The Russian Southern District Military Court, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, recently sentenced Biysoltan Jamalov, a resident of Dagestan, to 12 years in prison on charges of terrorism and participation in the activities of an “illegal” armed group in Syria. Several years ago, the Russian government dispatched its Armed Forces and private military companies (PMC) to Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, Moscow designated all Russian citizens who fought against the Syrian government as “terrorists.” According to the Russian officials, Jamalov joined the militant group Jabhat al-Nusra (“Front of the Supporters”) in 2016. In 2017, he reportedly became a member of the Arab–North Caucasus militant group Jaish al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar (“Army of Emigrants and Supporters”), which was itself part of Jabhat al-Nusra at the time. The charges against Jamalov say that he guarded the territories controlled by these rebel groups in the suburbs of Idlib and other places in the Syrian province of Latakia. The man was apprehended in April 2019 (TASS, March 18).
A regional Dagestani news agency reported on May 4, 2019, that the Federal Security Service (FSB) had detained a “dangerous terrorist,” Biysoltan Jamalov, at the airport in Makhachkala. According to the official information, 31-year-old Jamalov had been deported from Turkey to Russia. Jamalov reportedly had been on the Russian federal search list for having joined the extremist Islamic State (IS) (Riadagestan.ru, May 4, 2019).
Jamalov’s case is not unique, as thousands of radicalized young men from the North Caucasus found their way to the Middle East over the past decade. But as multiple sources have pointed out, some of those who traveled to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq had been abetted in this by the Russian state as a matter of policy. Indeed, instead of tackling rebels at home, Russian security services reportedly facilitated their departure to the Middle East. The authorities supplied those North Caucasus insurgents with new documents and allowed them to travel to Turkey and then on to Syria. Observers said that Moscow notably used this tactic to improve the security situation in the North Caucasus in 2013, prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi (see EDM, March 23, 2016).
At some point, the outflow from the North Caucasus (especially from Dagestan and Chechnya) to the Middle East was so large that it involved entire families. After the IS was defeated, however, the issue of family reunification arose. As women were left without husbands and children without parents, their relatives back in Dagestan scrambled to retrieve them from the Middle East. In 2017, the Dagestani government set up a special commission for the return of children from Syria and Iraq. As of January 2020, Dagestani officials received 824 petitions from the residents of the republic, pleading to the state for the return of their female and child relatives. Authorities in Dagestan overall registered 810 minors who were left in the Middle East; a little over 10 percent of them (91) have thus far been returned to Dagestan. It appears there is some cap on the number the government is willing to receive back. The authorities cite various obstacles they face in returning Russian citizens from Iraq and Syria. Some children, reportedly, have undergone DNA testing to establish their identity (Riadagestan.ru, January 27).
Dagestani officials portray the situation as if all people who left the republic for the Middle East were disappointed and wanted to return home. However, it is unclear if any Dagestanis have been leaving the republic recently. The annual report of the chief of police in Makhachkala for 2019 says that 342 residents of the capital of Dagestan left the republic for Syria. According to the official, they went to the Middle East to join the Syrian opposition against al-Assad’s regime. Yet, it is unclear if this number includes the total number of residents of Makhachkala who went to Syria in the past decade or if it only covers 2019 (Makhachkalinskie Izvestiya, March 20).
The authorities continue to put pressure on the adherents of “unwanted” Muslim teachings in Dagestan. In particular, the police often persecute Salafists. On March 20, an estimated 50 police officers stopped Muslims after Friday prayer at the Tangim mosque in Makhachkala. Dagestani police routinely take down details of suspicious Muslims at mosques, detain them for questioning, and sometimes threaten them (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 21). This could be a compelling reason for some Dagestanis to seek refuge in the Middle East.
Any observed interactions between such separated families and friends become suspicious in the eyes of the government. When authorities find out that people from the North Caucasus transfer money to the Middle East, for example, they are habitually charged with “financing terrorism.” Even though such transfers could be simply made in support of relatives and friends, the senders usually end up in prison. The Investigative Committee of Russia recently launched a criminal investigation against two Dagestanis and one resident of Kabardino-Balkaria on charges of “financing terrorism.” The agency says that the suspects sent members of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra over 300,000 rubles (approximately $5,000) in 2017–2018 (TASS, March 17).
The outflow of radicals from Dagestan to the Middle East may have helped to stem the tide of violence in the republic. However, it has additionally created other problems for the government, such as separated families, reunification issues, and potentially dangerous transborder ties.