Turkey Claims Airport Bombers Were Russian, Uzbek and Kyrgyz – Georgian Ties Possible

June 30, 2016


Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

Recent Analysis and Translations:

NATO Got Nothing From Conceding To Russia In the Past, Why Should It Cave To The Kremlin Now?
Who is Hacking the Russian Opposition and State Media Officials — and How?
Does it Matter if the Russian Opposition Stays United?


Putin Lifts Restrictions on Russian Tours to Turkey, But ‘Premature’ to Say If Turkstream Pipeline Will Resume

Yesterday, June 29, the telephone conversation between President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Erdogan took place as planned. Prior to that, Erdogan had sent an expression of regret over the downing of the Russian Su-24 fighter plane last year after which the pilot was killed by militants. The statement fell shy of a full apology but was sufficient to get relations, which had drastically deteriorated, back on track.
Putin expressed condolences for the recent terrorist attack yesterday, June 28, in which 42 people were killed and hundreds wounded and emphasized the need for “activating international cooperation in the struggle against the terrorist threat, common to all.”
As kremlin.ru reported (translation by The Interpreter):

Vladimir Putin noted that Erdogan’s message had created the prerequisites for turning the crisis page in bilateral relations and beginning the process of renewing joint work on international and regional issues, as well as developing the entire complex of Russian-Turkish relations. In that context, the hope was expressed that the judicial investigation regarding the citizen of Turkey accused in the death of the Russian pilot would be objective in nature.

Putin said he would give orders to resume cooperation on trade, economic and other issues and would remove restrictions on travel to Turkey by Russian tourists. But he urged Turkey to put further security measures in place for Russian citizens. 

On October 31, 2015, Metroject Flight 9268, en route to St. Petersburg from Sharm al-Sheikh, crashed, killing all 217 passengers and crew on board. The Kremlin resisted admission that terrorism could be involved, but examination of the black boxes and debris by Egyptian, British, US and other experts led to a fairly confident conclusion that ISIS was involved. Finally, Russia issued a statement conceding that the crash was caused by terrorists.
Today, June 30, Putin announced that he had removed the ban on tours to Turkey, Slon.ru reported, citing kremlin.ru.
Charter air flights are now permitted to resume. This is a boon to Turkey’s tourist industry which has suffered because of the string of terrorist attacks, but also important to Russians who have long been familiar with Turkey and find the lower rates attractive.
Russian-Turkish relations had warmed in recent years, and the two countries planned work on the Turkstream pipeline, which was to substitute for the South Stream, shelved when relations with the EU waned over sanctions against Russia due to the annexation of Crimea.
After the Su-24 downing, the talks on the gas pipeline stalled, but industry executives would occasionally comment that they were confident that eventually they would resume because it was in both countries’ interests.
Today, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented that it was “still premature” to say whether Turkstream would resume but various pipeline routes “are now being discussed,” Reuters reported.

There is also an agreement for Russia to build a nuclear power station for Turkey.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Russian Freelance Reporter from Meduza Detained in Karelia for “Operating Without a License”
Daniil Aleksandrov, a freelance reporter for Meduza, the Russian news site in exile in Latvia, was detained by police in the Russian region of Karelia while working on a story about the June 18 summer camp tragedy in which 14 children drowned, Novaya Gazeta reported, citing 7×7.
Aleksandrov was charged with “working without a license” under Art. 19-20 of the administrative code. 
While in Karelia, Aleksandrov had met with eyewitnesses to the tragedy in which 14 children drowned, and for which two camp officials and one regional government official were arrested. Aleksandrov scheduled a meeting with Andrei Orekhov, the head of the Essoila Rural Population Administration, which governs the region where the campers drowned.
When he arrived to meet Orekhanov, police appeared on the scene and asked Orekhanov whether they knew who Aleksandrov was. He said he knew he was a reporter from Meduza. Police then said that Meduza was a foreign publication, and therefore accreditation as a foreign journalist at the Foreign Ministry was required.

Aleksandrov objected that he was a freelancer and not on the staff of Meduza, police threatened to confiscate his equipment and notes already gathered and that “the court would figure it out later.”

In lieu of facing a trial immediately, police told Aleksandrov he could sign a statement regarding an administrative violation, and suggested he leave the country. Aleksandrov chose that option, and will have to appear in court on July 6 in the village of Pryazhka. He is likely to face a 1,000 ruble ($15) fine. Orekhanov was also asked to make a written explanation of their meeting.

