A path back from the ruins of ISIS

As the West struggles with the fate of ISIS fighters and their families, one woman in Dagestan helps bring Russians home

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A path back from the ruins of ISIS

As the West struggles with the fate of ISIS fighters and their families, one woman in Dagestan helps bring Russians home

The families know how to find her.

Sevil Novruzova has brought back sons from what was once the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate. She has retrieved grandchildren from Iraqi prisons, jailed for being with the militants. Novruzova has flown last-minute to Turkey, hoping to discourage daughters from traveling farther to reach the Islamic State lines.

For the 42-year-old lawyer from Russia’s mostly Muslim Dagestan region, it usually begins with a message asking for help to bring back a relative.

For years, she has lived and breathed the crumbling Islamic State, whose last stronghold in Syria was seized by U.S.-backed forces in March. On her watch, she has helped return at least 120 people from the caliphate.

Her work — in a corner of Russia’s Caucasus region — represents just a tiny fraction of the fighters, families and others who made their way to Islamic State territory in recent years. But Novruzova’s efforts stand in sharp contrast to the political indecision in the West over whether to repatriate citizens who sided with the Islamic State.

Her outreach is even more remarkable for the shift it reflects in President Vladi­mir Putin’s Russia.

Putin had been ruthless in his pursuit of Islamist insurgents — vowing once to “rub them out in the outhouse” — yet his government appears to be changing tack when it comes to those who joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where Moscow is a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia is no stranger to Islamist extremism, having for years battled a homegrown insurgency in its majority-Muslim North Caucasus in the aftermath of two bloody wars for independence in Chechnya.

Normally, Islamist insurgents inside Russia would receive long prison sentences. Their families were also arrested and tortured, according to human rights groups. Now, the Kremlin is attempting to reintegrate Islamic State members into society, by way of shorter stints in jail and close monitoring.

Sevil Novruzova, a lawyer from Russia’s mostly Muslim Dagestan region, started out as a volunteer before becoming a member of her republic’s anti-terrorism council and director of Derbent’s Center for Reconciliation and Harmony. (Joel van Houdt for The Washington Post)

“We don’t know what goes on in the souls of our young people,” Novruzova said in her native Derbent, where placards denouncing terrorism line boulevards, and families gather to picnic on the Caspian Sea coast. “We need to understand what they really want. Are they repenting or trying to leave a sinking ship?”

It is believed that around 400 fighters have been brought back to Russia, most serving time in prison. More than 100 of their wives, and an equal number of children, have also returned. Rights workers and analysts say the system is far from transparent but have nevertheless lauded the Kremlin’s efforts.

In Chechnya, strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov takes credit for spearheading the program to repatriate the children and wives of Islamic State fighters, even earning a personal message of gratitude last year from Putin.

But Novruzova stands out.

Her belief in a second chance has personal roots. Her brother, Ramil, joined the local Islamist insurgency before being killed by Russian security services in 2008.

She started out as a volunteer before becoming a member of her republic’s anti-terrorism council and director of Derbent’s Center for Reconciliation and Harmony.

Text messages for help

On a recent afternoon, Novruzova set about visiting some of her clients. As she drove around Derbent, evidence of the Islamic State’s reach was easy to spot.

She passed a high school missing one of its teachers, a woman who left for Islamic State areas. In a cafe, she acknowledged, with a quick nod, a former Islamic State member eating with his family.

Novruzova’s neighbor became an Islamic State commander in Syria who oversaw a squadron of suicide bombers. His whereabouts are unknown.

For some, Novruzova is a savior. For others, she is a bearer of bad news.

“When victory over ISIS was declared, many people complained, asking me why their relatives were under rubble in Mosul,” she said, referring to the northern Iraq city that was one of the fiercest battlegrounds between the Islamic State and Iraqi-led forces.

Of the fellow Dagestanis she has returned, around half are in prison, serving time for fighting in an illegally armed foreign group, which Russia criminalized in 2014. Women brought back are kept under heavy surveillance and can be imprisoned only once their youngest child reaches 14.

“It is a crime for countries to not accept their children. We are proud of Russia because it never abandons them,” said Gulnara Magomedova, a teacher who appealed to Novruzova on behalf of a family friend, who had her two grandchildren returned from Iraq.

