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Islamic State's Russian-language Propagandists Show Little Sign of Slowing Down

A screenshot depicts a Chechen suicide bomber from a Furat Media propaganda video, released on July 6, distributed by the SITE Intelligence Group.
A screenshot depicts a Chechen suicide bomber from a Furat Media propaganda video, released on July 6, distributed by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Furat Media, the Russian-language branch of Islamic State's propaganda apparatus, has released three high-quality videos since the start of July. Furat's Twitter and Telegram accounts feature daily updates and multimedia posts, suggesting the group's Russian branch may not be affected as strongly by the decline in propaganda capabilities that IS has reportedly been experiencing.

Aimed at Russian-speaking Muslims, Furat Media serves as IS's main recruitment tool in Russia, Transcaucasia, the North Caucasus, Central Asia and elsewhere.

Suicide bombers and snipers

In a two-part video, Convoy of the Martyrs, Furat Media features men it claims have died in suicide attacks in Iraq and Syria.

One of those featured is a young, bearded man wearing a khaki headscarf and holding an automatic rifle, who speaks in front of the camera in Russian with a heavy Chechen accent. The 10-minute video was released July 6 as Part Two of the Convoy of the Martyrs series.

In the video, which includes footage of IS attacks, the man, identified as Abu Abdul Aziz al-Shishani, praises the establishment of the "caliphate" and curses the United States, along with Muslims who decline or postpone joining IS. He also threatens Russia with a new wave of jihad in the North Caucasus. His last words, addressed to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, praise the IS leader and urge him to never give up, and to remain strong "like we remain strong in the besieged city of Mosul." That last reference indicates the video could have been shot any time during the nine-month battle for Mosul.

The video ends with drone footage of a white vehicle driving on a street in a city and then blowing up, with white smoke rising from the site of the explosion. The caption reads: "Abu Abdul Aziz al-Shishani's act of martyrdom."

A week later, on July 14, Furat Media distributed another video, which included footage of IS training and attacks by IS snipers. An infographic in the video claims a single sniper killed 164 Kurdish fighters and wounded 90 in one month. One of the sniper instructors in the video, identified as Zayad al-Adhri, speaks Russian with a Dagestani accent.

A screenshot depicts a Dagestani sniper instructor from a Furat Media propaganda video, released on July 14, distributed by the SITE Intelligence Group.
A screenshot depicts a Dagestani sniper instructor from a Furat Media propaganda video, released on July 14, distributed by the SITE Intelligence Group.

According to the SITE Intelligence Group, parts of the video may have been shot as recently as July 4, and the footage was shot in Syria's Raqqa province.

'Cracks in the Online "Caliphate"'

The latest issue of Perspectives on Terrorism, a magazine published by the Netherlands' Universiteit Leiden, includes an academic study headlined "Cracks in the Online 'Caliphate': How the Islamic State is Losing Ground in the Battle for Cyberspace."

"The Islamic State's cyber jihad fully launched in 2014, is currently undergoing a regression that is demonstrated by the weakening of its quality, coverage and effectiveness," the study states.

Analysts differ over whether the study's findings are true for the Russian-language branch of IS's propaganda machine.

"We have not noticed any notable decline in the quality of the productions," Adam Raisman, an expert with the SITE Intelligence Group, told VOA's Extremism Watch Desk.

"The propaganda from Furat Media has always been sporadic, not quasi-regular like that of official IS media divisions," he said. "Most Furat Media releases focused on individual fighters, and they've continued that in the past month."

But according to Joanna Paraszczuk, a freelance researcher with Britain's IHS Jane's analytical center, there are signs that IS's Russian-language cyber activities have also weakened.

"IS's Russian-speaking contingent in charge of propaganda was based in Mosul, so the loss of territory there disrupted propaganda activity," Paraszczuk told VOA's Extremism Watch Desk.

In recent months, she said, IS's official Russian-language Telegram channel "has declined in output and is mostly just posting Russian translations of Arabic IS news from the Amaq news agency.

"The tone of the propaganda has also shifted, from praising IS as a state with territory to presenting the battle for Mosul as being akin to dramatic battles fought by the early Muslims," Paraszczuk said.

Magomed Tuaev, a special correspondent in Turkey for the Russian news agency Caucasian Knot, believes that propaganda aimed at recruitment is "at this point out of the agenda" for IS's Russian-language branch, partially due to tightened security measures in Turkey, from which "some of these channels had been operating."

Despite IS's decline, the impact of its messages on the younger generation of Russian-speaking Muslims remains significant, Tuaev said, especially in Russia, "due to the government's repressive policies that actually push the youth toward radicalization instead of helping them to understand this dangerous influence."

Added Paraszczuk: "Apart from the reduction in official propaganda, there has been a shift among the unofficial pro-IS channels to call for and actively provide material to support lone-wolf attacks by individuals outside IS-controlled territory, and here has been a growth of Telegram channels which distribute information about how to manufacture homemade explosives."

The man behind IS's Russian-language media

Very little has been reported in the Western media about Abu Jihad, the man who runs IS's Russian-language media, other than occasional mentions of his close ties to IS military commander Abu Umar al-Shishani and the IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, both of whom were killed in U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

A screenshot depicting Islam Atabiev, aka Abu Jihad, from a YouTube IS propaganda video.
A screenshot depicting Islam Atabiev, aka Abu Jihad, from a YouTube IS propaganda video.

A 34-year-old ethnic Karachai from Russia, Islam Atabiev, aka Abu Jihad, was designated as a terrorist by the U.S. State Department in October 2015.

According to multiple sources, Atabiev received introductory education in Islamic theology from al-Azhar University in Egypt. After returning to his small hometown in the southern Russian republic of Karachai-Cherkessia, he was, according to Russian security, involved in the local radical Islamic underground. Atabiev was arrested and imprisoned for a year on charges of "banditry."

In 2011, Atabiev reportedly left his home for Turkey, then moved to Syria to join IS. In Syria, he reportedly became close to al-Shishani, who tasked Atabiev with creating the Russian-language propaganda unit that later become known as Furat Media.

After al-Shishani's death in 2016, some Russian experts speculated Atabiev would replace him as a commander of the IS's Russian-speaking forces. This was unlikely, however, because of Atabiev's lack of combat experience: He is known for fighting in cyberspace, not on the battlefield.

Russia's security services suspected Atabiev of masterminding several attacks in Russia and elsewhere, including the April 2017 bombing on the St. Petersburg metro.

According to several sources, Atabiev is obsessed with the idea that Russia's FSB security service is plotting to assassinate him using undercover agents. Ironically, non-IS fighters from the North Caucasus, who are in Syria, have accused Atabiev of being a Russian agent on jihadist forums and social media chats.

Atabiev is said to be the man who makes the final decisions for IS's sharia court in cases involving Russian-speaking suspects. A Dagestani woman was reportedly executed on his orders, and her execution was profiled last year in Istok (The Source), the Russian-language IS propaganda magazine that Atabiev was producing until earlier this year.