We Spoke to a Former Russian ISIS Fighter Who Escaped to Ukraine
17 May, 2017
Father of Marat Nurmagomedov, Kazim Nurmagomedov, who travelled from Dagestan to Syria to release his son from ISIS Photo: Hromadske

Marat Nurmagomedov, a Russian citizen from the village of Karat in Dagestan, was almost 30 when he was recruited into the “Islamic State”. It seems that even to this day he doesn’t understand what exactly pushed him to take this step.

Now, Marat is thirty-three. We met with him in a poor, Soviet–style rental apartment in a Ukrainian city where he settled after he ran away from ISIS.

Marat asked us not to film him–he is afraid that the Russian Special Services are looking for him, regardless of the fact that he is located on the territory of a different country (not long after the interview he left Ukraine).

Based on his appearance the young man does not look as though he recently fought among the ranks of Islamic militants, for the terrorists the whole world is watching. He doesn’t even seem capable of taking up a machine gun. Marat wears an intellectual’s glasses, speaks softly and answers briefly, as if it takes an effort on his part.

Marat was born in Dagestan, he studied informatics at Makhachkal University. But programming, he admits, was not to his liking. He didn’t graduate from university. In 2012 Marat got married and soon after moved to Moscow, where he worked in a poorly–paid position as a systems administrator. The capital didn’t suit him. It was there that he began to immerse himself in the new world of islamic radicalism.

In the summer of 2013, Marat came across a sermon on the internet (he doesn’t remember how and where exactly) by one of the former Chechen ISIS leaders Sayfully al–Shishani (he was killed in 2014).

"He was inspiring the youth, he said that Bashar [Asaad, President of Syria–ed.] was waging a war against Muslims, that they were killing women and children," Marat recalled. "He said that there needed to be a jihad against Bashar, that it was our duty as Muslims."

These sermons touched Marat. They were reason enough for an emotional act: he decided to go to Syria. But the real reason was much deeper. Denis Sokolov, a researcher of radical movements in the North Caucasus, believes that Caucasian youth are pushed to join ISIS and other radical organizations by technological development, globalization and Russia’s unhealthy economy. According to him, the lack of vital institutions, elite control over economic processes and the collapse of agriculture has forced yesterday’s peasants to leave villages and move to cities. Their children turned out to be unprepared for the working world and could not find a place for themselves in a post–industrial society.
On top of that, says Sokolov, Special Services began to pressure dissidents, especially those with religious affiliation. Gradually Muslim youth in the North Caucasus began to radicalize, and many reacted strongly to the appeals of ISIS preachers.

Thirty–year–old Marat probably felt lonely and underemployed in the big city of Moscow, where people from the Caucasus and Central Asia are considered second–class citizens. The calls of Sayfully al–Shishani offered a window into a new world, where he would be someone who was needed.

ISIS declared the Caliphate on July 30, 2014 in Iraq’s main mosque in Mosul. At this time thousands of people fought as militants in Syria and Iraq. According to a number of studies, more than two thousand people from post–Soviet regions joined ISIS.

Since then three years have passed and a lot has changed. Opposition forces and individual paramilitary groups are now fighting ISIS. Increasingly, militants are trying to get out of ISIS– fewer and fewer are seeking to join them.

Many were disappointed– Marat Nurmagomedov included.

People from western part of Mosul forced to leave the town after bombardment (a billboard with ISIS slogans is in the background). Photo: Hromadske

On August 1, 2013 Marat gathered his things and flew from Moscow to Turkey. He told neither his wife, who was seven months pregnant, nor his parents where he was going. Only his brother Shamil knew his final destination. He even helped pay for Marat’s ticket.

Marat followed the traditional ISIS route for “new brothers”: taking a bus to Gaziantep, illegally crossing the Turkish border, where at the time there were “holes” through which Turks quietly smuggled people into Syrian territory. He ended up in the suburbs of Eastern Aleppo, in one of the subsets of the “Muhajireen wal–Ansar” group, which consists mainly of people from the North Caucasus and Central Asian countries.

"We lived in a private residence that formerly belonged to some businessmen linked to Asaad," said Marat. "Not a luxurious mansion, but one that was quite ordinary, even modest."

According to Marat, there were around thirty men in his group. They all spoke Russian amongst themselves, the second most common language among ISIS members, after Arabic.

