Rustam Azhiyev, better known as Abdul Hakim, rarely left his apartment building in the Basaksehir district of Istanbul. Originally from Chechnya, Hakim has spent almost his entire life at war, and he is now the head of Ajnad al Kavkaz, or Soldiers of the Caucasus, the largest of the Muslim factions from the former Soviet Union fighting in Syria.
It was the fall of 2015, and I wasn’t given our meeting location until I got in the taxi in Istanbul. “Basaksehir, where the big bazaar is located,” my contact told me in Russian over the phone. “You will find it for sure.”
I was supposed to call again when I got there and then wait, apparently long enough to make sure that I wasn’t being watched.
Istanbul is like a giant waiting hall in a train station. It’s easy to remain anonymous in that constant churn of people entering and exiting the city, and that’s what jihadis intent on going to Syria have done here. Though the exact number is hard to know, there are believed to be thousands of Chechens living in Istanbul, and even more Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Tajiks. And some of them are on their way to Syria, where they take up arms with factions fighting the Assad regime.
In the West, relatively little attention has been paid to the Chechens traveling to Syria; they were regarded until recently as just another small ethnic group among the foreign fighters. But the June bombing of the Istanbul airport, which was blamed on a Chechen mastermind, has brought new scrutiny to fighters from the Caucasus, and other militants from the former Soviet Union crossing through Turkey.I had first met Abdul Hakim in 2014. We had been in contact through an intermediary for months before he agreed to speak to me in person. At that time, we met in Aksaray, a neighborhood in Istanbul known for being a hub for traders and migrants from the former Soviet Union. Chechens felt comfortable there — unnoticed among Russians, Central Asians, and other foreigners.
But by the fall of 2015, when he agreed to meet again, there were more police on the streets, and the Chechens preferred to avoid the center of the city. The fighters from the former Soviet Union passing through Istanbul have taken a liking to Basaksehir, an outlying district of the city.
When the taxi driver heard, “Basaksehir please,” the response was: “It’s very far away,” as if he feared his client couldn’t afford the bill. Tourists looking for the bustle of the Grand Bazaar and the sound of the muezzin don’t come to Basaksehir, which is filled with soulless apartment blocks, straight, wide streets, and modern shopping areas. There’s little greenery, much less trees. In the summer the heat is unbearable. In winter, it is difficult to find a place sheltered from the wind and driving rain.
The bazaar where I’m told to meet Hakim’s men turned out to be an ordinary shopping center. I finally saw them from a distance — three of them — walking through the rain at a slow pace.
The Chechens and other jihadis I met in Istanbul on their way to Syria, tried to keep a low profile, but they often had a specific look: young men with mustaches and beards trimmed short, and dressed as if they were going on an outdoor adventure. Among the over two dozen such fighters I met there, I noticed a particular style: they tended to favor loose sportswear, particularly Gortex, and lightweight sports shoes, which were ideal for sun-scorched deserts or walking across rubble in the streets of Syrian cities. Their favorite clothing brands were The North Face, Columbia, and the German clothing manufacturer “Jack Wolfskin.”
Hakim’s men took me to the seventh floor in a large anonymous apartment building with a single elevator. The area was closed and monitored, with a watchman at the gate. The view from the window was of another identical-looking apartment building and a playground for children.
The apartment itself was almost entirely unfurnished: no ornaments, pictures on the walls, or even flowers in pots. In one room was a sofa and coffee table. In the second, white walls, and some cushions and rugs on the ground. The windows had no curtains, and the glass was covered with dust and sand. A few men in their early 20s milled about, all from Chechnya. For them, Abdul Hakim, who is in his mid-30s, was almost a veteran.
Like other militants I had met in Syria and Turkey, Hakim likes to dress in outdoor clothing, particularly camouflage. His right hand is missing three fingers — the results of an injury while fighting in Chechnya.
“I am an Islamist,” Hakim said with a smile, knowing this statement would make an impression. “The goal is to establish the religion of Allah, and to live according to the precepts of Allah everywhere,” not only in Chechnya.
Hakim and his colleagues are part of a new generation of fighters. They aren’t like the militia their fathers fought in during the first Chechen war, nor like the fighters from the Free Syrian Army in the first years of the civil war in Syria. Those men dressed in whatever clothing they had at hand, not Western sports brands. Their weapons were often outdated, heavily used surplus equipment discarded by a professional army. For those men, war was a temporary condition. They defended their families, homes, towns, and villages, hoping that when things died down, they would return to their former lives.
