Moscow, Russia – Abdulmajid Abakarov, a 12-year-old boy from Russia’s troubled province of Dagestan, had not seen his mother in three years.
Zagidat Abakarova, 34, and her two younger children were “forcibly held” in Syria by her husband, who had joined ISIL, Russian officials said.
On October 21, the boy waited for her at the airport in Grozny, the capital of neighbouring Chechnya, in an agitated crowd of civilians, security officers and journalists.
Days earlier, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced the arrival of seven “rescued” wives and 14 children of Russian ISIL fighters who had been killed, sentenced to death or jailed in Syria or Iraq.
Kadyrov, who rules war-scarred Chechnya and cultivates an image of Russia’s top Muslim leader, guaranteed the women’s safe return.
The most common charge fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) face in Russia is “organisation of or participation in an illegal armed group”.
It is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail, but the charge can be dropped if suspected fighters give themselves up to police.
Abdulmajid knew exactly what he would do when he saw his mother.
“I will kiss her, tell her I’ll never let her go,” the lanky, almond-eyed boy said shyly, in an interview with local media.
But shortly after her arrival, Zagidat and another returnee, Muslimat Kurbanova, were detained by police who drove from Dagestan to apprehend them. On October 24, they were arrested for two months and are awaiting trial. Zagidat is not even allowed to breast-feed her three-month-old daughter.
The arrests “undermine further policies of North Caucasus authorities, [federal] Russian authorities, to return Russian nationals from conflict zones,” Galina Tarasova of the Memorial human rights group told Al Jazeera.
‘4,000 Russians fight for ISIL’
“Soon, very soon, blood will spill like a sea.” This is the chorus of a nasheed, a religious chant released in Russian by Al-Ajnad Media, ISIL’s propaganda branch, in 2015. The lyrics mention the “return” to Islamic law-based rule of Russian regions where up to 20 million Muslims dominate demographically or form a sizeable minority: the North Caucasus, Tatarstan, the Urals Mountains and annexed Crimea.
Almost 3,500 Russians fight for ISIL, making Russia the largest source of recruits – ahead of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, the Soufan Center, a US-based think-tank, said on October 24.
As ISIL is nearing collapse, the think-tank warned that the fighters’ homelands face a “huge challenge” of returnees who are battle-hardened, indoctrinated and angry.
The Soufan Center said some 400 fighters have so far returned to Russia.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on October 25 that he “doubts the figures” from groups, but did not specify whether the official figure was lower or higher. He added that monitoring the returnees is “one of the priorities” of Russia’s security agencies.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin said in February that “up to 4,000” Russian nationals fight for ISIL. In June, he said that ISIL is “preparing plans to destabilise” ex-Soviet Central Asia and Russia’s southern regions.
Between January and July, 190 suspected fighters were sentenced to jail for “organisation of or participation in an illegal armed group”, the charge Zagidat is facing, according to the Supreme Court’s statistics. Last year, the figure was 245, in 2011 – 133.
There are no figures on how many of them are linked to ISIL, and rights groups often doubt the accusations.
“In many cases, a formal accusation is presented without any veritable proof that the people have really been there,” Memorial’s Tarasova said.
“The accusations are rather vague, and, as a rule, are based on confessions of individuals” that are often received under pressure or in return for promises to leave their families alone, she said.
The Caucasus conundrum
Most of the Russian ISIL fighters come from the North Caucasus, a southern region that lies close to Iraq’s Baghdad or Syria’s Raqqa than to Moscow. More than 100 ethnic groups co-exist there amid unemployment, corruption and feuds over resources and power.
One of the North Caucasus provinces is Chechnya, where a secular separatist uprising of the 1990s morphed into the “Caucasus Emirate”, an armed group that conducted hundreds of attacks, killing thousands of civilians, security officers, officials, pro-Kremlin imams and even owners of alcohol stores.
In 2012, 700 people were killed and 525 wounded in the region making it the hotbed of Europe’s “most violent conflict”, the International Crisis Group think-tank said.
The conflict “is being constantly fuelled by a string of various factors starting from gravest human rights abuses to corruption, clanship, injustices, very strong social stratification, badly functioning government institutions that have essentially been privatised”, Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, director of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre, a Moscow-based think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
Security forces stoke the conflict with abductions, torture and extrajudicial killings of Muslims merely suspected of joining “radical” groups, Human Rights Watch said. Even if a young man is blacklisted by mistake, interrogations, beatings and threats force him to join the “radicals”, the group said.
Last December, seven suspected fighters were killed in Chechnya, and four of them were wounded, Memorial said. One of the wounded was 18-year-old Madina Shakhbieva; her relatives were security officers that killed and buried her secretly, the rights group alleged.
Since 2013, North Caucasus fighters started pledging allegiance to ISIL and other groups in Syria and Iraq – and flocked there in droves. Security agencies forced them out of Russia before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, experts claimed, and the number of killings and attacks plummeted.
“The departure of militants, cuts in [foreign] funding, a split among Caucasus Emirate leaders, most of whom pledged allegiance to ISIL and were killed later, decreased the activity of the Islamist underground,” Varvara Pakhomenko, one of Russia’s leading Northern Caucasus experts, told Al Jazeera.
ISIL declared war on Moscow and took responsibility for at least a dozen attacks, including the 2015 bombing of a passenger plane over the Sinai Peninsula that killed 224 mostly Russian tourists returning from Egypt. It became the largest air crash in Russia’s history, and Moscow stopped flights to Egypt altogether.
A whipping girl
Although most of ISIL recruits come from North Caucasus, an exemplary A-student from Moscow became the poster child of religious “extremism”.
Varvara Karaulova, a 21-year-old philosophy student, converted to Islam after falling in love with an ISIL fighter she met online. Turkish police detained her in 2015 as she was trying to cross into Syria to marry him, and her odyssey generated enormous media buzz back home.
Charges against her were dropped, and Russian security officers used her social network accounts to identify ISIL recruiters. But Karaulova was later sentenced to four and a half years in jail last December in a trial her father described as a “show” aimed at frightening other potential ISIL recruits.
“What I regretted was that after her return I let them communicate with recruiters on behalf of Varvara, and that [communication] was what she was accused of,” Pavel Karaulov told Al Jazeera.
After a month in a training camp, I realised there was no religion; we were just being used. For them, we were cannon fodder, expendable material
Given all the pressure returnees face back home, most ISIL fighters opt to stay out of Russia trying to settle in Ukraine, Turkey or Middle Eastern nations.
“Few real combatants return,” said Sokirianskaia, of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre. “The returnees are those who have left recently and quickly got disappointed.”
One such returnee was Rakhman Bagbekov, a 20-year-old theology student who was sentenced to 15 years in jail for spending a month at an ISIL training camp in Syria.
“After a month in a training camp, I realised there was no religion; we were just being used. For them, we were cannon fodder, expendable material,” Bagbekov told the Argumenty i Fakty weekly, speaking from prison.
Others who return prefer to lay low – for now.
“There is no danger yet, and those who return have not manifested themselves,” Alexey Malashenko, a senior expert with the Moscow-based Institute for the Dialogue of Civilizations, told Al Jazeera.
“But if ever there is a crisis, some trouble, and the protest is only expressed in an Islamic way, then these guys who have not had enough of war, who are filled with ‘mujahideen’ energy, will have their say.”