The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is, for most people, a symbol of ultimate evil. Formed around a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, the “state” is widely recognized as a terrorist organization guilty of mass war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Fears of ISIS spreading are common throughout Europe.
But ISIS may already have arrived in Ukraine, according to Muslim community sources in the country and in Russia’s North Caucasus region. Up to several hundred ISIS fighter may be hiding out on Ukrainian territory.
The sources say Ukraine plays a specific role for militants: a transit zone to and from the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.
ISIS first emerged in 2014 during the war in Iraq and the conflict between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition. The militants seized territory in northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. On June 30 of that year, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed ISIS a caliphate in the main mosque in Mosul.
Supporters of fundamentalist interpretations of Islam from around the globe answered ISIS’s calls. A considerable amount — up to four thousand people — joined ISIS from Russia’s North Caucasus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other regions of the former Soviet Union with authoritarian political regimes. Surprisingly, according to Radio Liberty’s calculations, in 2015 there was one ISIS fighter per one million people in Ukraine.
For those wanting to go to Syria, the first step is always figuring out a way to get onto the territory controlled by ISIS.
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Hromadske correspondents managed to meet with two former ISIS members. They said that most people from post-Soviet states enter ISIS-controlled territory through southern Turkey. They usually go by bus or car from the city of Gaziantep to the frontier and illegally cross the border there.
Before 2016, travelling between Turkey and ISIS-controlled territory in Syria was a lot simpler. The Turkish border guards often simply ignored people who tried to get through the barbed wire. But the situation changed significantly after the June 28, 2016 terrorist attack on Istanbul airport and after a “thaw” in relations between the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That corridor is now closed to would-be ISIS fighters. But travel in the reverse direction — back into Turkey — has become a lot more popular. After all, many of the Muslims who went to join the ranks of ISIS ultimately grew disappointed with the ‘Islamic State.’
Both former fighters who spoke to Hromadske said they decided to leave ISIS after they saw militants torturing and killing Muslims, while living ‘unjustly’ themselves. After leaving, they both ended up on Ukrainian territory.
They had several reasons for choosing Ukraine. Both knew Russian, and believed that Ukraine does not extradite foreigners to their countries of origin. Additionally, they felt Ukrainian society had a “neutral” attitude toward Muslims, and it was fairly easy to get forged documents allowing them to move freely in Ukraine.
“Ukraine is a temporary haven for those who were caught in Turkey and sent [there],” says Abu Mansur, one of the leaders of Turkey’s ethnic Nogai community. Mansur hails from Russia’s Stavropol region, which borders Dagestan, where the majority of the Nogai ethnic group lives.
Abu Mansur is well known in religious circles for discouraging Muslims from Russia and other post-Soviet states from joining ISIS. According to one of his sources, over the last two years, a few hundred ‘returners’ have come to Ukraine from ISIS-controlled territory by way of Turkey. Their reasons are varied: One person fled ISIS because his life was under threat, Mansur says. Another left Syria for Turkey on a personal errand and was arrested by the migration police.
“Among Muslims, no one sees Ukraine as a place to move,” Abu Mansur says. “These people consider Turkey and Syria the places to go.” They tend to leave Syria for mundane reasons unrelated to their activities in ISIS and wind up in trouble.
“For example, by remaining citizens of their own countries, they want to receive maternity subsidies or other benefits,” Mansur adds. On their way to receive these benefits, “they arrive in Turkey, where they are usually arrested at the southern border.”
Many are detained immediately in migration centers. Turkish law-enforcement may not even try to figure out where foreigners arriving in their country are aiming to get to. However, sometimes they organise roundups of immigrants from the North Caucasus, Uzbekistan and other post-Soviet Muslim regions, Abu Mansur says.
“Muslims move to Turkey for religious reasons. There is a longstanding tradition [here] of taking in Muslims from different countries,” he says, “When I had only just arrived here [in 2013], I thought that I would get a passport the next day. But these terrorist attacks” — on Istanbul airport in 2016 and on the Reina nightclub on January 1, 2017 — “ended it all. The wave of relocations to Ukraine is connected to the arrests.”
According to the Ukrainian vice-consul for human rights in Turkey, Oleksandr Kuchma, the Turkish ministries do not release statistics on the number of foreign citizens detained in migration centers.
“We repeatedly sent requests [to the Turkish authorities], but we usually don’t get any answers,” the diplomat says. “To my knowledge, Turkey does not allow information from the migration office to be issued. Our embassy in Ankara can request it with a note, but it’s unlikely that will have any effect.”
Hromadske sent a request for information to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but did not receive a response.
Ukrainian citizen Olena Doroshenko — who asked to be identified by a pseudonym — was detained for two weeks in a Turkish migration center while vacationing in Turkey. She told Hromadske how the system of migration prisons and deportation works in Turkey.
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Doroshenko was arrested along with other patrons of a local nightclub during a raid. The police did not state the reason for their arrest. After a few days, the Ukrainian consul, whom Doroshenko contacted, explained that she had not registered at a hotel and was therefore in violation of migration law.
“There are two forms of deportation in Turkey: either through the court system or by signing an agreement on deportation to your homeland if it isn’t a serious case,” Doroshenko says. “If you sign the agreement, they buy a ticket at their own expense, and you can choose which country you get deported to” — provided that there is a visa-free agreement between that country and the country of your citizenship.
