The shooting in broad daylight of Abdulvakhid Edelgireyev a key Chechen Islamist figure who fought with an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria is the latest in a series of audacious killings of foes of the Russian state in the Turkish city

Abdulvakhid Edelgireyev survived for years hiding in the Chechen mountains, launching attacks on Russian security force and scaping capture. He survived the battlefields of Syria, and those of east Ukraine. But in November his life came to an abrupt aim in a commotion of bullets: he was shot dead in broad daylight in Istanbul as he embarked on a shopping trip-up with his three-year-old niece.

Edelgireyev and his niece strolled out of their apartment block in Kayasehir, a far-flung suburb of nondescript new towers, shortly before 2pm on 1 November. The 32 -year-old Chechen sat the girl in the passenger seat of his automobile, and was about to start the engine when a white automobile rammed into them from behind, shutting him in. Pushing his niece on to the floor under the seat, Edelgireyev scrambled out and started operating. One of the assassins devoted chase, firing at him, and he crumpled to the ground. When paramedics arrived a few minutes later he was already dead, in a pond of blood. He had been shot five times.

The dead mans biography, as set out by family and associates, paints a picture of a key figure in the Caucasus Emirate, the umbrella group of Chechen and other fighters in Russias North Caucasus that has resorted to terrorist techniques, including suicide attacks on Moscows metro and Domodedovo airport. Edelgireyevs experiences during the course of its year in Syria also uncovered how the Chechen resistance fight has slowly grown links to Islamic State, and the infighting and turmoil among the foreign fighters in Syria.

The murder is the latest in a pattern of audacious hittings on key Chechen figures in the Turkish city over recent years. Personal foes of Chechnyas Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, have been killed in Moscow, Vienna and Dubai; there are suspicions members of Kadyrovs militias may have been involved. But Turkish attorneys suspect the Istanbul assassinations may have the hallmarks of more centralised Russian hits.


Chechnyas strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov( centre ). Photograph: Musa Sadulayev/ AP

There has been no official comment on the murders. However, in 2003 Vladimir Putin passed a statute letting the FSB, Russias security service, to conduct operations abroad, and now Russia and Turkey have fallen out dramatically over the downing of an Su-2 4 warplane by the Turkish air force in November, there are fears among potential targets in Turkey that the campaign could be stepped up.

In one 2009 murder, the weapon utilized was the Groza, a handgun developed for Russias special forces for use in assassinations and rarely found on the open market. In the murders of three Chechens outside an Istanbul teahouse in 2011, Turkish authorities believed nine people were involved, including two alleged Russian agents who fled, leaving fake passports behind.

The only man to be arrested for any of the killings is a shadowy figure who goes by the nickname the Zone. Believed to be Chechen, the Zone was apprehended trying to enter Istanbul on a fake Georgian passport in the name of Temur Makhauri in 2012. He is currently on trial in Istanbul for his alleged role in a number of the previous assassinations; the key proof is secretly videotapeed video of the Zone meeting with a human claimed to be an FSB agent and discussing the murders of Chechens. The prosecution is calling for a life sentence.


The mosques and minarets of Istanbul, where several thousand Chechens escape from conflict. Photo: AdamWoolfitt

Several thousand Chechens live in Istanbul, where there were once three refugee camps for Chechens. But as well as civilians, the Turkish city has become something of a base for Chechen fighters and their families. For years, the children and spouses of rebels lived in the city, and injured fighters would travel there for treatment.

All Istanbuls Chechens involved in the Caucasus Emirate now live in fear of attack. One who recently left Istanbul for Ukraine said he often changed his sim cards and always carried a handgun when in Turkey: he might not be able to escape demise but perhaps he would at least get a shot off at his attackers. The Guardian also tracked down several Chechens building very cautious movements near a petrol station in a remote suburb of Istanbul, where “the mens” took turnings to act as lookouts. We are required to take many precautions, regrettably, said one of “the mens”, who wished to remain anonymous.