Aleksandrov believes that law-enforcers must have been tracking him via social media or his cell phone, since information about his trip to Karelia had not been published anywhere.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russian Press Claims Alleged Mastermind of Istanbul Attacks Was Detained For Terrorism In Four Countries But Was Let Go

Akhmed Chatayev, the Chechen native suspected of involvement in the Istanbul Airport attack, has long been known to Russian authorities as we reported earlier.

Kommersant, the Russian business daily, ran a report on Akhmed Chatayev in August 2015 when two natives of the North Caucasus were detained and gave testimony against him.

Kommersant’s report on Chatayev’s background last year came after two suspects in custody gave testimony against him.

Akhmed Chatayev, known as Odnorukiy [“One-Armed”] for the loss of his arm, perhaps during a firefight with Georgian security forces in 2012, was said at that time by Russian law-enforcers to be the “main recruiter of Russians” from the North Caucasus for ISIS. He reportedly commanded a large unit of militants in Syria, the Yarmouk Battalion. 

Chatayev is believed to be the ISIS fighter who managed the recruiters who tried to send Moscow State University student Varvara Karaulova to Syria. Karaulova, the daughter of a professor, was a student of comparative religions who became fascinated with Islam and met an ISIS recruiter online who promised to marry her. 
She traveled to Turkey but then was soon detained at the Syrian border by Turkish police and extradited to Russia where she was arrested on charges of aiding a terrorist group. The story of the middle-class ethnic Russian girl from Moscow spirited away by terrorists gripped the Russian media for months until she was forgotten  — she is still in pre-trial detention. Another former Moscow student, Maryam Ismailova, was also said to have been lured to Syria by recruiters last year but has never been found.
Two North Caucasus natives, Yakub Igragimov and Abdula Abdullayev, detained in Turkey, gave accounts that Chatayev was one of the main recruiters of Russians for ISIS. The network he ran would seek out young Russians mainly in the provinces of Russia through social media and begin corresponding with them, attempting to convince them to join ISIS. They would then arrange travel for them to Turkey, meet them, and provide them with fake ID and send them into Syria.
Chatayev became known to Russian authorities long before the formation of ISIS, says Kommersant. He was detained by Russian police for taking part in a band of militants who opposed federal forces during the second Chechen war, but for some reason was able to avoid a prison sentence. He made his way to Austria in 2003, where he was granted refugee status on the basis of his accounts of torture while in pre-trial detention, which even involved the cutting off of his arm. (According to other accounts, his arm was amputated due to a battle wound.)
Ever since, Chatayev has repeatedly turned up in various incidents. In 2008, together with other Chechen natives, he was detained on a ship that had docked at the Swedish port of Trelleborg. A car that was registered to Chatayev at the time was found to have Kalashnikov rifles, explosives and ammunition. Chatayev claimed these weapons were planted on him.
After he served more than a year in a Swedish jail, Chatayev reportedly made his way to Ukraine. There he was once again arrested at the request of Russian law-enforcers, who suspected him of recruiting fighters and weapons for the armed underground in the North Caucasus. But he was never extradited as human rights advocates were able to convince Ukrainian authorities that he had refugee status in Austria and should be under the protection of Austria. Thus, he avoided extradition to Russia. But in May 2011 was once again detained while attempting to cross the Bulgarian-Turkish border.
Then, in 2012, Chatayev was detained in Georgia in the Lopota Gorge when Georgian special forces clashed with militants. At that time, 11 militants and 3 Georgian soldiers were killed. There were also wounded on both sides, and that’s where Chatayev was said to have lost his arm. Georgian police kept him under custody, but he claimed he had no relationship to the armed band they had fought in the Lopata Gorge.  His story was that he had been contacted by the Georgian Interior Ministry anti-terrorist center and asked to help conduct negotiations with the band to secure their surrender. He said he was wounded as a bystander in the shoot-out.
A court in Tbilisi accepted his story and released him. Thus he was jailed only a few months in Georgia, and it was there that he also reportedly had his leg amputated as a result of his wounds, said Kommersant.
The Russian Prosecutor’s Office sought Chatayev’s extradition on the basis of the testimony from Igragimov and Abdullayev.
It’s important to note that this narrative from Kommersant, a media source that often leaks reports favorable to the Russian government, fits with a narrative the Kremlin often uses: that its neighbors Georgia and Ukraine do nothing to stop terrorists and let them thrive. It also pins a number of incidents on one person conveniently, e.g. management of the recruitment of the Moscow student’s high-profile case which embarrassed Russia, and the shootout in the Lopata Gorge.
Consistent with President Vladimir Putin’s general contentions about Europe, the narrative also pins blame on Sweden for letting a terrorist go and portrays their legitimate human rights concerns as well as those of Ukrainian activists as contributing to terrorism. 

