26 May 2024 07:11 AM



"Russian Spy" Karava's Execution by ISIS: Is There More Than Meets the Eye?

MUMBAI: Terrorist groups do not normally give details how they frustrate intelligence penetration into their ranks unless it is for propaganda advantage.

Last time we heard of such an incident was the killing of “Colonel Imam” by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) whose execution video was released on February 19, 2011. Imam whose real name was Sultan Amir Tarar, was an important ISI operative who had trained several senior Afghan Mujahideen leaders in the 1980s. He was also ISI’s liaison officer for CIA officers and political leaders like Congressman Charlie Wilson during their visits to the Afghan Mujahideen. When Taliban was created by Gen.Naseerullah Babar in the 1990s during Benazir regime, Col.Imam was Pakistan’s consul general at Herat, providing financial and military support to Taliban. Despite his long association with frontier terrorists, TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud supervised his execution suspecting that he had turned into a spy in later years for unnamed foreign powers. That was also a message to the United States.

Also, terrorist groups guard their method of operations like national intelligence agencies. They reveal only controlled information which would suit their propaganda and not other details, especially on their vulnerabilities. ISIS intelligence is professionally managed by Saddam era officials and not by whimsical Jihadis as we see in Hollywood-Bollywood films.

It is therefore very surprising that ISIS had, on its own, admitted a Russian intelligence agency’s penetration for 4-5 years into their group in the May issue of their “Istok” magazine. This was picked up by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) who published it on 9 May 2016 quoting long excerpts from their statement that they had executed a woman named Elvira Karaeva belonging to its Caucasus affiliate. It gave names of her victims and their photographs. It also narrated details of their investigation method compared to that of the cruel “unbelievers”: “But the warriors of Allah, mujahideen who work in the Caliphate's investigating bodies, do so in the fear of Allah, following His orders and observing His interdictions. Questionings are held in a respectful manner, without humiliation of human dignity or crossing any borders”.

What could be the reason for this admission?

For analyzing this we need to wind back into 2015. On November 4, 2015 Russian news agency “Regnum” reported from Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, that a criminal group headed by Daria Itsankova, a former student of Astrakhan Medical Academy was noticed collecting funds for ISIS. She was assisted by 3 girls identified as Elvira Karaev, Elena Arshahanova and Pauline Atemaskiina. When police spotted them, Itsankova managed to escape to West Asia. From there she requested the girls to send funds to her through bank transfer. They had collected about 45,000 roubles but the police prevented the money transfer. The case was lodged in the North Caucasus Military Court. The report also said that one week earlier 20 Chechen students were detained in Moscow on their way to join ISIS.

The “Regnum” report was in Russian which went unnoticed by the English Press. After the“Istok” announcement on May 9, some Russian knowing ISIS watchers in USA dug deep into this incident and tracked the November 4 “Regnum” report. Their enquiries revealed that two of the above arrested girls had pleaded guilty while there was no mention about the fate of Elvira Karaev whose name resembled Elvira Karaeva, now executed.

In my opinion there could be two reasons for this confirmation. The “Istok” report said that Elvira helped Russian agents in the Caucasus Province for four years exposing location of safe houses, secret bases, and positions. “Our mujahideen brothers, as well as sisters who helped them, became martyrs due to her direct involvement…In total, the investigators proved Elvira's involvement in the martyrdom of six brothers and one sister; they are: Shakhbiev Adam, Abu Muslim, Amriev Artur, Gochiaev Biaslan, Totorkulov Temurlan, Dlugoborskiy Valentin, and Urusova Marina”.

This is convincing propaganda to the faithful that ISIS continues to have effective influence abroad, even in Russia, unhindered by their bombing. One year earlier the Al-Hayat media group, ISIS’s propaganda wing had released a shocking video on 14 January 2015 of a Kazhak child shooting dead 2 men described as Russian agents. The 7 minute video “Uncovering the Enemy Within” was in Russian with English and Arabic subtitles. CNN which carried this video identified the boy as Abdullah. ISIS propaganda gets more credible when global media retransmits such videos.

However I am more worried about a second reason. Did ISIS outwit and frustrate Russian intelligence operation by focusing on their conventional tradecraft of foreign penetration by feigning that their spy was a fugitive from their country?

There are ample instances in intelligence history that Soviet and Satellite services had always planted their agents in foreign countries by using a smokescreen that they were fugitives from their home country and against whom criminal cases were registered at home. East German Security Minister Erich Mielke and Stasi chief Marcus Wolf had used this tradecraft successfully. They had even used wanted Nazi criminals who had fled abroad to spy for them. We should remember that the ISIS intelligence is manned by Saddam era specialists (Mukhabarat) who had close contacts with Soviet intelligence. Did they spot an obscure Russian language report from Makhachkala on November 4, 2015 and interpret it as a penetration attempt by Russian agencies?

My advice to our agencies is not to feel smug of having controlled ISIS threat to India as Home Minister Rajnath Singh had announced on September 9, 2015 by a few arrests here and there. Despite Iraq’s claim that the ISIS held area has shrunk to 14% now, the ISIS could penetrate into the heart of Baghdad on May 11 and trigger a ghastly triple car bomb blast killing 94.

(The writer is a senior retired officer of India's external intelligence agency)