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Story Publication logo May 25, 2011

Jihadist Rehabilitation in the North Caucasus

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A woman in Sernovodsk, Chechnya, holds a picture of her brother, allegedly killed by Russian security forces in 2004. Image by Tom Parfitt, Chechnya, 2004.
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Ten years after the end of full scale war in Chechnya, a smoldering insurgency has spread to...

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A meeting of the 'boyeviki rehab commission' in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Image by Tom Parfitt. Russia, 2011.

It's a Friday evening and night is falling in this tatty, charmless city on the coast of the Caspian, the capital of the Russian republic of Dagestan.

Lenin Square is almost empty—few residents of the city linger on the streets after dark—but in the windows of the main government building the lights are still burning and two armed policemen stand at the entrance.

Inside, halfway along a long carpeted corridor on the second floor, a group of officials in suits is funneling into a room. With them, flanked by four stout guards, are two nervous-looking young men in black, casual clothes.

It may look an unremarkable scene, but something interesting is happening here. The pair in black are former Islamist fighters—or, at least, sympathizers to the cause—and the men in suits are about to decide their fate.

What we are witnessing could be a crucial new weapon in the battle to quell the Muslim insurgency gripping this mountainous southern region on Russia's border with Azerbaijan. Or it could be a mere decoration; an ineffective PR ploy by the Dagestani government to hide the lack of real achievement in stemming the violence.

In time-honored Soviet and Russian fashion, the group meeting here has an excruciating formal title: the Commission for Rendering of Cooperation in the Adaptation to Peaceful Life of People Having Decided to Cease Terrorist and Extremist Activity on the Territory of Dagestan. In practice, people here use a simpler name: the "boyeviki rehab commission" (boyeviki is the Russian word for "fighters").

Since it was set up in November 2010, this body has received nationwide press for its attempts to lure young men away from jihad.

The task is an urgent one. Dagestan is the most troubled republic in the North Caucasus, the area of grassland and mountains in southwest Russia that stretches from the Black Sea to the Caspian. The Caucasian Knot website, which monitors violence, recorded 378 insurgency-related deaths and 307 people wounded in the republic in 2010 (compared with Ingushetia with 134 deaths and 192 wounded, and Chechnya with 127 and 123).

Bloodshed in this region springs from two wars fought between separatists in Chechnya and Russian federal forces in the 1990s and early 2000s. The conflict later seeped into neighboring republics like Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria and became a smoldering guerrilla conflict between increasingly radical Islamist guerrillas and security forces controlled by Moscow.

In Makhachkala, the militants frequently shoot government officials and policemen or blow up their vehicles.

The jihadis have also projected their threat deep into the Russian heartland with terrorist attacks such as the twin suicide bombings (carried out by two Dagestani women) on the Moscow metro which killed 40 people in March last year, and the bombing at Domodedovo airport in January, which left 37 victims dead. Responsibility for both strikes was claimed by Doku Umarov, the Chechen who leads the insurgency.

In response, the Russian authorities have tended to focus on "force measures" in an attempt to stamp out the rebels: targeted abductions and search and destroy missions by commandos. Yet in January last year, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev appeared to signal a new approach when he appointed Alexander Khloponin, a successful former businessman, as his new envoy to the North Caucasus.

Khloponin emphasized the need to tackle the economic and social woes that drive recruits into the arms of the insurgents. Meanwhile, some of the region's more progressive leaders, like the president of Ingushetia, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, have begun working with fighters' relatives to negotiate their "return from the forest."

Dagestan is keen to follow suit. In Makhachkala, the boyeviki rehab commission is chaired by the republic's first deputy prime minister, Rizvan Kurbanov.

In the building on Lenin Square, the members of the commission take their seats around a long wooden table. On the wall is the Dagestani coat of arms: a golden eagle with spread wings. Kurbanov taps his microphone and explains that the aim of the hearing is to consider an appeal for clemency.

Then the members listen solemnly as the two men in black haltingly tell their stories. They are Guseyn Gadzhiyev, 32, and Arsen Dzhanakavov, 34. Both are in prison serving out 18-month sentences for assisting the insurgents: one for storing weapons for the boyeviki in a pit in his back garden, the other for allowing three fighters to hide at his house. Gadzhiyev's sister and Dzhanakavov's brother have come to plead on their behalf.

After the two have explained the circumstances of their arrest, the men in suits—an Islamic scholar, a senior officer from the Federal Security Service and others—ask probing questions.

"Your brother is a member of the law enforcement services," says one to Gadzhiyev. "Did you not think the weapons you stored could have been used to shoot your own brother?"

Gadzhiyev is silent.

Another adds: "Did you serve in the army?"

Gadzhiyev: "Yes."

"You know what happens with weapons?"

Gadzhiyev: "They are used."

"Yes, they are used to kill peaceful people, to kill soldiers, policemen. These people have children. Did you not think about that?"

Gadzhiyev hangs his head. Later he offers, "I admit my mistake. I understand that I chose the wrong path and got mixed up with the wrong people. I didn't share their views. I just couldn't refuse my friend's request to store the weapons and ammunition…I was tricked, but I only realized that later."

Dzhanakavov, too, mumbles an apology. His brother says, "Arsen recognizes his guilt. He's a good lad. He saved up money himself to go on the haj (Mecca pilgrimage) last year. We had no suspicion that he would end up with that circle of people [the insurgents]."

The men in suits look unconvinced but after a short recess the commission returns and Kurbanov announces it has decided to fulfill the prisoners' modest request: that they should be allowed to serve out the rest of their sentences at a jail in Dagestan rather than being sent to faraway Siberia.

Is this a success? "So far, the commission has achieved very little," says Rasul Kadiyev, a lawyer who sits on its public oversight committee. "The people being dealt with are minor figures. The real fighters, the terrorists who have killed and maimed, never give themselves up because they know they'll get life in prison."

He adds: "A much more important task is to stop people joining the boyeviki in the first place, to present some kind of attractive, alternative ideology. If you go into the villages of highland Dagestan the state practically doesn't exist. Anyone with a problem goes to the local imam."

Kurbanov does not deny the difficulties, but says the commission has a role to play. "People can come to us even before they fall into the view of the police—usually it's people who are acting as accomplices of the boyeviki—and if necessary we can hold a closed session," he says. "Then, if they repent, we can help them turn away from that life and reintegrate into society: find a job, become a student, enjoy the normal social guarantees—so they don't go back to the forest."

An aide points out a well-known example. Two men in their early 20s from Bashkortostan, Radmir Rashitov and Albert Abdrakhmanov, came to join the jihad in Dagestan and were arrested with plans for making a bomb; now they are undergoing rehabilitation in a state-approved madrassa thanks to the intervention of the commission. "We are offering people other roads to go down," says Kurbanov.

Critics may be right that the adaptation commission wields little influence and should not distract from the government's greater challenge: reducing the pool of disaffected youths who get recruited by the boyeviki. But after a six-week journey through the North Caucasus during which I've witnessed the suffering of civilians caught in the middle of this grinding conflict, I'm inclined to latch onto this initiative as a positive one.

Gadzhiyev's sister, Asiyat Abdurazakova, is pleased with the outcome. "My brother has been weak and ill," she says, drawing her shawl around her shoulders as she prepares to step out into the square. "Now we can know we can travel to see and care for him in prison, here in Dagestan. We must make sure he does not stray again."

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