The Chechen teen who decapitated a teacher in France was reportedly training at a “largely-Chechen” MMA facility in Paris that has now been identified by French police as a “hotbed for potential extremists.”
The news was reported in the wake of a nationwide investigation into the gruesome attack. Abdoulakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee, beheaded French high school teacher Samuel Paty earlier this month after Paty showed cartoons in his classroom depicting the Prophet Muhammad, an act that is blasphemous in Islam. Paty had presented the cartoons as part of a presentation on freedom of speech.
Anzorov was shot dead by French police shortly following the attack.
An investigation for murder with suspected terrorist motives has been opened. At least nine suspects have been arrested so far, including the Chechen teen’s grandparents, as well as his 17-year-old brother. The suspect’s half-sister reportedly joined the Islamic State in Syria in 2014, though it is not clear where she is now.
The New York Times later reported that Anzorov was “passionate about mixed martial arts” and joined an MMA gym that had a “Chechen coach with a good reputation among athletes.” The deceased teen’s goal was to eventually join the UFC. The gym was later investigated by French police after reports emerged that members prayed in the locker room and that women were required to cover their arms and legs, a violation of French law with is governed by strict secularism.
While the NYT report did not confirm whether the gym had any influence on Anzorov’s radicalization, investigators across Europe have since warned that these gyms frequented by Chechens are a hotbed for potential extremism and are also being used by the Chechen government.
“These clubs have played significant roles in terrorism, organized crime, and ethnic violence, and the level of popularity they have in the Chechen, or even Russian Muslim, community is extraordinary,” the investigator told Business Insider.
The investigator’s mention of the Chechen government is in reference to Ramzan Kadyrov, the republic’s long-time dictator responsible for countless atrocities committed within the republic’s borders, including the reported persecution of LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya. He is also the founder of his own MMA club, Akhmat MMA, which has affiliates across Russia, Asia, and Europe, including in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ulyanovsk, Togliatti, Kazan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Germany.
Kadyrov has long used MMA as a form of soft power and sportswashing – a term coined by Amnesty International in 2018 to describe authoritarian regimes using sports to manipulate their international image and wash away their human rights record – within his republic. He has associated with a long list of notable celebrities and athletes, including former UFC champions Frank Mir, Chris Weidman, Fabricio Werdum, Frankie Edgar, and Khabib Nurmagomedov, to name a few. However, his decision to create affiliate gyms across Euorpe and Asia was done with the purpose of expanding his sphere of influence beyond his own borders, and to keep an eye on the Chechen diaspora.
An example of this is Timur Dugazayev, a former boxer turned manager who refers to himself on his Instagram account as “Kadyrov’s representative in Germany.” Dugazayev has taken an active role in mediating relations between Kadyrov and the Chechen diaspora in countries like Germany, where he resides. In 2015, he organized a meal for 800 Chechen refugees in one of the most acclaimed restaurants in Kiel, a port city on Germany’s Baltic Sea coast. The event took place during the holy month of Ramadan and was sponsored by Ramzan Kadyrov himself, who reportedly paid 10,000 euros to cover the costs of the food and venue. The one-off Ramadan feast made headlines in Germany, some claiming outrage over Kadyrov’s involvement, while others alluded to the self-serving nature of Kadyrov’s supposed donation.
Dugazayev also arranged a rally for Kadyrov in Hamburg with the support of the infamous Night Wolves, a motorcycle gang with ties to Vladimir Putin. He has also helped launch fight clubs in Germany at Kadyrov’s behest.
“…and now we realize these are the clubs filled with [Chechen President Ramzan] Kadyrov’s guys — they’re loyal to him and to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” the investigator added.
While Kadyrov first denounced the despicable killing on his social media, he most recently stated that French President Emmanuel Macron’s justification that cartoons of the Prophet are protected by free speech will inspire more extremism.
“You are forcing people into terrorism, pushing people towards it, not leaving them any choice, creating the conditions for the growth of extremism in young people’s heads. You can boldly call yourself the leader and inspiration of terrorism in your country,” Kadyrov wrote.