In July 2017, video of a naked child found in the ruins of Mosul circulated widely online. The boy, pointing to an Iraqi flag on one of the buildings, told the Iraqi soldiers it belonged to the unbelievers.
The 4-year-old, later identified as Bilal Tagirov, was a Chechen who had been brought by his father to join the Islamic State. News of his impending return to Chechnya was widely reported in Chechen and Russian media. And no one was more enthusiastic about the boy’s return than Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya, known for his love of social media and frequent Instagram postings.
Russian television showed Kadyrov talking by videoconference with the four-year-old, who was still in Iraq. Bilal was reportedly discovered along with his father, an Islamic State fighter found injured in the ruins of Mosul. Upon learning about the father and son, Chechnya’s leader immediately ordered assistance to ensure their quick return to Russia.
On his Instagram account, Kadyrov announced that Bilal would soon embrace his mother (the father took his son to Iraq without her permission). On Aug. 2, at the airport in Grozny, the highest officials of Kadyrov’s regime welcomed home a terrified Bilal.
Kadyrov, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, aspires to be the leader of Muslims throughout Russia. Rescuing innocent victims from Islamic radicalism in the Middle East allows the Chechen president to play that role, as well as that of a man ready to forgive his enemies.
But according to Russian-speaking fighters and sources in the Syrian opposition, there’s another explanation for Kadyrov’s seeming concern about orphans: He’s also collecting Chechens who were allegedly sent to infiltrate the Islamic State.
The Chechen leader has claimed there are between 70 and 120 children from the former Soviet republics still in orphanages around Mosul. Authorities in Moscow claim that up to 400 children, Russian citizens, may still be in Syria and Iraq, according to Anna Kuznetsova, Russia’s children’s rights commissioner.
Identifying them, especially the youngest ones, is difficult or impossible. Some speak only Chechen and may not even be from Russia, since many Chechens live in diaspora around the world. Many don’t know their parents’ names or know only the aliases they used during the fighting. Unidentifiable, the children remain in orphanages in Iraq and Syria, one legacy of what the end of the caliphate has left behind.
In mid-September 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that after the liberation of Mosul and Tal Afar, about more than 1,000 Islamist jihadis and their family members surrendered to the Kurdish Peshmerga. The men were supposed to be imprisoned, but according to a former Russian-speaking leader from the Islamic State, those captured were shot, and the women and children were placed in camps controlled by the United Nations.
The former Islamic State leader told me there were several dozen more fighters who fled from the Islamic State, along with their families, but were scared to give up for fear of being killed.