Last Monday, just a few days after tragic events at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, a man named Abdurrahman Azan added two photos on his Facebook page. The first one showed two machine guns of Russian origin placed on snowy ground. He made it his cover photo. The second showed him carrying an RPG, a shoulder-launched anti-tank weapon.
Abdurrahman Azan, who just a few years ago was still known as Ivan Sazanakov, is the first man of Estonian origin in the ranks of terrorist Islamic fighters in Syria. This was revealed in a joint investigation by Eesti Päevaleht and Pealtnägija (an investigative programme of Estonian public broadcaster ERR).
Sazanakov left Estonia in the summer of 2013 and at that time nobody knew his intentions. Amir (name has been changed), a member of Estonian Muslim community said that as far as he knew his friend went to study Arabic. But he never returned.
It is thought that Sazanakov met his recruiters in Egypt. From there he went on to Turkey and eventually to Syria. At the end of the same year his wife Lolita and two small daughters followed him there. “It was said that he lived peacefully in Turkey,” said Amir. “Now I saw his pictures on internet with guns. I was shocked.”
A route through Taekwondo
Not much is known of Sazanakov’s background. He grew up in Lasnamäe (a suburb of Soviet style housing blocks of Estonian capital Tallinn). He went to school there, finished the ninth grade of School number 65, but never attained secondary education.
Afterward he worked at Norfolier Baltic factory which produces plastic bottles and packaging. However this came to an end when the company went bankrupt in 2012. Eesti Päevaleht has established that before leaving for Syria Sazanakov did not even say goodbye to his family, nor did he indicate where and why he was travelling. His family does not know where he is. “I don’t know anything; I have no contact with him. I would be happy if I knew something,” said Ivan’s mother.
Sazanakov was a stateless resident of Estonia – he did not have citizenship. He was not born a Muslim, meaning he is a convert who changed his religion. Sazanakov’s basic knowledge of Islam came from Estonian Muslim community and mosque, where he was taught both Arabic and religion. Eesti Päevaleht has been told that his interest in Islam began with Taekwondo. As late as in 2012 he represented Tallinn Katleri Taekwondo club and won an Estonian Championship round in kickboxing.
It is thought that he was introduced to Islam by a Muslim trainer of the same club, Kazbulat Shogenov. However, it must be stressed that there is nothing connecting Sazanakov’s initial introducer to the religion to later radicalisation.
Therefore it is understandable that Shogenov remains tight-lipped when speaking to Eesti Päevaleht. “It is a delicate topic, when words I could say, can grow into something very bad,” admits Shogenov. He firmly distances himself from Sazanakov, in spite of photos in public domain that clearly show the friendship between the two. According to Shogenov they only trained together for a short while and then parted ways – he himself leaving for PhD research in Italy.
One of the trainers of Katleri Taekwondo club is also the Deputy Mayor of Tallinn, Mikhail Kõlvart. He and Sazanakov went to a completion in Russia together, which gives a clear idea of Sazanakov’s standing in Estonian Taekwondo circles.
Pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia
The leader of the Estonian Muslim community, Chief-Mufti Ildar Muhamedzhin is also not keen to speak about Sazanakov, although both of them feature together in several photos. “Neither I or the mosque want to have anything to do with such people and things,” says Muhamedzhin. “You name some names, but what’s there for me to do? Therefore I sincerely apologise and would not like to say anything about this topic.”
After converting to Islam, Sazanakov (his parents are Russian-Orthodox) became an active visitor to the mosque and studied some Arabic to understand the Quran. Arabic was taught by Muhamedzhin himself. Together they also went to a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia - participants of such trips are selected by the Chief-Mufti himself.
His friend Amir stresses that Ivan’s current beliefs are certainly not a result of teachings he got in Estonia, and have been shaped by extremist teachings abroad. Sazanakov spent time to research his religion on the Internet and shared those materials keenly with others. “If you look at the materials he shares… I can completely understand if you look all the time at such materials, you can get the urge to turn to guns,” says Amir about Sazanakov’s current posts.
Lure of martyrdom
We ask Amir if he can point to examples of materials that could have influenced his friend. He pauses for a long thought and then starts speaking quietly, even solemnly: “According to Islam, if a person dies swearing he does not have any god besides Allah, he goes straight to Paradise. It is true for hospital bed as well as battle. Ilham (this was Sazanakov’s first Muslim name) was apparently excited about this. When I was with him, he showed me videos of executions, where people say this at the very last moment before they die. He was proud of these people. I don’t know – maybe he wanted to die in a similar way, as a martyr?”
Right after converting, according to Amir, Sazanakov was a peaceful and good-hearted man. But soon after that he became withdrawn and more serious, his views more and more radical. Amir remembers that, though they did not speak about the faith outside the mosque, at some point his friend started to talk about men who became martyrs in Middle-East. Ivan looked for information on his religion on the internet and his views changed. Then came the moment when he told his friend that his wife Lolita had also accepted Islam. “He was very happy about that,” says Amir. The family was raising their young daughters also in the spirit of Islam, but Amir does not think they were subjected to radical views. “They were raised like ordinary children. It was an ordinary Estonian family, who practiced Islam.”
Lolita’s family makes it clear that they treat it as family business and do not wish to add anything on the record. But disagreements within family members can be found on social media, where mother and convert-daughter argue about the contents of the Bible. Both Ivan’s and Lolita’s posts contain radical thoughts. They still maintain on social media that they live in Turkey although evidence points to their new life in Syria.
“Yes, we can confirm that according to our information, this person left for Syria in 2013, with an aim to participate or support fighting there,” answered the spokesperson of the Estonian Security Police Harrys Puusepp a question about Ivan Sazanakov.
The Security Police said already last year that some persons have gone from Estonia to Syria. “Unfortunately it cannot be ruled out that further persons would not be going from Estonia to Syria as such interest has been expressed,” added Puusepp yesterday.