In the working day before he was killed, Edelgireyev had not noticed anyone following him, and was not taking any serious precautions, according to his family. But the well-built Chechen, with short hair and a wispy ginger beard, was a key figure in the Chechen insurgencys diaspora, associates said.

To start with, Abdulvakhid was not a fighter

Edelgireyev was born in 1983 to Chechen mothers in Russias Volgograd region. He finished school and planned to study statute at university, but when Vladimir Putin launched the second Chechen war in 2000, the family moved back to Chechnya. Three of his brothers joined the rebellion, carrying out attacks on Russian forces.

To start with, Abdulvakhid was not a fighter, but he was abducted so many times by the security forces who wanted information on his brothers, that he eventually decided he would be better off going to the wood himself, said his father, 71 -year-old Alu Edelgireyev, over tea at his Istanbul home, simply two blocks from where his son was murdered.


Alu Edelgireyev, the father of slain Abdulvakhid Edelgireyev. Photo: Shaun Walker for the Guardian

Over time, Abdulvakhid became close to Doku Umarov, the self-styled emir of the Caucasus Emirate, a group containing rebranded Chechen independence fighters who now sought to proclaim an Islamic state across the North Caucasus. In 2009, he injured his leg in a trap, and Umarov told him he should leave the mountains and get therapy. Like many Chechen fighters before him, he went to Turkey.

Edelgireyevs three brethren were all killed in shootouts with Russian forces-out between 2008 and 2010, a period when local security force loyal to pro-Kremlin leader Kadyrov utilized violent tactics to crush the rebellion, killing many fighters and promising to burn down the homes of family members who did not give up information.

Local security force tortured Edelgireyevs father for information about his sons whereabouts, he claimed. They came for me all the time, he said, asking where my sons were. They beat me, and tortured me with electric shocks. They attached wires to my thumbs and feet and wound up this machine with a handle, like from an old movie. In the end, a relative paid police 200,000 roubles( then about PS4, 000) as a bribe to release the old man, who left Chechnya, and eventually moved to Istanbul to join his son in 2010.

By this time, Abdulvakhid Edelgireyev had undergone two operations on his injured leg in Istanbul and was seen as a key representative of the Caucasus Emirate group in the city. He was helping to channel fund and provisions back to the Caucasus, one source said.


A screengrab from a 2013 video demonstrating Doku Umarov, the leader of the Caucasus Emirate terror group and once one of Russias most wanted humen. Photo: AFP/ Getty Images

By 2012, he was ready to fight again, but conditions in Chechnya had become almost impossible. The Chechen source now living in Ukraine explained how things get progressively harder from 2004, when mobile phones began to be widespread in Chechnya.

Before, we would go to the villages, stock up and expend the night, and then go back to the wood, but thats impossible now. Everyone has a mobile phone; the minute you show yourself youre dead.

Until a few years ago, people operate supply routes from Istanbul through Georgia and over the mountains into Chechnya; the spouses of fighters would also traveling this style for annual sessions with their spouses. But since 2012, Georgia has introduced tougher border controls, putting many Chechens on a banned listing so they cannot enter the country in the first place. Food that reaches the fighters has often been poisoned by security services or their informants; it is believed that this is what killed their emir, Umarov, last year.

Faced with the choice of almost certain demise in Chechnya, or a new, exciting Islamic war in Syria, Edelgireyev preferred the latter. The source in Ukraine said that until a year ago, recruiters for Isis and other rebel groups would solicit Chechens in Istanbul quite openly, although they have now moved more underground. Russian security services have estimated there are at least 2,000 people of Russian origin fighting in Syria, principally from the North Caucasus.

Our struggle was always about Russia

Edelgireyev left Istanbul in 2013 to fight with Caucasus Emirate fighters who had moved to Syria. However, there was an acrimonious divide when Omar al-Shishani, a Georgian-born Chechen who had previously served in the US-trained Georgian army, decided to merge the group with Isis.

Edelgireyev knew Shishani , now considered one of the leading Isis commandants, well: their spouses were sisters. But he bided with the remnants of the Caucasus group that did not join Isis, instead pledging themselves to Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida-linked group in Syria.

