“OUR BROTHERS ARE there,” Khalid said when he heard I was going to Ukraine. “Buy a local SIM card when you get there, send me the number and then wait for someone to call you.”
Khalid, who uses a pseudonym, leads the Islamic State’s underground branch in Istanbul. He came from Syria to help control the flood of volunteers arriving in Turkey from all over the world, wanting to join the global jihad. Now, he wanted to put me in touch with Rizvan, a “brother” fighting with Muslims in Ukraine.
The “brothers” are members of ISIS and other underground Islamic organizations, men who have abandoned their own countries and cities. Often using pseudonyms and fake identities, they are working and fighting in the Middle East, Africa and the Caucasus, slipping across borders without visas. Some are fighting to create a new Caliphate — heaven on earth. Others — like Chechens, Kurds and Dagestanis — say they are fighting for freedom, independence and self-determination. They are on every continent, and in almost every country, and now they are in Ukraine, too.
In the West, most look at the war in Ukraine as simply a battle between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government. But the truth on the ground is now far more complex, particularly when it comes to the volunteer battalions fighting on the side of Ukraine. Ostensibly state-sanctioned, but not necessarily state-controlled, some have been supported by Ukrainian oligarchs, and others by private citizens. Less talked about, however, is the Dudayev battalion, named after the first president of Chechnya, Dzhokhar Dudayev, and founded by Isa Munayev, a Chechen commander who fought in two wars against Russia.
Ukraine is now becoming an important stop-off point for the brothers, like Rizvan. In Ukraine, you can buy a passport and a new identity. For $15,000, a fighter receives a new name and a legal document attesting to Ukrainian citizenship. Ukraine doesn’t belong to the European Union, but it’s an easy pathway for immigration to the West. Ukrainians have few difficulties obtaining visas to neighboring Poland, where they can work on construction sites and in restaurants, filling the gap left by the millions of Poles who have left in search of work in the United Kingdom and Germany.
You can also do business in Ukraine that’s not quite legal. You can earn easy money for the brothers fighting in the Caucasus, Syria and Afghanistan. You can “legally” acquire unregistered weapons to fight the Russian-backed separatists, and then export them by bribing corrupt Ukrainian customs officers.
“Our goal here is to get weapons, which will be sent to the Caucasus,” Rizvan, the brother who meets me first in Kiev, admits without hesitation.
WITH HIS WHITE hair and beard, Rizvan is still physically fit, even at 57. He’s been a fighter his entire adult life. Born in a small mountain village in the Caucasus, on the border between Dagestan and Chechnya, Rizvan belongs to an ethnic minority known as the Lak, who are predominantly Sunni Muslim.
The world that Rizvan inhabits — the world of the brothers — is something new. When he first became a fighter, there wasn’t any Internet or cell phones, or cameras on the street, or drones. Rizvan joined the brothers when the Soviet Union collapsed, and he went to fight for a better world, first against the Russians in Chechnya and Dagestan during the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s. He then moved to Azerbaijan, where he was eventually arrested in 2004 on suspicion of maintaining contact with al Qaeda.
Even though Rizvan admits to fighting with Islamic organizations, he claims the actual basis for the arrest in Azerbaijan — illegal possession of weapons — was false. Authorities couldn’t find anything suspicious where he was living (Rizvan was staying at the time with his “brothers” in the jihad movement) but in his wife’s home they found a single hand grenade. Rizvan was charged with illegal weapons possession and sent to prison for several years.
In prison, he says he was tortured and deliberately housed in a cell with prisoners infected with tuberculosis. Rizvan took his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, accusing the authorities in Azerbaijan of depriving him of due process. The court eventually agreed, and asked the Azerbaijani government to pay Rizvan 2,400 euros in compensation, plus another 1,000 euros for court costs.
But when Rizvan was released from prison, he didn’t want to stay in Azerbaijan, fearing he would be rearrested, or even framed for a crime and again accused of terrorism. “Some of our people disappear and are never found,” he says. “There was one brother [who disappeared], and when he was brought for burial, a card was found showing that he was one of 30 people held in detention in Russia.”
In Russia, a warrant was issued for Rizvan’s arrest. Returning to his small mountain village was out of the question. If he goes back, his family will end up paying for what he does, anyhow. “They get to us through our families,” he says. He condemns those who refused to leave their own country and fight the infidels. This was the choice: either stay, or go abroad where “you can breathe freedom.”
“Man is born free,” Rizvan says. “We are slaves of God and not the slaves of people, especially those who are against their own people, and break the laws of God. There is only one law: the law of God.”
After his release from prison in Azerbaijan, Rizvan became the eternal wanderer, a rebel — and one of the brothers now in Ukraine. He came because Munayev, now head of the Dudayev battalion, decided the brothers should fight in Ukraine. “I am here today because my brother, Isa, called us and said, ‘It’s time to repay your debt,’” Rizvan says. “There was a time when the brothers from Ukraine came [to Chechnya] and fought against the common enemy, the aggressor, the occupier.”
That debt is to Ukrainians like Oleksandr Muzychko, who became one of the brothers, even though he never converted to Islam. Muzyczko, along with other Ukrainian volunteers, joined Chechen fighters and took part in the first Chechen war against Russia. He commanded a branch of Ukrainian volunteers, called “Viking,” which fought under famed Chechen militant leader Shamil Basayev. Muzychko died last year in Ukraine under mysterious circumstances.
Rizvan has been in Ukraine for almost a year, and hasn’t seen his family since he arrived. Their last separation lasted almost seven years. He’s never had time to raise children, or even really to get to know them. Although he’s a grandfather, he only has one son — a small family by Caucasian standards, but better for him, since a smaller family costs less. His wife calls often and asks for money, but Rizvan rarely has any to give her.