior analyst for International Crisis Group, an independent body aimed at resolving conflicts.

“Before the Olympics, Russian authorities didn’t prevent departures and a big number of fighters left Russia. There was a very specific short-term task to ensure security of the Olympics….They turned a blind eye on the flow of radical youth” to the Middle East.

Moscow is now fighting Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria that the Kremlin says pose a threat to the security of Russia and the world. The Kremlin has justified its campaign of airstrikes in Syria by saying its main objective was to crush Islamic State.

A Kremlin Denial

Russian authorities deny they ever ran a programme to help militants leave the country. They say militants left of their own volition and without state help. Officials, including FSB director Bortnikov and authorities in the North Caucasus, have blamed the departures on Islamic State recruiters and foreign countries who give radicals safe passage to Syria and elsewhere.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, told Reuters: “Russian authorities have never cooperated or interacted with terrorists. No interaction with terrorists was possible. Terrorists get annihilated in Russia. It has always been like that, it is like that, and it will be in the future.”

The Foreign Ministry said claims that Russian law enforcement agencies had helped militants were “without grounds.” It said the agencies take various measures to prevent militants from leaving and to bring to account those who come back. It added that Russia has opened hundreds of criminal cases relating to Russian citizens fighting in Syria, and that therefore it was “absurd” to believe officials had facilitated the departure of militants from Russia.

The Interior Ministry declined to comment, saying the FSB was in charge of the issue. The FSB in Dagestan declined immediate comment.

A Convenient Arrangement

Allowing militants to leave Russia was convenient for both radicals and the authorities. In the mainly Muslim North Caucasus region, the two sides had fought themselves to a stalemate.

The Islamist groups, fighting to establish a Muslim state in the region, were exhausted after years on the run and had failed to score any significant victories against security forces. The authorities were frustrated because the militants – holed up in remote mountain hideouts or protected by sympathisers – still eluded arrest.

Then from 2013 Islamists began threatening to attack the Sochi Olympics, posting videos of their threats online. An attack would embarrass Putin at an event meant to showcase Russia; Moscow ordered a crackdown.

A retired Russian special forces officer with years of battlefield experience in the North Caucasus told Reuters that the federal authorities put pressure on local officials to curb insurgency ahead of the Sochi games. “They told them before the Olympics that no failures would be forgiven and those who failed would be fired. They tightened the screws on them,” he said.

The initial approach to Sharapudinov came from a political official in the militant’s home village of Novosasitli in Dagestan, a region in the North Caucasus . The official, who has since retired, became the liaison between Sharapudinov and Russian security services. He confirmed Sharapudinov’s account to Reuters.

It took Sharapudinov several months to decide whether to take up the offer of a deal. He eventually chose to trust the local official, whom he had known since childhood.

According to Sharapudinov, the intermediary took him to the town of Khasavyurt, where a high-ranking local FSB official was waiting. Though Sharapudinov had been given guarantees about his safety, he remained suspicious, he said. So he took along a pistol and a grenade in his pocket, despite a condition that he should come unarmed.

Sharapudinov had never previously tried to leave Russia, even clandestinely, because he thought he might be caught or shot. And leaving Russia openly would have been impossible because he was on a wanted list on suspicion of being involved in a bombing. If caught and convicted, he faced eight years to life in prison.

But now, according to Sharapudinov, the FSB officer said he was free to leave Russia and that the state would help him go.

“They said: ‘Go wherever you want, you can even go fight in Syria,’” Sharapudinov told Reuters in December. He recalled that the Olympics came up in the negotiations. “They said something like, ‘to let the Olympics pass without incidents.’ They didn’t conceal they were sending out others as well,” he said.

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