Russia suspected of shooting dead the Chechen Egelgireyev in Istanbul
The shooting in broad daylight of Abdulvakhid Edelgireyev – a key Chechen Islamist figure who fought with an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria – is the latest in a series of audacious killings of enemies of the Russian state in the Turkish city
Abdulvakhid Edelgireyev survived for years hiding in the Chechen mountains, launching attacks on Russian security forces and evading capture. He survived the battlefields of Syria, and those of east Ukraine. But in November his life came to an abrupt end in a flurry of bullets: he was shot dead in broad daylight in Istanbul as he embarked on a shopping trip with his three-year-old niece.
Edelgireyev and his niece walked out of their apartment block in Kayasehir, a far-flung suburb of nondescript new towers, shortly before 2pm on 1 November. The 32-year-old Chechen sat the girl in the passenger seat of his car, and was about to start the engine when a white car rammed into them from behind, closing him in. Pushing his niece on to the floor under the seat, Edelgireyev scrambled out and started running. One of the assassins gave chase, firing at him, and he crumpled to the ground. When paramedics arrived a few minutes later he was already dead, in a pool of blood. He had been shot five times.
The dead man’s biography, as set out by family and associates, paints a picture of a key figure in the Caucasus Emirate, the umbrella group of Chechen and other fighters in Russia’s North Caucasus that has resorted to terrorist methods, including suicide attacks on Moscow’s metro and Domodedovo airport. Edelgireyev’s experiences during his year in Syria also revealed how the Chechen resistance fight has slowly grown links to Islamic State , and the infighting and turmoil among the foreign fighters in Syria.
The murder is the latest in a pattern of audacious hits on key Chechen figures in the Turkish city over recent years. Personal enemies of Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, have been killed in Moscow, Vienna and Dubai; there are suspicions members of Kadyrov’s militias may have been involved. But Turkish prosecutors suspect the Istanbul murders may have the hallmarks of more centralised Russian hits.
There has been no official comment on the murders. However, in 2003 Vladimir Putin passed a law allowing the FSB, Russia’s security service, to conduct operations abroad, and now Russia and Turkey have fallen out dramatically over the downing of an Su-24 warplane by the Turkish air force in November, there are fears among potential targets in Turkey that the campaign could be stepped up.
In one 2009 murder, the weapon used was the Groza, a pistol developed for Russia’s special forces for use in assassinations – and rarely found on the open market. In themurders of three Chechens outside an Istanbul teahouse in 2011, Turkish authorities believed nine people were involved, including two alleged Russian agents who fled, leaving fake passports behind.
The only man to be arrested for any of the killings is a shadowy figure who goes by the nickname “the Zone”. Believed to be Chechen, the Zone was apprehended trying to enter Istanbul on a fake Georgian passport in the name of Temur Makhauri in 2012. He is currently on trial in Istanbul for his alleged role in a number of the previous murders; the key evidence is secretly taped video of the Zone meeting with a man claimed to be an FSB agent and discussing the murders of Chechens. The prosecution is calling for a life sentence.
Several thousand Chechens live in Istanbul, where there were once three refugee camps for Chechens. But as well as civilians, the Turkish city has become something of a base for Chechen fighters and their families. For years, the children and wives of insurgents lived in the city, and injured fighters would travel there for treatment.
All Istanbul’s Chechens involved in the Caucasus Emirate now live in fear of attack. One who recently left Istanbul for Ukraine said he frequently changed his sim cards and always carried a pistol when in Turkey: he might not be able to escape death but perhaps he would at least get a shot off at his attackers. The Guardian also tracked down several Chechens making very cautious movements near a petrol station in a distant suburb of Istanbul, where the men took turns to act as lookouts. “We are required to take many precautions, unfortunately,” said one of the men, who wished to remain anonymous.
In the days before he was killed, Edelgireyev had not noticed anyone following him, and was not taking any serious precautions, according to his family. But the well-built Chechen, with short hair and a wispy ginger beard, was a key figure in the Chechen insurgency’s diaspora, associates said.
‘To start with, Abdulvakhid was not a fighter’
Edelgireyev was born in 1983 to Chechen parents in Russia’s Volgograd region. He finished school and planned to study law at university, but when Vladimir Putin launched the second Chechen war in 2000, the family moved back toChechnya. Three of his brothers joined the insurgency, carrying out attacks on Russian forces.
“To start with, Abdulvakhid was not a fighter, but he was abducted so many times by the security forces who wanted information on his brothers, that he eventually decided he would be better off going to the forest himself,” said his father, 71-year-old Alu Edelgireyev, over tea at his Istanbul home, just two blocks from where his son was murdered.
Over time, Edelgireyev became close to Doku Umarov, the self-styled emir of the Caucasus Emirate, a group containing rebranded Chechen independence fighters who now sought to proclaim a state of Islam across the North Caucasus. In 2009, he injured his leg in a trap, and Umarov told him he should leave the mountains and get treatment. Like many Chechen fighters before him, he went to Turkey.
Edelgireyev’s three brothers were killed in shootouts with Russian forces between 2008 and 2010, a period when local security forces loyal to pro-Kremlin leader Kadyrov used violent tactics to crush the insurgency, killing many fighters and promising to burn down the homes of family members who did not give up information.
Local security forces tortured Edelgireyev’s father for information about his sons’ whereabouts, he said. “They came for me all the time,” he said, “asking where my sons were. They beat me, and tortured me with electric shocks. They attached wires to my fingers and feet and wound up this machine with a handle, like from an old film.” In the end, a relative paid police 200,000 roubles (then about £4,000) as a bribe to release the old man, who left Chechnya, and eventually moved to Istanbul to join his son in 2010.
