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The combatants are led by some of the most prominent figures in the Russian radical Islamist movement, including Airat Vakhitov and Daud Khalukhayev.
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Russian Islamists Fighting in Syria
The Moscow Times
At least 200 Russian-speaking Salafi Muslims are fighting against Bashar Assad's regime in Syria, according to an expert at a state-run think tank.

Rais Suleimanov, head of the Kazan-based Volga Center for Regional and Ethno-Religious Studies, said he got this number from Russian militants themselves, who he said have "no interest in exaggerating it."

He said the militants come from CIS countries including Ukraine and from different regions of Russia, among them Tatarstan and the volatile North Caucasus, where Russian law enforcement is battling an intractable insurgency of separatist Islamist militants.

Other experts cast doubt on the reliability of the figure cited by Suleimanov, saying it was virtually impossible to verify. But they said that given Russia's staunch support of the Assad regime, it would be natural for militants opposed to the Russian government to help fight a kind of proxy war in Syria.

Factions within the Syrian rebel forces are believed to favor the creation of a Sunni Islamist state, and the vast majority of North Caucasus Muslims are also Sunni. Assad's government is largely supported by Shiite Muslims.

The presence of Russian-speaking militants in Syria could be a serious cause for concern for the Russian government, the experts said, given the likelihood that they could return to Russia battle-toughened.

The fact that some of the militants allegedly in Syria may be from outside the North Caucasus could also be a source of worry for the government, as it shows the spread of extremist Islamist ideology in Russian Muslim communities.

In July, Tatarstan's top Muslim leader, Ildus Faizov, miraculously survived three bomb blasts that destroyed his car in Kazan in the first major attack against religious leaders outside the North Caucasus. Minutes before, a former aide to Faizov was shot dead by gunmen in the Volga city.

The apparently coordinated attack, a day before the start of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, raised fears that Islamic radicalism had spread to the more secular Muslim regions of central Russia.

According to the Kavkazchat website, a resource apparently frequented by Russian-speaking militants, fighters from "the Caucasus Emirate, Crimea, Russia, Tatarstan and several other CIS countries" do battle in Syria under the umbrella of an organization called the Kata'ib Mohadzherin.

According to Suleimanov, the combatants are led by some of the most prominent figures in the Russian radical Islamist movement, including Airat Vakhitov and Daud Khalukhayev.

Vakhitov was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2002 after being captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He was later returned to Russia to face criminal conspiracy charges but was released in 2004 due to lack of evidence.


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