“The police take you to the airport, supervise you as you board the plane, and hand over your documents to the stewards. After you arrive, the stewards give your documents to border control,” Doroshenko says.
The documents include an explanation of the deportation in Turkish. Since Ukrainian border guards seldom speak this language, the Turkish side likely explains it to them, she adds.
Who’s in control?
Dagestan native and Russian citizen Aminat Babayeva found herself in a similar situation. Two years ago, she was married to a Dagestani who joined ISIS. They divorced soon after, and Babaeva lived in Istanbul. During a raid, the police arrested her on suspicion of terrorism, sent her to a migration center and, later, deported her.
Babayeva chose to go to Ukraine as she already had friends there who were prepared to take her in. In her opinion, returning to Russia would have been dangerous. But in Kharkiv she was met by both border officers and the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU). They refused to hand over her documents and informed her that she was suspected of terrorism.
With the help of human rights defenders, Babayeva was eventually released and her documents were returned to her. However, soon after, SBU officials came to meet her near the migration office where she was applying for asylum. They forcibly put her in a car and drove her to the Russian border. Aminat Babayeva’s current whereabouts are unknown.
Neither border control, nor the State Migration Service could tell Hromadske under what auspices Ukraine receives deported foreign citizens coming from Turkey. Serhiy Hunko, press-secretary for the State Migration Service, said that his department does not keep records of this category of migrant.
Oleh Slobodyan, spokesman for the State Border Guard Service, stated that his office does not have any information on such cases.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave a much clearer response. A readmission agreement between the Ukrainian and Turkish governments came into force on November 19, 2008. It stipulates that both states must take back their own citizens, as well as citizens from a third countries and people without citizenship who have illegally entered one of the states or lost their right to legal residency.
This means that any citizen of a state which has a visa-free regime with Kyiv who is detained in a migration centre in Turkey could potentially choose to be deported to Ukraine, which is obliged to accept them. This also means that people who have fought for ISIS and other non-governmental armed groups in Syria or Iraq can do the same.
According to Olena Doroshenko, in the migration detention center where she was held there were mainly migrants from Russia and Eastern Europe.
It remains unclear how the authorities are controlling the flow of foreigners who come to Ukraine via ‘voluntary deportation’ and whether or not anyone is screening these migrants. Not a single one of the government offices responsible for this were able to clarify the situation to Hromadske.
At the same time, in response to a formal request from Hromadske, the SBU previously stated that it had unilaterally ceased cooperation with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in the summer of 2014, following Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea. The SBU said it follows the Ukrainian laws “On Fighting Terrorism,” and ‘On the Fundamentals of National Security,” the provisions of certain UN Security Council resolutions, as well as the Council of Europe’s conventions on preventing terrorism.
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According to SBU spokeswoman Olena Hitlyanska, the SBU and the State Border Guard Service, on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution No.2178, regularly “screen people who have been detained while attempting to illegally cross the Ukrainian border or enter Ukraine without sufficient legal grounds to identify members of international terrorist organizations.”
The spokeswoman did not specify any details of the screening process, adding that the SBU prohibits anyone found to be a terrorist from entering the country.
“ISIS members go to Ukraine because there are no extradition rules and there are schemes for coming here,” says Abu Mansur. “And where else can you go? You’d need to receive a Schengen visa to go to Europe, and that’s not realistic. Egypt is a pro-Putin country, so they could send you straight to Russia.”
Georgia is also unlikely to allow a former ISIS fighter in. The country has an anti-terrorist law allowing anyone to be refused entry without explanation. “And if they don’t let you in, then you have no other option” than to go back to Russia, Mansur adds.
“In Ukraine there are options to stay, even if you arrive without documents or if there are problems with your documents,” he says. The migrants are initially sent to a temporary detention center. Then they go to court, and the court decides whether they stay in Ukraine or not.
“The overwhelming majority stay in Ukraine,” Mansur says. “Even though they may have to sit in the airport day and night for a while, they eventually get in.”
“Fighters feel safe there”
According to Abu Mansur, most of these people arriving in Ukraine want to either go back to Syria to fight for ISIS or the armed Syrian opposition or go back to Turkey so they can continue living in a Muslim country.
“They go to Ukraine so they can temporarily change their documents,” he says, “Now there are fairly wide networks for getting passports — Tajik passports, Ukrainian passports...Counterfeit or not, it depends on how much you pay. Those who have money get them within a month and return to Turkey. Those who don’t can work in Ukraine for a few months and earn money to get their documents.”
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Mansur has heard that some of the fighters in Ukraine take work as debt collectors. Their conflict experience and their physical appearance reportedly makes them more effective than the average Ukrainian.
“When Ukrainian debt collectors visit people, they say they can’t repay their debt, so the collectors just go away and come back again [later]. But when an armed bearded man visits them…” he trails off.
And many of the fighters probably are armed, Mansur admits. But he thinks they do not pose a significant danger to Ukraine.
The fighters feel safe in Ukraine, even though it is not a Muslim country. And Ukraine remains largely off the radar for most the regional terror groups — ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Russia-based Caucasus Emirate do not consider it a target, Mansur says.
“Ukraine is not fighting anywhere,” he says. “If Ukraine were to take part in the military operation in Syria as part of the coalition, then there would be a threat.”
“But who knows what they want...” Mansur admits.
/Reporting by Ekaterina Sergatskova