Our struggle was always about Russia, he wasnt interested in Isis, said his father. Edelgireyev returned to Istanbul a year ago, disillusioned with the chaos in Syria.

In recent months, some of the remaining mid-level Caucasus Emirate commandants still active in Chechnya and the other mountainous republics of southern Russia have pledged their allegiance to Isis, causing a divide in the movement. A source in Istanbul linked to the insurgency said: The battle in Syria and the seeping of Islamic State ideology back to the Caucasus has harmed our image a lot. We are trying to bringing everyone back together and make a joint statement that our main and only enemy is Russia.

Earlier this year, Edelgireyev got the opportunity to fight the old enemy again, spending three months in Ukraine, where a number of Chechens have joined with Ukrainian forces-out to fight the Russia-backed rebels. However, after a few months he was asked to leave by the countrys security services after they discovered his past, his father claimed. The Ukrainians told the Chechens it would look bad if the west found out they had terrorists in their midst, he said.


Chechen Emirate leader Doku Umarov, centre, poses with two unidentified fighters in an image believed to have been taken in 2010. Photograph: HO/ AFP/ Getty Images

So, he came back to Istanbul, where he was one of the top representatives of Vilayat Nokhchicho, the Chechen sector of the Caucasus Emirate, and responsible for fundraising, an associate said.

Many of the Chechens killed in the Turkey makes over recent years were linked to fundraising for the rebellion, and the chain of shadowy assassinations indicates Moscow has opted the clinical removal of key figures rather than angry public rhetoric, while Ankara has not seemed to set much effort into hunting the killers.

Russia has accused Imkander, a controversial NGO that operates from a suite of offices near Istanbuls grand Fatih mosque, of aiding the Chechen insurgency. In 2013, Russia unsuccessfully lobbied the UN to set Imkander on a listing of terror supporters for links to al-Qaida.

Imkanders president, Murat Ozer, says the group is apolitical and has no ties to the rebellion. It has had no trouble from Turkish authorities because they know the accusation is nonsense, Ozer said, adding that its main tasks are helping with accommodation and schooling for refugees from the Caucasus.

We are helping all refugees in Turkey, and are neither supporting nor resisting the Caucasus Emirate, this is not what we do, said Ozer, in an interview at its term of office, a bank of screens on his desk relaying footage from various security cameras. The group receives frequent menaces, and they often notice people watching the office or following them.

Ozer insisted the group entirely repudiates attacks on civilians, although a resolution of a 2012 seminar on the Caucasus held in Istanbul, organised by Imkander and chaired by Ozer, nations: We salute Doku Umarov and the other mujahideen, who are continuing the sacred battle of our ancestors in the Caucasus mountains today.


Flowers laid at Domodedovo airport the day after 37 people were killed in a suicide blast in January 2011. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/ AP

The statement went well after Umarovs Caucasus Emirate took responsibility for a 2009 train bombing and a 2011 suicide attack at Moscows Domodedovo airport, which killed 37 people.

Now relations between Russia and Turkey have soured over the downing of the Russian plane, the quiet adoption of the status quo by both sides could change. Without cordial bilateral relations to salvage, Russia might become more brazen in its attempts to hunt Chechen insurgents wherever it receives them, while Turkeys intelligence could set more endeavour into comprehending the murderer or attempt more advertising for the trial of the Zone, which has been low-key up to now.

Kadyrov recently criticised Turkey on his Instagram account for sheltering terrorists, while Putin mentioned Turkish government help for terrorists in his annual address to Russias elites in December. We remember that the militants who operated in the North Caucasus in the 1990 s and 2000 s found refuge and received moral and material assistance in Turkey. We still find them there, said Putin.

So far, there have been no arrests in the Edelgireyev case. At the time of the hitting, the secure iron gates to the parking area were open due to a mechanical failing two days previously; apparently not the coincidental technical defect people had assumed. After killing the Chechen, the three assassins sped off, driving straight past a nearby police station. They ditched the car a few miles back, and disappeared into the crowds of Istanbul.

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