By this time, Edelgireyev had undergone two operations on his injured leg in Istanbul and was seen as a key representative of the Caucasus Emirate group in the city. He was helping to channel money and provisions back to the Caucasus, one source said.
By 2012, he was ready to fight again, but conditions in Chechnya had become almost impossible. The Chechen source now living in Ukraine explained how things got progressively harder from 2004, when mobile phones began to be widespread in Chechnya.
“Before, we would go to the villages, stock up and spend the night, and then go back to the forest, but that’s impossible now. Everyone has a mobile phone; the minute you show yourself you’re dead.”
Until a few years ago, people ran supply routes from Istanbul through Georgia and over the mountains into Chechnya; the wives of fighters would also travel this way for annual meetings with their husbands. But since 2012, Georgia has introduced tougher border controls, putting many Chechens on a banned list so they cannot enter the country in the first place. Food that reaches the fighters has often been poisoned by security services or their informants; it is believed that this is what killed their “emir”, Umarov, last year.
Faced with the choice of almost certain death in Chechnya, or a new, exciting Islamic war in Syria, Edelgireyev chose the latter. The source in Ukraine said that until a year ago, recruiters for Isis and other rebel groups would solicit Chechens in Istanbul quite openly, although they have now moved more underground. Russian security services have estimated there are at least 2,000 people of Russian origin fighting in Syria, mainly from the North Caucasus.
‘Our struggle was always about Russia’
Edelgireyev left Istanbul in 2013 to fight with Caucasus Emirate fighters who had moved to Syria. However, there was an acrimonious split when Omar al-Shishani, a Georgian-born Chechen who had previously served in the US-trained Georgian army, decided to merge the group with Isis.
Edelgireyev knew Shishani, now considered one of the leading Isis commanders, well: their wives were sisters. But he stayed with the remnants of the Caucasus group that did not join Isis, instead pledging themselves to Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida-linked group in Syria.
“Our struggle was always about Russia, he wasn’t interested in Isis,” said his father. Edelgireyev returned to Istanbul a year ago, disillusioned with the “chaos” in Syria.
In recent months, some of the remaining mid-level Caucasus Emirate commanders still active in Chechnya and the other mountainous republics of southern Russia have pledged their allegiance to Isis, causing a split in the movement. A source in Istanbul linked to the insurgency said: “The fight in Syria and the seeping of Islamic State ideology back to the Caucasus has harmed our image a lot. We are trying to bring everyone back together and make a joint statement that our main and only enemy is Russia.”
Earlier this year, Edelgireyev got the opportunity to fight the old enemy again, spending three months in Ukraine, where a number of Chechens have joined with Ukrainian forces to fight the Russia-backed rebels. However, after a few months he was asked to leave by the country’s security services after they discovered his past, his father claimed. The Ukrainians told the Chechens it would look bad if the west found out they had “terrorists” in their midst, he said.
So, he came back to Istanbul, where he was one of the top representatives of Vilayat Nokhchicho, the Chechen sector of the Caucasus Emirate, and responsible for fundraising, an associate said.
Many of the Chechens killed in the Turkey hits over recent years were linked to fundraising for the insurgency, and the chain of shadowy assassinations suggests Moscow has preferred the clinical removal of key figures rather than angry public rhetoric, while Ankara has not seemed to put much effort into hunting the killers.
Russia has accused Imkander, a controversial NGO that operates from a suite of offices near Istanbul’s grand Fatih mosque, of aiding the Chechen insurgency. In 2013, Russia unsuccessfully lobbied the UN to put Imkander on a list of terror supporters for links to al-Qaida.
Imkander’s president, Murat Özer, says the group is apolitical and has no ties to the insurgency. It has had no trouble from Turkish authorities “because they know the allegation is nonsense”, Özer said, adding that its main tasks are helping with accommodation and schooling for refugees from the Caucasus.
“We are helping all refugees in Turkey, and are neither supporting nor opposing the Caucasus Emirate, this is not what we do,” said Özer, in an interview at his office, a bank of screens on his desk relaying footage from various security cameras. The group receives frequent threats, and they often notice people watching the office or following them.
Özer insisted the group “completely rejects attacks on civilians”, although a resolution of a 2012 conference on the Caucasus held in Istanbul, organised by Imkander and chaired by Özer, states: “We salute Doku Umarov and the other mujahideen, who are continuing the sacred battle of our ancestors in the Caucasus mountains today.”
The statement came well after Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate took responsibility for a 2009 train bombing and a 2011 suicide attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, which killed 37 people.
Now relations between Russia and Turkey have soured over the downing of the Russian jet, the quiet acceptance of the status quo by both sides could change. Without cordial bilateral relations to salvage, Russia might become more brazen in its attempts to hunt Chechen insurgents wherever it finds them, while Turkey’s intelligence could put more effort into apprehending the killers or seek more publicity for the trial of the Zone, which has been low-key up to now.
Kadyrov recently criticised Turkey on his Instagram account for sheltering terrorists, while Putin mentioned Turkish government help for terrorists in his annual address to Russia’s elites in December. “We remember that the militants who operated in the North Caucasus in the 1990s and 2000s found refuge and received moral and material assistance in Turkey,” said Putin. “We still find them there.”
So far, there have been no arrests in the Edelgireyev case. At the time of the hit, the secure iron gates to the parking area were open due to a mechanical failure two days previously; apparently not the coincidental technical fault people had assumed. After killing the Chechen, the three assassins sped off, driving straight past a nearby police station. They ditched the car a few miles away, and disappeared into the crowds of Istanbul.