All of these points are taken from the testimony of two people Russia has in custody which are the single source of the claims, a pattern often found in Russia in other terrorism cases.

The narrative is especially vague on how it came about that a Chechen who was on the radar of Russian authorities and even arrested in the second Chechen war could then escape custody in Russia with his life — and what is more, go abroad. All of this raises the issue of whether he was recruited as an informer or agent.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Akhmed Chatayev, Chechen Suspected in Istanbul Airport Attack, Once Held by Georgia, Wanted by Russia

13 persons have reportedly been detained by Turkish officials in connection with the Istanbul airport bombing. According to the Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, Akhmed Chatayev, a well-known terrorist, is among them. Citing Turkish intelligence, Yeni Safak said Chatayev was a native of Dagestan, RIA Novosti reported.

Caucasian Knot, the regional independent news service covering events in the Caucasus, has published two posts related to the terrorist attack in Istanbul in which Chechens are suspected of having been involved. At least 42 people were killed and 239 injured in the attack.

In the first post, Caucasian Knot writes that Turkish media, citing intelligence sources, have claimed that Akhmed Chatayev is said to have been the mastermind of the attack on the Istanbul Airport was involved in one of the three explosions there. Caucasian Knot writes that Russian law-enforcers have had him on a wanted list since 2003. He is said to be an ethnic Chechen and aide to Doku Umarov, the head of the terrorist group Caucasian Emirate who was declared by the FSB in March 2014 to have been killed by Russian forces in 2013.
Chatayev is said to have served as Umarov’s European representative. In 2014, Umar Idigov, a resident of the Pankisi Gorge, told Caucasian Knot that Chatayev was in Turkey. 
Chatayev was wounded and detained in a Georgian special operation in 2012 in the Lopota Gorge in Georgia, says Caucasian Knot. Georgian special forces engaged about 17 persons in an unidentified paramilitary group who had taken several people hostage in the remote gorge on the border between Russia and Dagestan.
In January 2013, a court in Tbilisi found him not guilty of charges related to the Lopota Gorge incidents. Chatayev at that time had refugee status in Austria. In 2014, Umar Idigov, a resident of the Pankisi Gorge told Caucasian Knot that Chatsyev was in Turkey. He was later included on the US Treasury’s sanctions list in 2015.

The Instanbul Bombers

The Turkish news outlet Hurriyet identified one of the Istanbul airport bombers as Osman Vadimov of Chechnya. But the Turkish newspaper Milliyet refuted that information citing a source among investigators who says all three suicide bombers were citizens of Tajikistan.

Caucasian Knot second post reports that sources in both Turkey and Russia have said Osman Vadinov is a native of Dagestan, not Chechnya.

Turkish police have made mass detentions of natives of the North Caucasus in the aftermath of the blasts at the Istanbul airport. According to Sasha Kulayev, head of the East and Central Europe Department of the International Federation of Human Rights, in an interview with Caucasian Knot, natives of the North Caucasus, particularly Chechens, have begun to be associated in the public mind with Islamist radicalization and terrorism, and therefore they are regularly accused of terrorist attacks. After the explosion March 22 in Brussels, the press named Dagestan native Marat Yunusov as among those involved but this information was never confirmed.

TASS has cited a statement by State Department spokesman Mark Toner June 29 saying there was no confirmation of the information that ISIS was involved in the airport attach. The attack could be related to the date, the second anniversary of ISIS’ announcement of the founding of the caliphate.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Is the Mastermind of the Turkish Airport Bombing A Terror Suspect Whom Georgia Let Go?

Today there is a flurry of news out of Turkey. The Turkish government has announced that the three terrorists who were responsible for this week’s terrible attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport were Russian, Uzbek and Kyrgyz nationals.