When asked about what Marat did for ISIS, he responds evasively and does not want to disclose details. According to him, he was responsible for supplying the families of ISL fighters, he bought food and clothes for the wives and children of militants, drove them to hospitals, repaired telecommunications and computer systems. He claims, that he did not participate in military operations, but this cannot be confirmed.

Not long after Marat left to join ISIS, his father found out.

"I was completely embarrassed," recalled Kasim Nurmagomedov. "There were no warning signs, at least not that I could see. Marat was married in 2012, he left Dagestan, and I thought that my children had finally grown up and I could take care of my own life. When I found out where he went, I was in shock. Of course, this happens often in Dagestan, that someone didn’t like something and runs away. But where are we, and where is Syria?"

Kasim decided to dissuade his son from participating in a foreign war. In September 2013 he left Dagestan and travelled through Turkey to Syria. Today he considers it his duty to tell this story so that others know what happens to a family when one of their children go to fight for an organization that the whole world acknowledges as terrorists.

"Getting to ISIS controlled territory is surprisingly easy," explained Kasim. "My son gave me a man’s contact information, he met me at the Turkish border and took me across into Syrian territory. All of this cost 100 dollars...And there [in Syria] I met with Marat."

Father of Marat Nurmagomedov Kazim Nurmagomedov. Photo: Hromadske

Kasim recalls that at the transfer point where father and son met there were many young men. They were all “ideological and inspired".

"They were all really sincere people who were drawn there to protect Muslims. They had fire in their eyes. They thought that they were going to jihad and were ready to die tomorrow on the path to Allah, because death is a direct road to paradise," said Kasim.

In Eastern Aleppo Kasim lived with his son for a week. They talked and he tried to understand what motivated Marat to leave his family. He tried to persuade him to come back.

"His main argument was that we are all Muslims and that we should go on the path to Allah and die for this," Kasim recalled. "And I had different arguments: you have a family, responsibilities. What if tomorrow you were paralyzed, or injured? I convinced him that he had not done right by me, his mother or his wife, who was pregnant when he left. He agreed that he had made a mistake and needed to come back. At the time Russia had yet to implement the law that enforces criminal punishment for participants in illegal armed groups abroad, if they contradict Russian interests. The amendment appeared on November 3rd, 2013. After that date he was, effectively, outlawed."

Marat’s father could leave ISIS territory just as easily as he arrived. But extracting his son turned out to be a nearly impossible task. The process took nearly two years:

"He voluntarily came [to ISIS–ed.] and was morally obligated to the commanders. It was forbidden to tell the leaders that he didn’t like it, that he was leaving. Marat said that leaving was impossible. I did not dramatize then, I thought we could easily find channels through which to get him out."

At the beginning Marat had not made up his mind to leave ISIS–he just wanted to fix his family problems. At the time leaving wasn’t a possibility so he continued to work. He claims that for his participation in the group he earned 50 dollars a month.

"Those who were with their families received accommodations," Marat said. "They were placed in dorm-style housing, where the military lived with their wives and children. And those who went on operations shared their trophies amongst themselves–money, things. I had everything I needed, I didn’t go there for money."

In the summer of 2014 Marat’s mother manage to come to ISIS territory to see him. She, like Kasim, wanted to understand his motivations and convince him to return. She brought buckwheat and condensed milk–all of the Russian foods that militants from post-Soviet regions miss. She spent more than a month with her son. She barely spoke to the locals, says Marat, and was cooking instead.

Father of Marat Nurmagomedov Kazim Nurmagomedov. Photo: Hromadske

"Luckily my wife was able to leave a few days before Al-Baghdadi [the leader of ISIS] proclaimed the Caliphate," recalled Kasim. "After that the laws and institutions of the “Islamic State” came into effect. All Muslims who left the “Islamic State” were were declared traitors, because a true Muslim can’t opposed the Caliphate."

"Soon after that they began mass executions," said Marat. "The military, Islamic scholars, all of those who criticized ISIS began to disappear. Some were imprisoned but most were executed. We first learned about this from rumours: some women began to receive notices that their husbands had been executed for takfirizm [the accusation of Muslim “unbelief”–ed.]. The number rose to the thousands. Then I began to understand that something was going wrong. After a while, I myself was imprisoned."

