In the Eastern District of New York, on 19 July, a criminal complaint was unsealed against Ruslan Maratovich Asainov, described in the press release as a “naturalized U.S. citizen born in Kazakhstan”. According to the release, Asainov is to be charged with providing and attempting to provide “material support, including training, services, and personnel” to a terrorist group, namely the Islamic State (IS), which he joined in 2013 and rose through the ranks to become an emir. Asainov was captured by the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), the Coalition’s anti-IS Kurdish partner force, and handed over to the FBI, before being returned to America this month. The maximum penalty for these charges is twenty years imprisonment, and it is likely the U.S. government will be seeking additional charges in the indictment. The case raises an interesting question over the gaps in knowledge about IS.
The criminal complaint explains that Asainov, 41, lived in Brooklyn from 1998 until he left the United States on 24 December 2013 to join IS. Significant parts of the criminal complaint dealing with Asainov’s journey to IS are redacted, but it is revealed that Asainov flew on a one-way ticket from John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, to Istanbul, where he landed on 25 December 2013. Asainov checked into a hotel in Istanbul, and checked out on 27 December. Asainov then travelled into south-eastern Turkey and crossed the border into Syria, probably using a smuggler, before joining IS.
In August 2014, Asainov was reported by an FBI confidential informant (CI), who had first met Asainov in 2008 and “communicated with him intermittently thereafter”, to have posted on an online chat room “congratulating all Muslims on their gains in Syria”, referring to IS’s declaration of the caliphate and use of the weapons captured in Mosul to overrun Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria over the preceding two months. That same month, Asainov said IS was the “real deal” and his “faith in Islam had been renewed since arriving in Syria”.
Asainov spoke with the CI regularly between August 2014 and March 2015 on a “particular mobile messaging application”, almost certainly either Telegram or WhatsApp. The CI has shared screenshots of these conversations, and various recordings, with the FBI.
Asainov tried to recruit the CI to IS, urging that his fluent English would be useful to IS’s media (propaganda) operations and offering him a monthly stipend of $50, plus housing and food. Asainov told the CI to bring his family to Syria to help IS colonise its new statelet (“even grandmothers are coming”, Asainov said). This attempted recruitment will form a pillar of the criminal case against Asainov for trying to provide (in this case, human) resources to a terrorist group.
Asainov threatened death on somebody in January 2015:
You will be fucking scared for the rest of your life. We will get you. We will fucking kill you. You heard of ISIS [REDACTED] We will get you. You need to obey. You need to be punished you fucking [REDACTED] We will find you and teach you how to behave.
It is unclear whether this was conveyed to the target orally on the telephone, via text message, or on an encrypted app because much of the context is redacted.
Around the same time, Asainov said, in a separate message, “we are the worst terrorist organization in the world that has ever existed” and voiced a desire for martyrdom.
In March 2015, Asainov asked the CI for $2,800 in order that he could purchase a scope for his rifle. The CI refused. This request is interesting because if Asainov really wanted the money for the advertised purpose, then it suggests he was not very well-connected within IS if he was being thrown into battle without proper equipment. If Asainov did not need military equipment, then it looks more like an effort to implicate the CI in a crime and was perhaps part of Asainov’s effort to recruit him to IS.
In April 2015, Asainov spoke of being on the battlefield and it being “pretty hot since they [i.e., the U.S.-led Coalition] started bombing us”. It was around this time that Asainov sent the CI two pictures of himself in IS combat fatigues, assuring his interlocuter that he “didn’t mean to show off”: this was “normal” within the caliphate, Asainov said, and “for you it’s motivation )”, the single bracket being the way many Russian speakers represent a smile emoji.
In his conversations with the CI, Asainov referenced fighting in Kobani, Deir Ezzor, and Tabqa.
The detention memorandum released by the Justice Department says Asainov was “recently” transferred from the SDF into U.S. custody, and arrived back in the U.S.—at JFK Airport—on 18 July.
It is in the detention memorandum that details are given of Asainov’s status within IS. Based on an interview with “at least one” person “who provided material support” to IS, Asainov “rose through the ranks to become an ISIS ‘emir’ in charge of training other ISIS members in the use of weapons”, specifically sniper rifles. Asainov is also alleged to have “helped to establish training camps for ISIS fighters to train the fighters in the use of weapons”.
There need not be a contradiction between Asainov ostensibly needing outside help for basic military equipment, and his being an emir; it is quite possible, as mentioned above, that he never needed help to get access to military equipment at all, and even if he did this was early on before his promotion. It would be useful to have this point clarified at the trial, however.
Assuming Asainov was an emir and a military trainer as alleged, it is perhaps not that surprising that his name has not been picked up before now. After all, the most senior known American in IS, the late Ahmad Abousamra (Abu Sulayman al-Shami), one of the architects of Rumiyah Magazine (which succeeded Dabiq) who worked alongside IS’s “general caretaker” Wael al-Fayad (Abu Muhammad al-Furqan), is only known because IS chose to tell us about him.
If there is a broader meaning to this case, it is underlining the changed information environment around IS. There was a time some years ago when we were fairly well-informed about IS’s leadership. This was less true by the time of the caliphate’s collapse in late 2017, though things were still far from total opacity. At present, despite some recent disclosures from IS—which expanded what we know about some historical figures, confirmed the deaths of some contemporary leaders, and introduced us to some important, heretofore unheard-of individuals—we just do not know very much about IS’s leadership structure.
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UPDATE: Asainov, also known as Sulayman al-Amriki and Sulayman al-Kazakhi, was indicted in a Federal court in Brooklyn on 3 September 2019. The five counts were: “conspiracy to provide material support to ISIS; providing material support to ISIS in the form of personnel, training, expert advice and assistance and weapons; receipt of military-type training from ISIS; and obstruction of justice.” If convicted, Asainov could be given life in prison.