How Russia’s FSB recruits former ISIS fighters — and tries to plant them in Ukrainian battalions

By | May 23, 2023

Lilia Yapparova and Vera Mironova report:

In January 2014, when Baurzhan Kultanov first joined the Islamic State, he wasn’t surprised by almost anything he encountered in Syria and Iraq’s occupied territories. While recounting his experiences there, he compared Raqqa, ISIS’s then-capital, to Istanbul, where he had met his recruiters, as well as to his hometown of Astrakhan, Russia.

“People live their lives there, just like anywhere,” Kultanov told Meduza. “The women sit at home, they go to the bazaar — just like in Russia. Except, in this case, there are drones constantly flying overhead and dropping bombs. And all the flags are black. And all of the men are armed.”

One other aspect of life reminded Kultanov of Russia as well: the local authorities’ constant surveillance of potential dissidents. “The caliphate’s security service is somewhat like the FSB. They would find dissidents and imprison or kill them,” the former fighter said. “I did a lot of talking myself, but I didn’t fear the consequences: I always had a weapon on my person and explosives on my belt.”

Kultanov was placed in a jamaat with another Astrakhan native, Shamil Izmailov, who went by the name Abu Hanifa within ISIS. After six months on the front (Kultanov fought at various times against the Syrian opposition, against Kurdish militias, and against Al-Qaeda) and a wound in his temple, he realized that the ISIS propaganda videos he’d watched, which depicted local women crying and asking for help, had misled him. “I started to disappear, to skip [military operations],” Baurzhan said. “I went to help Muslims, but I ultimately realized that the chaos had been created by ISIS itself. And that I needed to get out of there.”

Baurzhan twice tried to escape from ISIS-held territory, but he was detained by caliphate police and the Amniyat, the group’s security and intelligence agency. “In November 2014, I paid $100 to a smuggler, and I finally made it to Turkey. From Syria, it seemed impossible; it felt like there was nowhere in the world where I would be able to start over with a fresh slate. But it turned out not to be so hard after all.” [Continue reading…]