KYIV—Ukraine arrested one of the world’s most dangerous international terrorists last month in a special operation conducted by local, Georgian and American special services. Al-Bara Shishani, the former commander of the so-called Islamic State and deputy head of its intelligence operations, was detained on the outskirts of Kyiv. Shishani had been presumed dead for more than a year, but was hiding here and plotting international terrorist attacks, according to Ukrainian authorities.
In fact, this country torn by a Russian-backed separatist war has become a kind of Twilight Zone for terrorists of many stripes who have found ways to cross its borders and take advantage of a deeply divided society where law and order have been undermined by official corruption and public confusion.
The terrorist’s real name is Cezar Tokhosashvili, from the Pankisi Gorge region of the Republic of Georgia. The largely impoverished population of those rough mountains includes many Muslims of Chechen extraction who have embraced radical Salafi teachings and, in several cases, became enthusiastic recruits for violent jihadist organizations.
Al-Bar Shishani reportedly was a deputy for the former “minister of war” of the so-called Islamic State, Abu Omar al-Shishani, real name Tarkhan Batirashvili, reported killed by an American airstrike in Syria in 2016.
Katerina Sergatskova, a researcher specializing in Ukraine-based Islamic State fighters, told The Daily Beast, “What Ukrainian authorities do not explain to us is which hole in the border Tokhosashvili used to get in, who he bribed, what passport he used here, and which particular terrorist attacks he helped to organize while living in Ukraine.”
According to Sergatskova there are holes in the borders of Ukraine in the Kharkiv, Odessa, and Lviv regions as well as the seceding provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. The biggest “hole,” as she put it, comes from the fact “the entire border patrol system is affected by corruption.” At least 200 other suspected ISIS fighters have been arrested in Ukraine, said Sergatskova, and dozens are still free.
More than two years ago, The Daily Beast reported on the problem of Chechen fighters who had crossed into Ukraine since 2014. Some came legally, some illegally, in the early months of the war in Donbas. Dozens of Chechen militia from the Islamic State Caucasus Emirate, recognized as a “specially designated global terrorist group” by the U.S. State Department, have crossed Ukraine’s border with their families. Many of them joined Ukrainian volunteer troops fighting in Donbas, including the Right Sector militia, fighting against the Russian-supported separatists.
“Our authorities have very poor or no knowledge of radical Islam,” said Sergatskova, who notes that ISIS cadres have not carried out any attacks inside Ukraine, apparently preferring to use it as a “haven.”
Earlier this month we traveled to Ukraine’s most problematic border, first taking the night train from Kyiv to the town of Pokrovsk, in the government-controlled part of the Donetsk region, then a car from there to the Marinka checkpoint where people cross into and out of the separatist’s self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.
The first thing sleepy train passengers hear upon arrival in Pokrovsk is the taxi drivers shouting, “Who needs a lift to Marinka checkpoint, get in!” And many do. They carry bags heavy with all kinds of goods, even milk, which is commonly believed to be better in government-controlled parts of Ukraine than in the separatist zone.
The battered road to Marinka took us through thick fog for about 30 miles until we reached a line of cars that had been growing since hours before dawn. The wait to get to the actual checkpoint can last longer than three hours, but you can speed it up as long as you have enough cash in your pocket to cheat the system before the checkpoint closes at 5 p.m.
Adults in Donbas talk matter-of-factly in front of children about death and destruction and about bribes they pay to go in and out of the separatist part of Ukraine, as if discussing a weather forecast. There is a general feeling that the war here has become a permanent, dreary, sometimes deadly status quo. It has gone on now for almost six years and killed more than 12,000 people. Those who remain in these precincts live without central heating, without gas, with brown water coming out of the faucets.
When the war began in 2014, the front separated Liza, a 30-year-old Kyiv-based social worker, from her parents and grand-parents living in Donetsk. To see them, she has to return to the separatist region at least once a year and witnesses every time the kind of corruption, big and small, that opens up the country to crime and, yes, terrorists seeking safe havens.
“There are sleazy people who come to the checkpoint at 3 a.m. to get in line, then sell you the spot for 200 UAH ($8.50) and if you have no state pass, you can still cross by paying thousands more UAH to the guards on both sides of the checkpoint.
“Smugglers of meat or weapons pay much bigger bribes, ” Liza said. “All sorts of criminals get into Ukraine but unfortunately our government is not catching big thugs who deal in big business, committing serious crimes.”
In the fog and cold of the checkpoint, she said what many people waiting in line believed, “Because of this profitable corruption, the war is never going to end.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky faced each other in person for the first time in Paris on Dec. 9, along with the leaders of France and Germany, to try and find a way to end the war and save human lives. But just as many had predicted in war-torn Donbas, no peace deal was signed.
“We have not found the magic wand, but we have relaunched talks,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters afterward.
Meanwhile, it’s a measure of the hardened posture on both sides that Ukrainian law enforcement agencies are investigating former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko amid allegations that he committed treason in 2015, when he signed the original peace accord with Putin in Minsk, a 13-point road map for resolving the war in Donbas which experts consider hopeless.
During the meeting in Paris, Putin and Zelensky agreed to continue to enlarge disengagement zones, de-mine Donbas fields and roads and exchange all prisoners before the end of the year. But there was no agreement reached about the “dividing line.” The frontier that people have to cross in and out of the “gray zone” is still lost in the twilight.
The latest public surveys show that up to 24 percent of the Donbas population struggle to protect their property from criminals, 17 percent suffer from bribes and threats by officials on both sides of the “dividing line,” and 20 percent have no communication with relatives. “My brother is in Donetsk, less than 20 km away from me, I have not seen him since the war started,” Andrey Shapochka, manager at Krasnohorivka power station told The Daily Beast. “Separatists do not let him out and I am banned on his side, so our mother is growing very old without seeing my brother.”
A group of women were waiting in line for their pensions outside of the Oshad bank in Marinka in the afternoon. Most of them had crossed the front line that morning from separatist Donetsk, where Russia pays them pensions. Indeed, most pensioners in the rebellious Donetsk and Luhansk regions get paid by both sides.
Yevdokiya Fedorova, a fragile 77-year-old woman in a worn woolen hat who is a resident of Donetsk, said it took her three hours to get across, and the return trip will take her from five to 12 hours more, but she says it is worth it: “My daughter and grand-daughter pay hundreds of hryvnias to skip the line. I cannot afford that, I am helping my unemployed son.” She said he entered Donetsk last year to see her, but has been prevented from leaving by the self-proclaimed government there.
“We’ll always remain a gray zone, like one more Abkhazia,” she said, referring to a Russian-backed separatist region of Georgia. But when asked who she blames for it, she turned her tear-filled eyes away: “You expect me to say I blame Putin, but I blame my horrible fate.”