Talking Them Back

In Russia, the Struggle to Un-Recruit ISIS Followers

In Dagestan, in the Caucasus, it’s an uphill battle trying to save young jihadis from themselves.


DERBENT, Daghestan, Russia — Sevil Navruzova, a young woman with long shiny black hair who boldly wears a leopard print dress and high heels (no hint of hijab of niqab), spends her working hours on Skype interviewing Russian citizens who are fighting for ISIS.

The head of the Center for Countering Extremism in Dagestan knows her job well, and is well-known for her skills. Even the most senior experts in Russian security agencies respect her opinion on methods and tactics “to bring home the boys and girls” of Russia. But there are days when Navruzova feels she is “facing a black wall,” and losing her fight against the international recruitment of Russian citizens to join the jihad of the so-called Islamic State.

Hundreds of young men and women are leaving Dagestan these days to join the jihadist wars: Russian special services and Navruzova’s center are mostly concerned about three destinations for Dagestan’s Muslims: Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Others are inspired to attack in other venues, like the Tsarnaev brothers, whose roots were in Dagestan, and who allegedly carried out the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.

Most of the men and women interviewed each day by Navuzova and her staff say they are determined to die for their beliefs.

The “insane propaganda” on the Internet is the main source of information for the recruitment strategy of the so-called Islamic State, Navruzova said. Instructions tell them where to go and how to get the money for the trip.

Navruzova told The Daily Beast in a recent interview that some recruiters were local—Special Services had arrested at least two of them in the past two years, but that didn’t make a dent.

“The drain of youth is massive, it amounts to hundreds from Dagestan alone,” Navruzova said.

Young Russian Muslims watched videos of ISIS leaders and sheikhs calling to join the holy war. The travel package for a recruited Russian included an air ticket, $500 of pocket money and a backpack with T-shirts, socks and other basic needs.

“This is not just a popular trend, this is a lifestyle. Many in the Muslim community live day and night with the idea of joining the war, not for the sake of money but for pure hope to live for once in Sharia World. Recruiters say that the entire Muslim world has to be involved in the war now,” Navruzova said.

Male recruits are not the only ones who are leaving Russia. Women take off to join ISIS, too.

On the morning of February 27, "Oksana," a young woman from Derbent, seemed to be just another student at the local university. She had breakfast with her family, showing no sign of any plans to travel; a few hours later she was in a car driving across the Russian border to Azerbaijan. The last time she was seen was at Baku airport. “Somebody provided her with luggage,” said Navruzova, who now has to deal with Gadzhiyeva’s broken-hearted mother, looking for ways to bring her daughter back to Russia, “before she marries one of the fighters.”

It is one of Navruzova’s priorities to prevent widows of local insurgents from taking extreme actions against themselves or others, she said.

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Nobody in ISIS has “zombified” the young Russian citizens, nobody offered them money: “On the contrary, insurgencies often recruit well-educated youths from wealthy, intelligent families,” says Navruzova.

Her lists of names in the notebook on her desk include 86 boys and girls from her hometown of Derbent who had left in the past year, mostly for Syria.

If militants are ready to surrender and return home they know where to call. Navruzova’s center’s contact information is listed online.

Currently two families are in touch with her, hoping that their children would return home. “After seeing that Muslims fight against Muslims in Syria, the beheading incidents, women and children being killed and their leaders living in luxurious villas, guys get disappointed in such jihad.” But those who wanted to return to Dagestan ware exceptions rather than the rule.

“Take the latest example,” said Navruzova, pulling up a Facebook page on her computer. On it was Dzhambulat Pashayev. “He had everything in Russia—good education, a big house in a prestigious neighborhood in Moscow; he was only 25 year old but chose to go to Syria and die, “ Navruzova told The Daily Beast.

Wealthy young Muslims sell their cars and take their families’ savings—thousands of Euros—to contribute to the ISIS war.

It was not from a textbook that Navruzova learned about the insurgency’s methods for recruitment, she saw it in her own family. In 2008 her younger brother, Ramil or “Roma,” joined the Islamist underground in Dagestan and a few weeks later was killed in a counter-terrorist operation by law enforcement agencies.

Shortly before that Ramil, a second year university student, quit going to movies, quit drinking in pubs with his buddies, and began to pray at a local mosque in Derbent together with his friends, also boys from “well-established families.” When her brother was killed, Navruzova says, she “promised to take revenge for every drop of his blood.”

What would be the best way for Russian authorities to prevent young citizens from joining the jihadist war?

“Change the methods,” says Magomed Shamilov, a human rights defender and observer of conditions in Dagestan’s prisons for the Russian Public Chamber. “Violent pressure by state law enforcement agencies, overwhelming corruption in government and in police leadership, the torture and humiliation of detainees: these push our Muslim youth to escape the country or join the militant insurgency in Dagestan.”

Navruzova’s immediate agenda is to convince local authorities not to close a local Salafi mosque in Derbent currently struggling to get legalized, since the elimination of the mosque would only inspire a backlash.

“If we don’t want all Muslim critics of state methods to unite against the authorities, we need to be really delicate with our actions,” says Navruzova. Only ideology can contradict the ideology of ISIS.

“We have unique experience,” she said. “We are a bridge between the Islamic circles and the authorities.” But it is a fragile span across a very wide abyss.