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Alexander Tikhomirov's life illustrates challenge radical Islam poses in Russia

A train passes by the flowers laying at the Lubyanka Subway station's platform, which was hit by an explosion, Moscow, March 29, 2010.
A train passes by the flowers laying at the Lubyanka Subway station's platform, which was hit by an explosion, Moscow, March 29, 2010. (Sergey Ponomarev - AP)

Suppressed by the czars and the Communists, Islam has enjoyed a fitful rebirth in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Most of the nation's estimated 20 million Muslims are ethnic minorities who adhere to a moderate branch of the faith. But radical views have made inroads, fueled by foreign proselytizers and frustration with state-backed spiritual leaders.

Acquaintances say Tikhomirov embraced a movement known as Salafism, which argues that Islam has been corrupted over the centuries and urges a return to the stricter practices of the earliest Muslims. The movement is popular among young Muslims in Russia, but the security forces often target its adherents as extremists.

Russia's traditional Islamic leaders have tried to steer young people toward moderate views, but a severe shortage of mosques, due in part to state limits, has made that difficult. In Moscow, six mosques serve as many as 3 million believers, the largest Muslim population of any city in Europe.

Aslam Ezhaev, director of an Islamic publishing house, said Tikhomirov voiced frustration with Muslim officialdom and eventually returned to Buryatia, where he took a job as a warehouse guard and offered to translate Arabic books for him.

Ezhaev suggested that Tikhomirov start a podcast for his Web site, Radio Islam. Tikhomirov proved be a talented preacher; his lectures were an immediate hit.

Ezhaev said he opposed violence and forbade Tikhomirov to discuss jihad. "It was easy for him to stay within the limits," he said. "I didn't see any signs of fanaticism."

On the Web, radicals criticized Tikhomirov for refusing to talk about Russia's brutal efforts to crush the insurgency in the Caucasus, where rebels in 2007 declared jihad to establish an Islamist emirate.

In the spring of 2008, Tikhomirov received a recruitment video from a senior rebel commander. "I considered it probably three or five seconds," he recalled in a video of his own, then concluded that God was challenging him to back up his sermons with action.

Because of his mixed ethnicity, he quickly became a powerful symbol for an insurgency trying to expand beyond Chechnya to the rest of the Caucasus. His sermons, which he filmed in combat gear, weaved scripture with sarcasm, striking a chord in an impoverished Muslim region brimming with resentment against the security forces.

Tikhomirov called the screams of injured enemies "music for the ears" and detailed his central role in the campaign of suicide bombings that began last summer with the revival of Riyad-us Saliheen, a brigade that once staged attacks across Russia.

"While I am alive," he wrote in December, "I will do everything possible so that the ranks of Riyad-us Saliheen are broadened and new waves of mujaheddin go on to martyrdom operations."

On March 2, when security forces surrounded him and other fighters in a village in Ingushetia, Tikhomirov recorded a final sermon on his mobile phone, officials said. The authorities recovered the phone, along with a 50-liter barrel of explosives.

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