Russia fears return of fighters waging jihad in Syria

Reuters

* Muslims from North Caucasus see jihad in Syria

* Russia says hundreds of its own fighting withal-Qaeda-linked rebels

* Experts warn they will return - trained in warfare - tofight Russia

* Say they could strike during Russia's hosting of 2014Olympics

By Alissa de Carbonnel

NOVOSASITLI, Russia, Nov 14 (Reuters) - A scrawny15-year-old this summer became the first from his deeplyreligious Muslim village in Russia's southern Dagestan provinceto die fighting alongside rebels in Syria.

Some regard him as a martyr for joining the rebels in thefight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who is supportedby Russia.

Moscow now fears that hundreds of Russian-born militants itsays are fighting in Syria will return experienced in warfare tojoin an insurgency in Dagestan and its other North Caucasusprovinces by militants fighting for an Islamic state.

Violence in the region claims lives almost daily. Fifteenmen from Novosasitli alone have died in shootouts with Russianforces in the last four years, locals say.

Analysts say fighters could also try to strike during the2014 Winter Olympics in February in nearby Sochi. PresidentVladimir Putin, who has staked his reputation on the Games, hassaid militants returning from Syria pose "a very real" threatand signed off on a law this month to jail any who come home.

"The militant groups did not come out of nowhere, and theywill not vanish into thin air," Putin said on Sept 23.

In Novosasitli, where walls are tagged with graffitisupporting rebels fighting for an Islamic state, villagers sayat least eight out of 2,000 inhabitants have gone to Syria.

"There are whole brigades of our boys there," villagecouncil member Akhmed Khaibulayev said.

Three of them were arrested by Russian forces on their wayhome via a land route crossing the border from Azerbaijan backinto Dagestan, he said, but five have returned, underscoring theease with which Russians travel to and from Syria.

"They are at home now, waiting for when the security forcescome for them," Khaibulayev said.

Anxious parents try to hold back their sons.

"A father knows his son. I told him to leave his passportwith me. When he refused, I took it away," a man dressed in abeige tunic and skullcap said, asking not to be named for fearof reprisal by Russian security forces.

Despite his warnings, his 23-year-old son, whom he boastsknew the Koran by heart, left two months ago for thebattlefield. "I don't know if he will come back," he said.

A photograph, sent by fighters, of the scarred, skinnycorpse of the local 15-year-old killed there is still beingpassed around the village. Stones are placed over his eyelids.

In the comment thread under a photo of the smooth-chinnedyouth on a Facebook page he is called a hero and a martyr.

"He went to Syria because he couldn't stand that Assad andhis army were killing children," said a villager, who localssaid also fought in Syria and who refused to be named.

The boy had studied in Egypt before joining otherRussian-born militants in Syria, and his family only learned hehad gone to fight there after his death, locals said.

His father, who lost an arm in Syria when he went to see hisson's grave, was briefly detained by security forces in Augustwhen he returned home. He refused to speak to Reuters.

HOLY WAR

The sons of Novosasitli grew up playing "cops andinsurgents" in the streets. Russian rule is tenuous withresidents describing police as the enemy, the state as corruptand say they manage their own affairs under Sharia law.

Some have had relatives, classmates or neighbours joinIslamist insurgency in Russia, rooted in separatist wars inneighbouring Chechnya.

The militants adhere to Salafism, an ultra-conservativebranch of Sunni Islam. They do not have the support of allSalafis - some disapprove of their racketeering ways or do notview their attacks on police and officials as a lawful jihad.

The battle raging in Syria is different. It is widely seenin the majority Sunni Muslim region as a "true" holy war againstAssad's Alawite-dominated government.

But voicing that support for Syrian rebels in Russia isdangerous. A popular young imam who had raised funds to helpSyrian refugees has fled to Turkey after coming under pressurefrom law enforcement. Media with links to police claimed he wasinciting youths to join the conflict.

The doors of a newly built, emerald-domed madrasa he ran inNovosasitli now stand shut, empty of students.

"There's no obligation for Muslims to go from here toSyria," says Abdurakhim Magomedov, 71, a Salafi scholar inNovosasitli. "But if someone wants to go, no one can stop him."

