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'Cyrillic Jihadists' Bring Discipline to IS in Syria

Militant Islamist fighters on a tank take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province, Syria, in 2014. (Reuters)

Militant Islamist fighters on a tank take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province, Syria, in 2014. (Reuters)

Russian-speaking militants are the second-largest group of foreigners fighting for the Islamic State militant group.

Nearly 5,000 fighters from the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have joined IS, according to the Soufan Group.

The largest number of IS fighters – more than 6,000 – came from Tunisia, Soufan said. Soufan provides intelligence services to governments and businesses.

The Russian-speaking fighters are among the Islamic State’s most brutal fighters. Some are part of the IS leadership.

They have settled mostly near the Syrian city of Raqqa, where IS has made its capital. Many brought their wives and children. They are raising their children to be future militant fighters, sources told VOA.

While their customs, race and ethnic background differ, these fighters have one thing in common -- they can read and write Cyrillic script. Cyrillic is the writing system used in Russia, which controlled the now independent Central Asian nations for decades.

In their homes in IS-controlled Syria, residents can hear Friday prayers in Russian. Children study math and the Koran at a Russian- language school. Products from their home countries are sold at a Univermag Russian store.

The men are experienced fighters, according to Salem al-Hammoud. He is a civic activist from the IS-controlled Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. He now lives in Turkey.

“These fighters are very different from others in terms of discipline and military training compared to their Arab and African counterparts,” Al-Hammoud said.

Some fought for Georgia in the 2008 war against Russia.

“Given their combat experience, fighters from the North Caucasus are regarded as particularly strong fighters,” said Edward Lemon. He is a researcher at the University of Exeter in Britain.

Some were drawn to the Islamic State by lack of jobs in their former Central Asian communities or in Russia.

Babajon Karabayev is a former IS fighter who returned to Tajikistan.

Karabayev was unhappy when he could not find work in Russia. Karabayev received money from IS. But he said left the group because he was not as committed as other fighters.

Many of the Russian-speaking fighters come from migrant worker communities in Russia.

Noah Tucker is managing director of, a website focused on Central Asia. He said Islamic State does a good job convincing Central Asian Muslims that their problems could be solved by joining the militant group.

He said IS tells potential recruits: “You are Muslims, and your problems are caused by those who oppress Muslims.”

Some experts said Russia encouraged militants to travel to Syria. Tucker said the Russian air force was able to bomb the Russian speaking fighters in Syria “with a level of impunity,” not possible in Central Asia.

I'm Christopher Jones-Cruise.

Mehdi Jedinia reported on this story for Sirwan Kajjo, Fatima Tlisova, Firuz Bartov, Saeid Al-Kanassi and Mumin Ahmadi contributed to this story. Bruce Alpert adapted this story for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

brutal adj. extremely cruel or harsh

de facto - adj. used to describe something that exists but that is not officially accepted or recognized

disciplinen. control that is gained by requiring that rules or orders be obeyed and punishing bad behavior

counterpart – n. someone or something that has the same job or purpose as another

combatn. active fighting especially in a war

particularlyadv. more than usually

convincev. to cause someone to believe that something is true

encouragev. to tell someone to do something

impunityn. without fear of punishment