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Ukraine could offer terror route to Europe

Marat Nurmagomedov is in hiding in Ukraine after joining IS in syria

John Sparks

Moscow Correspondent

John Sparks

The village of Karata clings precariously to the walls of a river valley in the Russian state of Dagestan.

It is a picturesque spot and we watched as residents worked and prayed and tended to verdant gardens, cut from the sides of the surrounding mountains.

But there is one patch in this community that has clearly gone to seed.

It belongs to a pensioner called Kazim Nurmagomedov and he has not really touched it in the past three years.

Instead he was busy dealing with a family tragedy – a series of traumatic events that began when his youngest son Marat went to Syria to join so-called Islamic State.

Mr Nurmagomedov said it came as a terrible shock.

Marat was married, his wife was pregnant and he was financially comfortable as well. It did not seem to make any sense.

Father of Marat Nurmagomedov who is in hiding in Ukraine after joining IS in syria
Image: Marat’s father says he would not give up trying to bring his son back

“The first few days I was honestly, in total shock. My wife and I didn’t know what to do. The first thing we tried was simply contacting him although we didn’t own a smartphone at the time. When I reached him, my first question was, why did you do this?”

This sense of bewilderment was not Mr Nurmagomedov’s alone.

It was a common feeling in fact, after 30 residents left Karata to join IS in Syria. The authorities did little – but the 62-year-old former businessman took a different approach.

He decided he would go to Syria himself and track his son down.

“Even if I was 80-years-old I would have done the same. It was an emotional thing to do. I needed to understand what he had done.”

In 2013 he slipped into Syria and found his youngest son training with other jihadists in Aleppo. He then tried to persuade Marat and the rest of the unit – to go home.

“I couldn’t change (my son’s) mind during my week in Syria. He’s is not like a computer, he is a human being. They were all convinced that they were doing the right thing, ready to die for Allah and jihad. I could see it in their eyes.”

Mr Nurmagomedov went back to Russia – but he did not give up. Using the Whatsapp messenger on his brand new smartphone, he persuaded his son to leave by reminding him of his wife and child.

That was his “weak point” remarked Kazim.

Still, it took another two years to come up with a plan to smuggle Marat out.

“I devoted all my time to it, meeting people, travelling back and forth, to Turkey, four months in Egypt, Moscow many times. Although I was dreaming of coming here to plant vegetables and flowers with my wife.”

Marat managed to escape with his father’s help but he has not returned to Russia.

Instead, he is living in the shadows, in a rundown spot in southern Ukraine – and we met the softly-spoken 33-year-old in his spartan-looking bedsit.

He told me he could not go home.

Marat Nurmagomedov is in hiding in Ukraine after joining IS in Syria
Image: Marat Nurmagomedov is in hiding in Ukraine after joining IS in Syria

“I am a wanted man in Russia and I will be immediately jailed. In Dagestan, the intelligence services are cruel and tough and there are cases where they killed people or tortured them to death.”

You can find Marat Nurmagomedov’s name is on the Russian government’s ‘active terrorist list’ – number 5035 to be exact – but the bespectacled ex-jihadi says he does not pose a threat to anyone.

“No, of course not. I am not dangerous. It’s against my beliefs. Now, I now understand these people are mistaken and they will go to hell,” he says.

He is not the only former fighter holed up in Ukraine. Community activists and analysts told us that there are 400 to 500 ex-jihadists from Syria and Iraq in hiding there.

The majority it’s thought are Russian-speakers from Russia or Central Asian states. They make their way to Ukraine because they are able to communicate and make arrangements to move on.

“They come here to get passports – Ukraine is a corruption hub,” says writer and columnist Ekaterina Sergatskova.

“If you have real Ukrainian passport then you can then get a biometric passport and you can move to Europe.”

Earlier this month, Ukraine inked a visa-free travel deal with the European Union which allows its citizens to visit most European countries for up to 90 days.

Ukraine’s old-style paper passport has been upgraded, but critics like Ms Sergatskova argue that you can still get a fake one for a couple of thousand dollars from a battalion of corrupt civil servants.

In response, the State Migration Service told Sky News that the new biometric passport features mean that “massive illegal documentation is almost impossible”.

Mural bearing the logo of the Islamic State
Image: There are up to 500 ex-jihadists from Syria and Iraq hiding out in Ukraine

Kazim Nurmagomedov accepts that his youngest son will not return to Karata, and at the moment he is simply trying to keep him out of jail. But that is not the only problem he is dealing with.

The second of his three sons, Shamil Nurmagomedov has spent the past six months in a Russian prison on suspicion of financing terrorism after he sent Marat 200,000 roubles (£2,640) by bank transfer in 2013.

Shamil – who is 5041 on the government’s terror list – is currently awaiting trial.

Certainly, Kazim’s desire to spend time in the garden will remain the stuff of fantasy.

When he is not trying to look after his family, he fields calls from desperate mothers and fathers busy searching for their own children.

In fact we were with him when one couple walked down his overgrown driveway to see him.

Their son left for IS last year and they had not heard from him for months.

The anxious looking pair were hoping the 62-year-old pensioner could provide some contacts and advice, but there was little he could say.

“I am afraid the chances are low,” he told me. “I didn’t want to say it out loud but there is little hope. If they can’t get in contact for a few months he is probably dead.”




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