Marat served for about a year in Iraqi territory, in Tal Afar, under ISIS occupied Mosul. He remembers that there he began to entertain the idea of running away from the Islamic State. A small group of militants who, like Marat, were thinking of leaving began to form: it included himself, a friend from Chechnya and eight Uzbeks. All of them believed that a real Islamic State should not have the right to kill Muslims. Some of the Uzbeks, Marat recalls, wanted to radically opposed the ISIS leadership.

"I suggested that they wait and get out of Syria first, and then decide who is to blame," said Marat.

Marat’s father recalled that his son called him in April 2015 and said: “My Khan, you need to get out, catastrophe is brewing, there’s nothing I can do." Soon after that the call was dropped.

"As soon as Marat returned to Syria from Iraq he was imprisoned," said Kasim. "Someone told the commanders that he wanted to leave ISIS, so he and the Uzbeks and the Chechen were 'shut down'. For a long time I tried to find out what happened and all at once a few channels told me that they had executed my son. For two months I was in a state...Can you imagine? I did not know what to tell my family. I decided not to tell them anything. And at the end of August he called me."

Marat said that at the beginning he was constantly interrogated and beaten in prison. He does not like remembering this. After the first month the interrogations stopped and then he realized that he was not going to be executed.

"I am practically the only one from our group who survived prison," said Marat. "My Chechen friend was executed along with a number of the Uzbeks."

After four months in prison attempting to avoid execution Marat was able to leave for Eastern Aleppo and travelled from there to the Turkish border. After convincing the Amir [commander] Tapka that he needed to heal, he received permission to leave the city.

28.04.2016, Aleppo, Syria. Photo: EPA, ZOUHIR AL SHIMALE

The “director” of his escape was based in Kyiv, said Marat’s father:
"Getting people out of there is a business and moreover, it is an arab business," said Kasim. "Only the arabs are able to navigate ISIS territory. An-Nusra, Asaad, the Free Syrian Army, they have families and property divided among them and so they are able to get a man out of this mess. There are a lot of intermediaries in this business–Chechens, Uzbeks, anyone really. They ask for large sums of money for their services – 5-10 thousand dollars, and it’s not guaranteed that this money won’t be wasted. But in Kyiv I found myself an absolutely sincere man [not a Ukrainian citizen–ed.] who did not ask for a lot of money."

Without giving names, three people including Kasim told Hromadske about this person. According to Hromadske's sources, this person is a Russian citizen who is no longer based in Ukraine. "Through his friends he helped Marat escape from Tapka to Eastern Aleppo–to the souther border with Turkey," Kasim explained. "There, my son travelled along guerrilla trails on foot and finally arrived where it all began–in Istanbul. The entire family met him there."

From Turkey Marat went to Ukraine, where he stayed for a time. His father explains that choosing this country was fairly simple:

"Marat has been ordered to return to Russia because a criminal case had been brought against him," he said. "He had very bad prospects in Dagestan. The best case scenario would be being given 5-6 years in prison, and the worst case would be us finding him in the woods with a bullet in his head. From the point of view of the law he has the right to be freed from his responsibilities, because a person who voluntarily joins an illegal group is liable to being released. He is in Ukraine because it is the safest country for us: it has the mentality and language of our homeland, the attitude is different [than in Russia–ed.]. If you do not violate Ukrainian laws no one cares what you are doing here."

The story of escaping from ISIS isn’t over. That winter the middle son, Shamilya who in the summer of 2013 bought Marat’s ticket to Turkey and sent him money when he was in Syria was accused of financing terrorism. He is now being threatened with 5 to 10 years in prison.
"I think the Special Services are using this “small thread” to protect business interests," Kasim claimed. "Shamil had a good business: he built pavilions and participated in federal tenders. Naturally, he lost because the tenders were dishonest and he complained to the Anti-Monopoly Committee of the Moscow government. And now, when his firm has won a tender for arranging a 19 million [ruble–ed.] exhibition he has been arrested and charged with financing terrorism. They just drew on the situation with our family to “sink” their competitor."

Not long after Kasim was summoned to the Moscow FSB department. He tells of this with the calm of a man who has experienced so much that nothing surprises him.

"They [the FSB–ed.] asked me about my son, about ISIS, about my trip to Syria," he said, "But what do I have to hide? Have I broken the law by going to Syria?"

Kasim takes a brief pauses, sighs, and adds:

"I would have gone even if it was outlawed a hundred times. I was worried about my son."

/Text by Ekaterina Sergatskova
/Translated by Eilish Hart