NOVOSASITLI, RUSSIA — In 2013, a quiet 23-year-old from Russia named Ahmed decided to travel to Syria to fight with an Islamist battalion against President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Two years later, now a veteran of Syria’s civil war and on parole from a Russian prison, he looks back on that moment with a kind of dazed regret.
“It was a sickness,” the native of Dagestan, a mostly Muslim region in southern Russia, said in an interview in his home town this month . “It was an epidemic.”
Ahmed is one of at least 20 men to have fought in Syria who came from Novosasitli, a village of 2,000 people in Dagestan where many have embraced Salafism, an ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam that has spread in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.
When Russia launched airstrikes in Syria last month, President Vladimir Putin in part justified the campaign as a preemptive strike against thousands of Russian-born militants fighting in Syria who could soon return home to spread terror, a fear shared by many Western countries. But as Russia puts on a show of force abroad, potent sources of extremism remain unaddressed at home.
Russian estimates of the number of its citizens fighting in Syria have grown quickly. Earlier this month, Putin said that as many as 7,000 people from the former Soviet Union had joined the Islamic State. Critics say his figures are exaggerated to justify Russia’s sudden intervention in Syria.
Most of the young men who left Novosasitli for Syria had studied together at madrassas, or religious schools, in the Middle East, locals said. They joined Islamist groups in Syria, often with other fighters from the former Soviet Union. Some joined the Islamic State. Seven died in Syria. Some are already back.
“We certainly cannot allow them to use the experience they are getting in Syria on home soil,” Putin said at a regional summit about two weeks ago .
Ahmed, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used because he feared reprisals, said he and four other men from Novosasitli were recruited while studying in Egypt and spent several months fighting in northern Syria near the border with Turkey. After returning to Russia in March 2014, they were arrested, imprisoned for a year and paroled.
“Almost all the boys have returned; some received their punishments and went to prison, others did not fight at all,” said Akhyad Abdullayev, the village’s 45-year-old administrator. “The boys are living peaceful lives in the village.”
Across Dagestan, many residents have a relative, friend or acquaintance who has left for Syria.
“Everyone here is talking about Syria,” said Abu-Muhammad Aliev, a former journalist and businessman prominent in ultraconservative Muslim circles in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital.
Salafist men are angry with police profiling, he said. Work is scarce. When young men get in trouble with the police, they often run. Syria has become one destination for those seeking to leave Dagestan, he said. Sometimes they come to him for advice.
“If one wants to go to the Sham, then I will not talk him out of it,” he said, referring to the region stretching from southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt.
“But I can try to convince him not to join the Islamic State,” Aliev added. “Because drowning people and burning them alive have nothing to do with sharia law.”
In Novosasitli, the flow of young men to Syria has brought new scrutiny to an old problem.
For nearly a decade, Dagestan and neighboring regions have endured a low-level insurgency led by radicals hoping to establish an Islamic caliphate, and young men who join the rebels are said to have “gone into the forest.”
Many are killed or remain on the run for years.
“For fighters there is almost no option for rehabilitation and for returning to peaceful life, particularly in Dagestan,” said Varvara Pakhomenko, an expert on the North Caucasus region at the International Crisis Group.
Some residents have fought that trend.
Since 2010, Abdullayev, the administrative chief, has moonlighted as a negotiator, seeking to guarantee safe passage for young men in the insurgency to turn themselves in without fear of retribution from the police.
“It takes respect and trust to get people to believe in your authority,” he said in an interview.
In many ways, religious law has surpassed the Russian government’s authority in Novosasitli. Abdullayev spoke reverently about the town’s “double life” under communism, when disputes were still quietly settled under religious law. Locals are proud of the village’s strong religious identity. They say that there is no alcohol to be found and that religious law has helped reduce crime.
Abdurakhim Magomedov, a Salafist spiritual leader from Novosasitli whose madrassa was shuttered by the government in 2013, said that “Dagestan must be independent from Russia for us to practice our religion as we should.”
But he was disturbed by the rise of the Islamic State, he said, and distraught at the death of the village’s youth in Syria.
“They have come back and hopefully this is behind us,” he said.
Violence related to terrorism in the North Caucasus has fallen in recent years. In 2013, 341 people, including law enforcement officers and insurgents, were killed in terrorism-related incidents in Dagestan, according to statistics compiled by the Caucasian Knot independent news site. In 2014, that number was down to 208.
Russia in 2013 launched an extensive counterterrorism campaign in advance of the Sochi Olympics that significantly weakened the insurgency in Dagestan and neighboring regions.
“Most of the fighters have been killed in the pre-Olympic period or left for Syria. That’s the main reason for the decrease in insurgency activity,” said Pakhomenko, the North Caucasus expert.
Some of the heightened security measures introduced for the Olympics have remained in place. For instance, Gimry, a mountainside town of several thousand in Dagestan, has lived under nearly total quarantine since April 2013.
The town is the birthplace of Imam Shamil, a religious leader who fought Russia’s expansion into the Caucasus in the 19th century and is a symbol of Islamist resistance.
Today in Gimry, every resident has a five-digit number, which he must recite to police at a roadblock to enter or exit the town. Outsiders must register. Foreigners are not permitted.
“It makes you angry,” said one man idling outside a roadside cafe near Gimry. “Checks. Fingerprints. Interrogations. This is not normal life. We are treated like cattle.”
At least 10 people, including a police officer, have been killed in confrontations in the past four months in Gimry.
In September 2014, the neighboring town of Vremenniy was cut off entirely for 21/2 months. All residents were expelled from the village. The authorities say 11 insurgents were killed.
Tatyana Lokshina, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, tallied the damage in a report earlier this year.
“The flamboyant violence of the Islamic State for some of them is seen as an alternative to a corrupt, secular government,” she said.
When he arrived in Syria, it did not take Ahmed long to realize that he was not cut out to be an insurgent. He had never fired a gun, he said, and was nearly killed one night when he stumbled on an enemy checkpoint.
“I had never planned to stay in Syria forever anyway,” he said.
Teachers at the madrassa in Egypt had shown Ahmed and his four friends Internet videos of atrocities in Syria and insisted that they travel there to help. “Our plan was to go and see if this was all real,” he said.
He said that they had later discussed joining the Islamic State but decided that it was too violent and “manipulative.” They returned home two weeks after the end of the Sochi Olympics and were quickly arrested in Dagestan.
Ahmed called his sentence, a year in a Russian prison above the Arctic Circle, illegal. He does not believe he broke the law in Russia by fighting in Syria.
“It was like Guantanamo,” he said of his detention facility, referring to the U.S. prison for enemy combatants in Cuba.
But he is lucky to be alive.
“Sometimes we joke: Will you go there again?” Abdullayev, the village head, said of those who returned. “And they say, ‘Never.’ ”