Their testimonies of horrific experiences in Iraq and Syria could stop the recruitment of new Russian jihadists.
Madina, a stalwart woman in her late fifties with dyed blond hair and deep bags under her eyes, works at a roadside food stall on the outskirts of Nalchik, a provincial capital on Russia’s border with Georgia.
She sells beer, soft drinks and cold cuts of meat laid out on the counter on plastic trays. Madina looks calm, but her hands tremble as she pours me tea.
“At the end of December 2017,” she says, “I got a text message from an unknown number with just one sentence: ‘He’s in Iraq.’ It’s the last I’ve heard about my son.”
Russian jihadists have been joining the armed conflict in Syria since its early stages, but recruitment spiked in 2014, after the emergence of Islamic State, a banned terror group in Russia. By the spring of 2016 the Interior Ministry estimated the number of Russian citizens fighting for IS at 3,417.
Madina’s only son Nodar, his pregnant wife, Aisha and their 2-year-old daughter left for Syria in the spring of 2015. Madina says that her grandson was born in Syria in April 2015, the year Nodar’s family left Russia.
The day after Aisha gave birth, she was sent home: the hospital area had been heavily bombarded. It was not long before Nodar and Aisha understood that leaving home for the Middle East had been a mistake.
“Nodar asked me for money to send Aisha back to Russia with the kids,” Madina told me. “But soon after he said that it was ‘Too late.’”
“They had gone to Iraq,” Madina said. “IS took their documents, the roads were closed. Later, when we talked on Skype, Aisha whispered: ‘Mama, I’m looking for ways to escape.’”
On Aug. 28, 2017, Madina’s son and his family surrendered to the Peshmerga, Iraqi-Kurdish fighters, near the town of Tal-Afar, not far from Mosul. She shows me a video: a long line of bearded jihadi men taken captive. The camera moves from one face to another. The last one is Nodar.
After they surrendered, Nodar was separated from Aisha and the children. She is currently in Baghdad prison facing a life sentence for joining IS; the children are with her. Nodar’s whereabouts are not known.
Madina is one of hundreds of desperate Russian mothers praying that the Russian government will help find their children and grandchildren, and bring them home from Syria and Iraq.
IS attracted thousands of Russians with its promises of an Islamic utopia and what it called “five-star jihad.” Hundreds of men seduced by the terror group’s slick propaganda left with their wives and children to start new lives in “the lands of Islam.”
Often husbands lied and blackmailed women into leaving. “He told my daughter Seda they were going on vacation in Turkey,” says Malika, a Chechen mother, who has not heard from her daughter since July 2017.