The announcement comes in the wake of anti-terrorism raids made in two cities across Turkey, resulting in the arrest of 13 suspects. The Washington Post reports:

Counterterrorism units raided 16 addresses in Istanbul and launched operations in the coastal city of Izmir, the state-run Anadolu news agency said.

Three of those arrested in Istanbul are foreign nationals, according to the report. Another nine suspects were detained in Izmir for providing logistical support to the Islamic State, but it was unclear if they are directly tied to the attack.

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Turkish police conduct raids on suspected Islamic State hideouts after deadly airport attack

Turkish police launched raids Thursday against suspected Islamic State hideouts in Istanbul and the coastal city of Izmir after officials blamed the jihadist group for a triple suicide bombing that killed 42 people at Ataturk Airport, state-run Anadolu news agency reported Counterterrorism units detained nine people in Izmir suspected of providing logistical support to the Islamic State, the agency reported.

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Jun 30, 2016 17:17 (GMT)

The Telegraph reports that one of the suicide bombers was named Osman Vadinov, who reportedly crossed into Turkey in 2015 from al-Raqqah province, ISIS’s stronghold in Syria. That report also provides additional details about the anti-terror raids:

The raids unfolded simultaneously in the working-class neighbourhoods of Konak, Bucak, Karabaglar and Bornova neighborhoods of Istanbul.

Police say they found three hunting rifles and documents relating to the Islamic State group.

The suspects were reportedly in contact with Isil militants in Syria and were engaged in “activities that were in line with the organisation’s aims and interests,” including providing financial sources, recruits and logistical support.

[An official] did not reveal the nationalities of the foreign suspects, but said it was “probable” that at least one of the Ataturk airport bombers was a foreign national.

Reuters provides a very interesting detail — according to a Turkish pro-government newspaper, the mastermind of this attack may have been a man who is already on various terrorism watch lists:

The pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper said the Russian bomber was from Dagestan, which borders Chechnya, where Moscow has led two wars against separatists and religious militants since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.


Yeni Safak said the organizer of the attack was suspected to be a man called Akhmed Chatayev, of Chechen origin. Chatayev is identified on a United Nations sanctions list as a leader in Islamic State responsible for training Russian-speaking militants, and as wanted by Russian authorities. 

What Reuters does not mention, however, is that Chatayev, who is already on the US sanctions list, has already been tried — and acquitted — for terrorism in Georgia. In 2012, a group of militants engaged in battle with Georgian counter-terrorism forces in Lopota Gorge. Chatayev was arrested, tried, but was found innocent and was released. He later resurfaced in Syria in 2015. Here is an excerpt from an RFE/RL report from last year:

Chatayev, who before his arrest had lived with his family in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, was put on trial in Tbilisi on charges of illegal weapons possession and of purchasing and carrying an explosive device. Chatayev pleaded innocent. His lawyers argued that Chatayev had gone to the Lopota Gorge in order to take part in negotiations that never took place.

The Tbilisi city court declared Chatayev innocent in January 2013 after releasing him on bail in December 2012, after which the Russian national said that he planned to fly back to Austria.

Whether Chatayev went to Austria or not is unclear, but a recent video uploaded to YouTube and shared on February 20 shows a man who appears to be Chatayev and who is named as such, in Syria. The text accompanying the video says that Chatayev is the commander of the Yarmouk Battalion, a Chechen faction in the Islamic State group. It is not known how long Chatayev has been in Syria, but he has not appeared in previous videos shared by Russian-speaking Islamic State militants.

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Russian Citizen Linked To Lopota Gorge Incident Now Heads IS Battalion In Syria

A Russian citizen arrested and acquitted by a court in Georgia in connection with the so-called Lopota Gorge incident of 2012 has apparently surfaced in Syria as the commander of a Russian-speaking Islamic State battalion. Akhmed Chatayev, also referred to as Akhmed al-Shishani, is an ethnic Chechen who was previously granted refugee status in Austria.

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Jun 30, 2016 17:39 (GMT)

So far we have not seen any evidence that Chatayev is involved in the Istanbul airport attack, but the Yeni Safak newspaper is often a place where official Turkish government leaks first appear in the press, so this angle is certainly one to watch.

James Miller