Austria's Chechens fight back against lure of IS jihad

Chechens in Austria doing martial arts (April 2016)
Image caption The parents of these Chechen boys hope that learning martial arts will keep them away from Islamists

Over the past three years, 270 Austrians have gone to fight with so-called Islamic State (IS) and other rebel groups.

Austria is second only to Belgium in the number of foreign jihadists per capita who have left a European Union country to fight in Syria and Iraq.

More than half of them were of Chechen origin. But, in recent months, efforts by the government and by the community mean that fewer are setting off for the Middle East.

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Image copyright AP
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On a Vienna housing estate, a martial arts class is underway.

The boys, who come from Austria's marginalised Chechen community, are learning Latar Do, a new form of martial arts.

Their parents hope that sport will keep them off the streets - and out of the hands of radical Islamists. Around 150 Austrian Chechens have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq in the last three years - and families here are nervous.

"The boys have a lot of energy, a lot of power," their trainer Adam Bisaev told me. "If we don't channel that, they could do drugs or go and fight. This is the opposite. It is good for their future."

Thirty thousand Chechens live in Austria, making it one of the largest Chechen communities in Europe.

Life is not always easy for Chechens here. Adam Bisaev, who came to Vienna as a refugee in 2003, says they often face prejudice.

He founded the club, which also provides language classes, to help people integrate. Two years ago, in response to the increasing numbers of radicalised youth, he helped set up a Chechen council to focus on the good example set by many young Chechens in work or studying.

"As a community we weren't well organised," he said.

"For parents it's not simple to bring up their children in this society. They lose control, the community loses it and then the young people receive proposals: You can go to Syria and be a hero.

"Since we've had the Chechen council, the first question has been our youth."

It is not just Chechens in Austria who have gone off to be foreign fighters.

The phenomenon has affected other minority communities here - notably those of Bosnian, Balkan and Arab origin, as well as a number of Austrian converts to Islam.

In 2014, two Viennese Bosnian teenage girls, Samra and Sabina, went to Syria, where they reportedly married fighters from so-called Islamic State.

Austria's teenage victims of jihad

Image copyright Interpol
Image caption Interpol released these photos of Sabina Selimovic (L) and Samra Kesinovic (R)
  • Austrians were shocked when it emerged that teenagers Sabina Selimovic and Samra Kesinovic, both born in Austria to Bosnian refugee parents, had fled to Syria to join IS
  • They were aged just 15 and 16 respectively at the time of their disappearance
  • They reportedly left notes for their families saying: "Do not search for us - we will be serving Allah"
  • It has since been reported that both girls have been killed, but there has been no official confirmation from Austrian authorities

A Muslim preacher, Mirsad Omerovic, known as Ebu Tejma, is currently on trial, accused of recruiting young Austrians to join IS.

But over the past year, the number of Austrians setting off to become foreign fighters has decreased. Karl Heinz Grundboeck, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, says that IS propaganda "is not so effective now."

"We have more information and co-operation with the communities and it is not so easy for Daesh [IS] to convince people to join this fight.

"Secondly we have had a number of successful investigations resulting in arrests."

Image caption Around 30,000 people of Chechen origin live in Austria

Mr Grundboeck says Austria is focusing on a double track of prevention and law enforcement, working with teachers, youth workers and official Muslim community organisations.

A telephone hotline has been set up for people concerned about extremism.

Another NGO, Women without Borders, aims to help mothers from vulnerable communities recognise and deal with signs of radicalisation in their children, as well as build bridges with the authorities.

One of their trainers, Chechen journalist Maynat Kurbanova, said it had been a great shock for the community when young Chechen men in Austria went to fight in Syria.

Image caption Chechen journalist Maynat Kurbanova said the community has become more open

"I believe that at the beginning of the war, at least, they saw the fight against [Syrian President] Assad as a fight against Putin and against Russia," she said. "They couldn't go to fight in Chechnya, but it was simpler to go to Syria. And then there were the radical preachers and the internet which encouraged more of them to go."

For Chechens in Austria it was a wake-up call. "It made them realise they needed help. The community is much more open now."

While fewer Austrians are going to Syria, 80 foreign fighters have since returned to Austria. Many are in prison, and are being closely watched by the authorities.