These young people, in their 20s and 30s, are already professionals. They’ve grown up with war and don’t have any other life to go back to, nor do they expect their lives will ever change. They are largely better equipped than their fathers. Most spend their savings on the best in the wartime survival equipment, clothing, and weapons. They fight frequently on foreign soil.
Many of these younger men are known as “freelancers,” waging jihad from time to time. They join different groups; internationally and locally. They set aside money for a good weapon and ammunition. When they feel tired after a few months of combat — or they get sick — they go back to families they may have left behind in Turkey. They come back and earn some money, for example, by buying and selling weapons, and then return to Syria to fight.
Hakim is indignant that jihad is treated by the West as an evil that must be destroyed. If America and Russia have the right to send troops to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine, then why, he asks rhetorically, is it wrong to carry out jihad around the world, especially if you’re not fighting for some fleeting interest, like money? “We went for jihad to defend our land, because enemies came to us,” he said.
The first war broke out in Chechnya in 1994 when Abdul Hakim was 12 years old. “I saw everything,” he said. “I saw how our nation was murdered, and not because we were terrorists. In the first war, there was no such thing as terrorism. I saw planes bombing villages, killing men and women.”
In 1999, the second Chechen war began and Hakim’s friends from school went into battle. For more than two months they defended Grozny, the ruined capital of Chechnya. Then they fled to the mountains. Hakim joined them in 2000. Over time, however, the ranks of these fighters melted away. By 2007, only one or two friends from Abdul Hakim’s childhood were still alive.
In August 2009, Chechen militants were preparing a military operation to kill a traitor, when an explosion severely wounded Hakim’s hand and damaged his eyesight. Hakim escaped to Istanbul, and then was essentially trapped there; he couldn’t return to the Caucasus, because the Russian government wouldn’t allow him to come back, so he went on jihad to Syria.
What most worried him these days was money, and that’s why he had come to Istanbul, straight from the Syrian front. “To solve their problems,” as he put it. His fighters in Syria needed to be fed, they needed weapons and ammunition, and he had to help the families of the dead and wounded. He’s responsible for the fate of those who fight, and for those who get caught and detained by Turkish authorities on the border with Syria.
He is resentful that most of the money for jihad goes to the Islamic State, and other factions. The Chechens get nothing, he says. He complains that the Islamic humanitarian organizations accused of supporting jihad don’t help the Chechens. “They just say they will help, they will do something, but it ends always with promises,” Hakim says.and Abdul Hakim went from Syria back to Turkey, hoping to raise money. He mistakenly believed that it would be easier to get support for his faction when Russia joined the conflict. He was wrong, it was just worse. There were now terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Ankara and cities near the border, and to the east, the Turks were bombing the Kurds. There were more police on the streets, and meetings in central Istanbul were no longer possible.
Like other fighters in Syria, Hakim’s faction has no weapons to defend themselves against Russian air force strikes. Hakim claims he doesn’t care; he says that back in Chechnya, fighters coped with the Russians with even less equipment.
To be hunted by the Russians was expected; but what bothers Abdul Hakim is being called “terrorists,” an allegation that was made after the battle over Idlib, where his faction fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, which at the time was allied with al Qaeda, Jund al-Aqsa and other militants recognized as terrorists.
He still doesn’t understand why his small faction would be labeled as terrorists; they didn’t kill women, children, or the elderly. They fight only against the army of Assad, he says. “We want to overthrow tyranny,” he said. “That’s all.”
Abdul Hakim says his aim is to liberate Chechnya. He ultimately wants the Chechens to return from Syria to the Caucasus and rise again united against Russia. That goal is difficult, however, because Russia controls the border. Leaving is not hard, but Russia does not allow suspected militants to return. The exodus of fighters from Russia to Syria has had a clear benefit for the authorities there: Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, especially since the announcement of Islamic State, militant activity in the Caucasus has decreased by nearly half, according to one estimate. For most, the trip to Syria is one-way.
In the West, experts debate the reasons foreign fighters join the Islamic State, or other jihadi movements in Syria. For the Chechens going to Syria, the goal is clear. Hakim believes sooner or later, there will be a global war with Russia, and that this conflict will allow him a chance to regain his homeland. He recalls the words of the first president of Chechnya, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who in the mid-1990s warned that the Russians would not stop in the Caucasus. But no one would listen to him then.
“Georgians thought that they would not come. … Ukrainians thought they would not come. Europeans have only now started to think about this,” Hakim said. “We hope the Russians come for you. We will be glad if they do. But then it will be too late. Then you will begin to look for us and we will say to you, ‘There are no people of the Caucusus anymore, just international terrorists.’”