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From Wrestling Mats to Battlefields: The trend of Caucasus athletes turned Islamic insurgents

Karim Zidan delves into the terrifying trend of Dagestani athletes who follow a dark path after retirement.

On Wednesday, September 28, former freestyle wrestler Chamsulvara Chamsulvarayev was killed by a U.S. drone strike in the Northern Iraqi region of Mosul. The Dagestani wrestler and naturalized Azerbaijani citizen had defected to the Islamic State (ISIS) and was operating as a key recruiter of Caucasus fighters for the insurgency. He specialized in recruiting young women to their cause. He is believed to have radicalized a pregnant teenager who blew herself up in front of the Istanbul tourism police station in 2015.

"His job in ISIS was hiring young girls and making them suicide bombers," reported a news site.

Chamsulvarayev, a bronze medalist at the 2007 FILA Wrestling World Championships, was killed along with four other victims when their car was blown up by a drone attack.

Given his sinister role with ISIS, few will likely mourn Chamsulvarayev's demise. However, his death sheds light on the disturbing trend of Caucasus athletes, mainly from Dagestan and Chechnya, who choose to fight in the Islamic insurgencies of Syria and Iraq.

Infecting Sports with Extremism

Chamsulvarayev was born in the Sergokalinsky district in Eastern Dagestan, a region that suffered from local terrorism for many years. The so-called ‘Sergokalinskaya group' damaged a telephone transmission mast in May 2010 and attacked police officers and technicians at the scene, killing eight people. The terrorist group also murdered the head of the Sergokalinsky Regional Police Station. The final member of the terrorist group was eliminated in 2012.

That same year, North Caucasus police found a bunker in a Sergokalinsky forest that contained two flamethrowers, two pressure-fused bombs, and nine homemade bombs, seven of which weighed 105kg. Yet that news barely made headlines, as shootouts between terrorists and the police are commonplace in Dagestan. In fact, many local Dagestani athletes have lost their lives because of the ongoing feud.

For its part, the Sergokalinsky district has organized various meetings and seminars for schoolchildren to "create negative attitudes towards terrorism and extremism." Yet while that may help prevent an increase in the rate of Islamic conscriptions with future generations, the problem is already endemic.

Back in 2014, Dagestan's deputy Sports Minister Zainal Salautdinov revealed concerns that extremism was infecting the country's gyms and sports halls.

"Recently, there were reports that Dagestanis in the Azerbaijani wrestling team had gone to Syria to fight. Dagestani athletes are falling under the influence of extremists in training camps, when they go to pray." (h/t

Yet when asked what preventative measures were being taken to protect gullible and impressionable youth, he simply stated that "youth are shown films about the dangers of terrorism."

Too little, too late.

Salautdinov's comments came shortly after Jeyhun Bayramov, another Dagestani wrestler turned Azerbaijani citizen, was killed while fighting for ISIS. One year later, two-time World champion and Olympic champion in Freestyle wrestling, Sagid Murtazaliev, was put on the international wanted list on suspicion of killing officials and financing terrorist organizations. Murtazaliev was the head of the Dagestan branch of the Russian pension fund and was a deputy to the Legislative Assembly of the Republic of Dagestan representing the loyalist ‘United Russia' party.

Murtazaliev was also considered a close ally of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and was reportedly one of Kadyrov's tools for establishing control over Dagestan. While Kadyrov's grand ambition is to gain control of the entire North Caucasus region, one of his strategies is the elimination of Salafism (Islamic fundamentalists) in Dagestan in order to replace it with his brand of Chechen Sufism (mystical Islamic teachings now propagated by Chechen media). The religious warfare plays a part in the rise of extremism in Dagestan following the 2nd Chechen War.

Wrestling: A Double-Edged Sword in the Caucasus

When discussing radicalization through sports, the Dagestani district of Khasavyurt remains one of the hotbeds of Islamic insurgency. The city that borders Chechnya once belonged to the larger republic until Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin expelled the Chechens from their homeland in 1944. For many years, it was one of the regions that Kadyrov had his eyes on to increase his scope of influence in the North Caucasus.

Khasavyurt is also home to one of the largest Salafi Muslim groups in Russia. During the Chechen wars, Khasavyurt was a place where insurgents were given shelter and were supplied with food. The city also offered up a fair portion of the soldiers who fought against the Russian Federation. Local Dagestani authorities shut down a mosque this year that allegedly spread Salafist ideology and served as recruiting ground for ISIS.

Khasavyust also happens to be home to some of Russia's most talented combat sportsmen.

Many of the gyms operating in Khasavyurt help keep aspiring athletes away from extremism. Students begin at age 15 and are indoctrinated into a strict regimen that includes training multiple times a day. With ambitions to become Olympic champions and to escape poverty through social mobility, many wrestlers choose their profession over extremism.

"If we rip away all the wrestling gyms, if we close all the gyms and say that your sport is no longer in the Olympics, that will increase crime, that will increase banditry, that will increase all negative things of that nature," said European wrestling champ Zaur Bataev.

While the gyms remain essential for Russia's sports socialization strategy, an attempt to assimilate the North Caucasus, they are now outnumbered by madrasahs (religious schools) that many of the students attend between training. Despite sports being seen as an antidote to extremism, that is primarily applicable to those talented enough to emerge from poverty into Russia's social elite. Freestyle wrestling legend Buvaisar Saitiev is a fantastic example of how exceptional talent can alter one's life forever. Kadyrov's father, Akhmad, recruited Saitiev to become the public face of the sports socialization assimilation program -€” the gold standard for what young men should strive for in Chechen society.

Many others have limited opportunities outside of sports and end up following much different paths. Ramazan Saritov, who nearly made the cut for the Olympic team in 2004 and 2008, was the leader of a rebel group wanted for car bombs and other forms of local terrorism. He was killed by security forces in 2012, even though he lived on a generous stipend from the Russian government. Many others died in shootouts that year, including a 15-year-old wrestling champion and a 19-year-old Thai boxer.

"Some are forced into it," Adam Saitiev told TIME. "Others get fed up with the security forces. They get arrested once, twice, and soon it's easier for them to go somewhere and start shooting back."

The North Caucasus was put through two wars (1994-96 and 1999-2004) which turned the region into a fertile land for Islamic insurgency. The nationalist movement that emerged in the 1990s became a radical religious assault. Following Ramzan Kadyrov's rise to power in 2007, Islamic groups have become government targets in Chechnya. Discussions surrounding independence or an Islamic Caliphate are swiftly (and viciously) dealt with by Kadyrov, a Putin loyalist.

"It is effectively illegal to advocate separation or independence for the North Caucasus, so most of those who oppose what they perceive as Russian ‘colonial' domination conclude that they have only one active outlet -€” to join the jihadists," John Russell, an emeritus professor of Russian and Security Studies from the U.K.'s University of Bradford, told AA

Depending on the path chosen, sports can lay a peaceful foundation for an enhanced lifestyle or serve as a catalyst for violent extremism. Much of that depends on the individual, their past experiences, and what little hope lies in their future. Sometimes it is easier to fire back at a common enemy than to jump through hoops to join them in society.