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Russian Crackdown on Muslims Fuels Exodus to IS

An entrance to the village of Gubden is decorated with Russian and Dagestani flag colors, Gubden, Dagestan, Russia, Nov. 15, 2015. The Islamic State group has recruited heavily in the predominantly Muslim Dagestan.
An entrance to the village of Gubden is decorated with Russian and Dagestani flag colors, Gubden, Dagestan, Russia, Nov. 15, 2015. The Islamic State group has recruited heavily in the predominantly Muslim Dagestan.

Security forces in Russia's southernmost republic of Dagestan keep devout Muslims under surveillance, routinely raid their homes and haul them to police stations to give DNA samples and fingerprints.

So it was no surprise to many in the village of Komsomolskoye that Rashid Magomedov fled to Syria to join the Islamic State group, leaving behind a pregnant wife and two children.

The 30-year-old had been detained several times, spent two months in jail on charges that later were dismissed and complained that police repeatedly planted weapons at his home as a pretext to arrest him.

"The fact that he left for Syria -- the police are to blame. They wouldn't leave the boy alone," said Magomedov's father, Zaynudin.

Heavy-handed security

The heavy-handed security presence in the predominantly Muslim area is an outgrowth of two separatist wars in nearby Chechnya in the mid-1990s that spread an Islamic insurgency throughout the North Caucasus region of Russia.

Militants carried out many attacks, including suicide bombings and kidnappings, to pursue their goal of establishing Islamic fundamentalism, or simply to seek revenge against corrupt officials.

This culture of violence has fostered a generation of hardened fighters, which combined with the continuing crackdown by police and other security forces, has made areas like Komsomolskoye a fertile recruiting ground for the Islamic State group.

Few efforts are made by Russian authorities to stop young men from leaving. Many in Dagestan see the intimidating security presence as not only fueling the exodus but also serving to rid the region of potential militants by encouraging them to flee.

Almost everyone in Komsomolskoye knows someone who has left for Syria. Dagestani police put the number at 11, but when residents are asked to list those who have left, the count is far bigger.

Thousands of recruits

Regional police say nearly a third of the estimated 3,000 Russians who are believed to have gone to fight alongside IS militants in Syria are from Dagestan, a republic of 3 million people.

They are men and women from both rich and poor families, from religiously conservative villages to very secular towns.

Komsomolskoye is one of several villages in Dagestan where security officials routinely announce "counterterrorist operations" and send SWAT teams to raid houses of suspected militants at the break of dawn. The main road in and out of the village is guarded around the clock by security officers with automatic weapons, and hundreds of residents are kept under surveillance, their names kept on a so-called Wahhabi list.

Those on the Wahhabi list can expect to get stopped at police checkpoints, where they can be detained for hours. They are visited at home and get phone calls at any time of day from police inquiring about their plans and whereabouts. They are often required to provide DNA samples and fingerprints.

Magomed Magomedov, deputy editor-in-chief of Dagestan's respected weekly Chernovik, said the authorities' systematic repression of the ultra-conservative Salafi Islam community is pushing its members to the margins of society.

Embitters, alienates people

"If someone goes to the wrong mosque, he knows that when he leaves he could be taken to the police station, where he would be questioned, he would be fingerprinted for the 20th time," said the editor, who is not related to the Magomedov family in Komsomolskoye. "This system of keeping people on edge alienates and embitters them, and one in 10 may just decide to take radical steps and go to Syria."

Russian officials have defended the police profiling and raids on the homes of suspected militants, describing them as steps designed to stave off radicalization and deter possible terrorist attacks.

Officials at Dagestan's Interior Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The Associated Press spoke to more than a dozen residents and activists who described how IS extremists use the resentment over the police tactics as a way to recruit new followers.

After Friday prayers last week, police rounded up about 50 worshippers at the main Salafi mosque in Dagestan's capital of Makhachkala. The men were taken to the police station, and some were fingerprinted and asked to give blood samples, according to the Caucasian Knot, a major Russian website that covers the region.

Syrian campaign

Russia's air campaign in Syria that began Sept. 30 has not received unanimous support among Muslims in Dagestan because President Vladimir Putin is seen as siding with Syrian President Bashar Assad in a war against the Sunni opposition. Most Russian Muslims are Sunni.

Putin said one of the goals of the air campaign in Syria was to prevent Russians fighting alongside the Islamic State from coming back. Most of the young people fleeing Dagestan to escape repression and police persecution have no intention of ever returning because they would almost certainly face long prison terms.

When Rashid Magomedov left in February, he told his family he was going to Egypt to study the Quran.

"He didn't say he was going to Syria, he said he was going to study," said his wife, Assiyat, as she held her 8-month-old son, Musa, on her lap. Her tablet computer has a photo of her husband, smiling with curly black hair.

Her last message from him was via a smartphone at the end of June, saying he was going away for 10 days.

By July, word reached the village that he had been killed in Syria.

After his death, she was visited by law enforcement officers, who continue to keep tabs on her and her children.