Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Alexander Tikhomirov's life illustrates challenge radical Islam poses in Russia

By Philip P. Pan
The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; A08

MOSCOW -- He had been a bright but lonely child from a sleepy city near the Mongolian border, in a Buddhist region of Russia far from the nation's Muslim centers. But by the time he was killed last month, thousands of miles away in the volatile North Caucasus, Alexander Tikhomirov had become the face of an Islamist insurgency.

After two young women blew themselves up on the Moscow subway last week, killing 40 people in the city's worst terrorist attack in years, investigators said they suspected that Tikhomirov had recruited and trained them, and perhaps dozens of other suicide bombers.

How the schoolboy whom neighbors called Sascha became the tech-savvy militant known as Sayid Buryatsky remains a question wrapped in rumor and speculation. But the outline of Tikhomirov's journey from the Siberian steppes to the mountains of Chechnya provides a sense of the challenge that radical Islam poses in Russia and the speed with which the insurgency in the nation's southwest is changing.

In less than two years with the rebels, Tikhomirov became their most effective propagandist, drawing in young Muslims with his fluent Russian, colloquial interpretations of Islam and mastery of the Internet. When security forces gunned him down last month at age 27, the guerrillas immediately cast him as a martyr.

Even in death, he remains influential. The rebel leader Doku Umarov has vowed fresh attacks in the Russian heartland by the brigade of suicide bombers that Tikhomirov helped revive. And he remains a digital legend, with his writings and videos preserved on the Web and his DVDs sold outside mosques across the former Soviet Union.

Neighbors in Ulan Ude, capital of the Siberian province of Buryatia, remember Tikhomirov as an awkward boy from a troubled family. His father was Buryat, an ethnic minority related to Mongols, and died soon after he was born. His mother, said to be an ethnic Russian, struggled to make ends meet at a local market.

One resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of police scrutiny, said Tikhomirov's interest in Islam came after he was forced to drop out of high school and attend vocational school. Others traced it to a stepfather from the Caucasus.

But in a letter posted on a rebel Web site, Tikhomirov's mother said he was simply drawn in by a library copy of the Koran when he was 17. "That same year, he started to search for people who could tell him anything about Islam," she wrote.

Tikhomirov may have had an early brush with Islamic extremism and Russia's heavy-handed efforts to stamp it out. An Uzbek preacher named Bakhtiyar Umarov moved to his city about the time he converted, and Tikhomirov studied with him, acquaintances said. After Umarov caused a stir by trying to build a mosque, Russia deported the preacher to Uzbekistan, where he was jailed on charges of "terrorist propaganda." But his defenders insist that he is a moderate and could not have radicalized Tikhomirov.

In his late teens, Tikhomirov moved to Moscow, where he attended an Islamic college that the authorities later closed in a crackdown on suspected extremism. He then traveled to Cairo, where he studied Arabic and attended lectures by Muslim scholars, one of whom he cited years later to justify violence in the name of Islam.

In 2003, he returned to Moscow, telling friends that the Egyptian authorities had kicked him out for his religious activities. He took the Muslim name Sayid, calling himself Sayid Buryatsky.

But he seemed far from ready to join the rebels in the North Caucasus. Investigators say he took a job as a low-level assistant to the Russian Council of Muftis, which unites the nation's Muslim spiritual boards.

Suppressed by the czars and the Communists, Islam has enjoyed a fitful rebirth in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Most of the nation's estimated 20 million Muslims are ethnic minorities who adhere to a moderate branch of the faith. But radical views have made inroads, fueled by foreign proselytizers and frustration with state-backed spiritual leaders.

Acquaintances say Tikhomirov embraced a movement known as Salafism, which argues that Islam has been corrupted over the centuries and urges a return to the stricter practices of the earliest Muslims. The movement is popular among young Muslims in Russia, but the security forces often target its adherents as extremists.

Russia's traditional Islamic leaders have tried to steer young people toward moderate views, but a severe shortage of mosques, due in part to state limits, has made that difficult. In Moscow, six mosques serve as many as 3 million believers, the largest Muslim population of any city in Europe.

Aslam Ezhaev, director of an Islamic publishing house, said Tikhomirov voiced frustration with Muslim officialdom and eventually returned to Buryatia, where he took a job as a warehouse guard and offered to translate Arabic books for him.

Ezhaev suggested that Tikhomirov start a podcast for his Web site, Radio Islam. Tikhomirov proved be a talented preacher; his lectures were an immediate hit.

Ezhaev said he opposed violence and forbade Tikhomirov to discuss jihad. "It was easy for him to stay within the limits," he said. "I didn't see any signs of fanaticism."

On the Web, radicals criticized Tikhomirov for refusing to talk about Russia's brutal efforts to crush the insurgency in the Caucasus, where rebels in 2007 declared jihad to establish an Islamist emirate.

In the spring of 2008, Tikhomirov received a recruitment video from a senior rebel commander. "I considered it probably three or five seconds," he recalled in a video of his own, then concluded that God was challenging him to back up his sermons with action.

Because of his mixed ethnicity, he quickly became a powerful symbol for an insurgency trying to expand beyond Chechnya to the rest of the Caucasus. His sermons, which he filmed in combat gear, weaved scripture with sarcasm, striking a chord in an impoverished Muslim region brimming with resentment against the security forces.

Tikhomirov called the screams of injured enemies "music for the ears" and detailed his central role in the campaign of suicide bombings that began last summer with the revival of Riyad-us Saliheen, a brigade that once staged attacks across Russia.

"While I am alive," he wrote in December, "I will do everything possible so that the ranks of Riyad-us Saliheen are broadened and new waves of mujaheddin go on to martyrdom operations."

On March 2, when security forces surrounded him and other fighters in a village in Ingushetia, Tikhomirov recorded a final sermon on his mobile phone, officials said. The authorities recovered the phone, along with a 50-liter barrel of explosives.

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