“Their relatives can bring them up and take care of them and make them decent people,” Magomedova said in the village of Delichoban, where the girls, ages 6 and 7, now live.

FROM TOP: Mariam, left, and Fatima speak with their grandfather Tagir in the kitchen of their Derbent home. Sofia Gusseinalieva, 62, speaks with Sevil Novruzova in her home, where she lives with granddaughters Mariam, left, Gyulperi, center, and Fatima, not pictured. (Joel van Houdt for The Washington Post)

Novruzova’s first contact with families usually arrives via WhatsApp, with a plea for help. Then she works with the local government to locate the missing person, before involving the Russian Embassy in Syria, Iraq or Turkey. She often greets the returnees herself, before they face criminal charges.

In a region wary of extremism, life back home after the Islamic State is not always easy.

When the gym teacher of a village’s sole school traveled to Syria in 2014, the community in Salik, north of Derbent, fell into a state of shock.

Now 30, serving a suspended sentence and back at home with his mother and his own children, the teacher lives in fear of reprisals from locals — and with no access to his bank account, passport or cellphone.

A former camp guard in Raqqa, the caliphate’s self-declared capital in Syria, he was temporarily allowed back to Turkey on the pretense of needing medical care. There, he called his mother, who made contact with Novruzova. Court documents reviewed by The Washington Post show that in Turkey he voluntarily surrendered.

“There were 12-year-olds with guns. The bombing would never stop, and it was freezing,” said the man, who asked that his name not be used to prevent repercussions against him and his family.

Each night, male relatives gather to keep guard at the courtyard house of the former gym instructor.

“The Russians are smart in taking back their citizens,” said Ali Soufan, who runs the Soufan Center, a security research group. “Instead of making them living martyrs, why not bring these people back, and take control of the situation and treat them like the criminals they are?”

Soufan drew parallels between Islamic State fighters and the formation of al-Qaeda after the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994.

“Taking away citizenship is unintentionally creating a sort of citizenship for the so-called caliphate. . . . It’s going to create a new wave of hatred and potentially a narrative for them to recruit and operate,” Soufan said.

‘All deceived’

Dagestan, with a population of about 3 million, saw 1,200 people join the Islamic State, according to official figures — around the same number who went from Germany and Belgium combined. Dagestan is also where the Islamic State’s first attack in Russia took place, in 2015, when a group of insurgents claiming allegiance to the group launched a raid on a Russian army barracks, killing several.

After Tunisia, the largest contingent of foreign fighters came from Russia, some 5,000, according to Putin.

Attitudes in Russia toward its fighters have changed slowly.

A dancer waits outside the Derbent medieval fortress of Naryn-Kala to perform for a visiting official. (Joel van Houdt for The Washington Post)

“Now, since ISIS has all but crashed, [the security services] don’t believe the returnees anymore. They think they are trying to save their lives but still believe in the ideology,” said Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, an expert on the North Caucasus and director of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center, a think tank based in Istanbul.

Novruzova’s focus is now on the hundreds of Russian women and children in Syrian camps and Iraqi prisons. From 2017 to the beginning of 2018, Russia organized 11 flights home from the Middle East, carrying 21 women and 105 children. The program then paused while officials deliberated, before resuming in December, when a plane from Baghdad brought 30 children.

In their grandmother’s living room in Derbent, three of the children from that flight — sisters sent by their imprisoned mother — cry softly. They miss their mother, Alla, and their Iraqi-born, 2-year-old brother Suleiman, who had to stay behind because he is not a Russian citizen.

“They were all deceived. . . . They were promised a peaceful life in a pure caliphate. They believed the people because they were Muslims,” said Sofia Gusseinalieva, 62, one of two grandmothers looking after the children.

Their parents sold their apartment and all their belongings, making $37,000, and set off for the Islamic State four years ago, settling in Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq. After Iraqi forces seized the town two years later, the mother and children were packed off to an overcrowded and fetid room in a Baghdad prison. The mother was handed a 20-year-sentence in Iraq. The father was executed.

Anxiously, Gusseinalieva looks over at her granddaughters: Mariam, 6, Fatima, 9, and Gyulperi, 12. She frets that they are short for their age, stunted by malnutrition and a lack of medicines. “There was no caliphate there.”

Credits: By Amie Ferris-Rotman. Photos and video by Joel van Houdt.