THREAT TO OLYMPICS?

The flow of Russians from the North Caucasus going to Syriaincreased this year, officials and locals say, as pleas for helpfrom rebels grew more acute following a poison gas attack in thesuburbs of Damascus.

In June, Russia's FSB security service said 200 Russianswere fighting with al Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria. BySeptember, it said as many as 400 Russians were there.

"They will come back, and that poses a huge threat," FSBdeputy director Sergei Smirnov, said on Sept. 20.

Russian estimates of the number of fighters may not beaccurate, experts say, because of the large numbers of itscitizens studying abroad or who have emigrated to Europe,Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere.

Some gained skill and experience, highly-valued by theSyrian rebels, in fighting the separatist wars in Chechnya in1994-96 and 1999-2000, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Experts say the number of Russians in Syria may be higher.

Russia's protection of Assad, with weapons supplies anddiplomatic backing, has also left many angry at Putin.

"Muslims the world over revile Putin for his support ofAssad," said Dzhabrail Magomedov, one of some two dozen inNovosasitli, who studied at a religious school in Damascus.

This summer the Chechen-born Caucasus insurgent leader DokuUmarov urged fighters to use "maximum force" to sabotage theOlympics. His cry was echoed by fighters in Syria, who called onMuslims in the North Caucasus to wage jihad at home rather thanjoining them.

Russia has a history of recent militant attacks. Suicidebombings in the past two years killed dozens at a Moscow airportand subway. More than 380 people, mainly school children, werekilled in the siege of a primary school in Beslan in 2004.

"For such a jihad, one, two people is enough," aRussian-speaking rebel says in a YouTube address from Syriadated July 30, flanked by seven camouflage-clad fighters armedwith heavy machine guns and a grenade launcher.

Security is tight around Olympic host city Sochi, whichabuts the North Caucasus region.

"Do you know where Sochi is? We have enough of our ownrebels there," said Sergey Goncharov, a former deputy head ofthe FSB's elite Alfa counter-insurgency unit. "If they now getreinforcement from Syria, our security services will be hard put to prevent them from ruining the Olympics."

An amendment to Russia's anti-terrorism law, submitted byPutin and rushed through parliament after a deadly bus bombingkilled six people in southern Russia on Oct. 21, makes those whofight abroad criminally accountable at home.

Under the law, training "with the aim of carrying outterrorist activity" is punishable by 10 years in jail and beingpart of an armed group abroad "whose aims are contrary toRussian interests" by six years in jail.

'OUR MUSLIM BROTHERS'

Since Putin rose to power 13 years ago and crushed a Chechenseparatist revolt, he has said he would not allow the Caucasusprovinces to split from Russia.

But the nationalist cause that inspired Chechens to revoltafter collapse of the Soviet Union has mutated into an Islamicone that spread to nearby Caucasus mountain lands.

Defeated in Chechnya, rebels now launch near-daily attacksin Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. Today, the ranksof fighters are filled by youths disillusioned by policebrutality, joblessness, corruption and the perceived persecutionof religious conservatives.

Empathy for fellow Sunni Muslims caught in the bloodshed inSyria is especially sharp among Chechens, who see in it echoesof their own suffering in two wars for secession from Russia.

"They also killed our mothers, brothers and grandparents,"said Akhmed, a 21-year-old Chechen, in the village of Berdykel,near the provincial capital, Grozny. "We want to help. They areour Muslim brothers."

In response, Chechen authorities have banned wakes foranyone killed in Syria, and Muslim clerics speak out in mosquesand schools, casting the war as a political struggle not areligious one. A local government minister was fired when one ofhis family left for Syria, a source who knew of the incidentsaid.

Chechen-language TV aired the apology of a 26-year-old, whosaid he had made a mistake fighting to Syria and doubted the warwas a true jihad because of infighting among the rebels.

"I got scared that I would die not on the right path, so Icame back," he said, head bowed before Kremlin-backed Chechenleader Ramzan Kadyrov.

At his yellow-gated home in Berdykel, a relative said hisfamily no longer let him live at home. "It's very painful forus," said a young male relative. (Editing by Anna Willard)

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