When Islamic State posted this footage online on Dec. 2, it
brought the distant Syria conflict home to ordinary Russians. Here,
in high-definition video, appeared to be one young Russian killing
another for reasons few people could understand.
It also opened up another mystery.
The prisoner and alleged spy in the video said his name was Magomed
Khasiev, that he was from Russia's mainly Muslim region of Chechnya,
and that he worked for Russian intelligence.
Pro-Kremlin Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov quickly denied Khasiev was
But interviews with more than a dozen people who knew Khasiev in
Russia suggest the 23-year-old man had connections to both Muslim
groups and Russian security and seemed to live a double life.
An ethnic Russian born to a non-Muslim family in Russia's industrial
heartland, Khasiev spent his teenage years among Chechens who knew
him as a devout Muslim and a fluent Chechen speaker. Some of his
Chechen friends went off to fight for Islamist militants in the
Middle East, and encouraged him to join them.
In his other life he associated with non-Muslims, had a friend in
the police, and had a license from the Interior Ministry to work as
a security guard, according to a former teacher, a friend, and staff
of several security companies. For some purposes, including his
work, Khasiev used the name he was given at birth: Yevgeny Yudin.
If his testimony on the video is to be believed, Khasiev ended up
caught in the murky world between official Russian involvement in
the conflict in Syria and the jihad that several thousand citizens
of Russia and other former Soviet republics have joined.
Neither Russia's Federal Security Service – the intelligence agency
Khasiev claimed he was working for – or Russia's Interior Ministry
responded to requests for comment on the case.
According to his file at an orphanage in Chechnya, Khasiev was
raised for the first decade of his life by his mother, an ethnic
Russian. When he was 10, she handed him to the orphanage for reasons
the file does not make clear. Soon after, the documents show, his
mother died of tuberculosis.
In the orphanage, Khasiev, or Yudin at that time, learned Chechen,
gave himself the Muslim first name Magomed and converted to Islam.
The former head of the orphanage, Ruslan Yusupov, remembers Khasiev
playing with his own children and grandchildren. "He was soft as a
kitten. He loved attention and care so much."
After three years, Khasiev was adopted by a Chechen family and took
the last name of his adoptive mother Markha Khasieva. But she
returned him to the orphanage a year later because of tensions
between her and other relatives. Khasieva told Reuters she had
nevertheless stayed in touch with the boy and cared for him.
In 2008, Russia's then Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliev, visited
the orphanage to talk to potential new recruits for the Suvorov
academy, an new elite military school.
According to orphanage staff, Khasiev, then 16, was keen to enroll
but was rejected as too old. His best friend at the orphanage,
Minkail Temiev, did qualify.
Khasiev was sent to a college in Maykop, capital of the
predominantly Muslim Russian region of Adygeya, some 500 km (310
miles) from the Chechen capital Grozny.
There, according to friends and family, Khasiev moved in two sets of
In one, he maintained his Chechen identity and stayed in touch with
his adoptive family and old friends, including Temiev. According to
orphanage staff, Temiev in fact followed Khasiev to Maykop.
At college, Khasiev was registered by his Russian name. But he told
teachers he wanted to be called Magomed. "At first, he corrected his
teachers," his supervisor Tatiana Maystrevskaya recalled. "I told
him: Once you change your documents, I will call you Magomed. He
didn't object to that."
Acquaintances outside college, many of them Chechens, always knew
him as Magomed. "He wasn't any different from us, he spoke pure
Chechen. Many people didn't even know he was Russian," said one of
Khasiev's Chechen friends.
Khasiev eventually changed his name officially to Magomed Khasiev by
applying for a new passport, according to Viktor Zyzin, a close
friend and an ethnic Russian.
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But despite his insistence on using a Muslim name, Khasiev did not
appear to be a Chechen nationalist or radical, Zyzin said. A 2011
posting on Khasiev's account on Vkontakte, the Russian version of
Facebook, shows him posing next to a poster of Chechen strongman
Ramzan Kadyrov. The Chechen leader helped the Kremlin defeat a
Muslim insurgency in the North Caucasus and is considered by Muslim
militants to be an infidel.
And Khasiev had plenty of non-Muslim friends, including Zyzin and an
ethnic Armenian called Grant.
In the video of his beheading, Khasiev describes Grant as an old
acquaintance and the conduit to Russian special services through
which he passed the intelligence he collected on Islamic State
A Chechen friend of Khasiev told Reuters Grant served in the police.
Two other people who knew Khasiev, including Zyzin, said they had
met Grant but did not know where he worked.
Reuters has not been able to establish Grant's family name or other
details about him. Officers in the regional police department of
Adygea and the city police of Maykop said nobody of that name worked
for them. The Interior Ministry in Moscow did not reply to a request
At the end of 2013, Khasiev was hired by Sherif M, a security
company in Maykop. According to Anzor Takhumov, head of a local
security guard school, Khasiev had applied for an Interior Ministry
license to work as a guard a few years earlier using the name Yudin.
That was also the name he used to get his job.
Just a few months after he began working, Zyzin said, Khasiev sold
an apartment he had bought under a Russian government scheme
designed to help orphans.
It is not clear how he ended up in Islamic State territory in Syria,
but members of Khasiev's adoptive family in Chechnya suspect his old
friend Temiev may have played a role.
They believe Temiev had become radicalized. Markha Khasieva said her
adoptive son had told her that Temiev had tried to recruit him to
join Islamist fighters, but that Khasiev had rejected the offer. She
remembers Temiev showing up at a funeral wearing a long beard, a
style often associated with followers of hardline Islam. Family
members joked that he looked like Karl Marx.
According to people who knew him, Khasiev enjoyed drinking and
dating girls and showed no sign of Islamist sympathies. "He did not
have any extremist views," said Ruslan, Markha Khasieva's nephew.
Nevertheless, Khasiev left Russia at some point last year. His
adoptive family in Chechnya had little idea where he had gone. "We
thought he was off working somewhere," said Malika Khasieva, his
Khasiev did keep in touch with his Russian friend Viktor Zyzin,
sending him messages from the outskirts of Kobani, a Syrian town
near the border with Turkey that was the center of a battle between
Islamic State and Kurdish forces.
Zyzin said he believed his friend went there to follow Temiev. But
he quickly discovered that Temiev had been killed, Zyzin said,
citing messages Khasiev had sent him.
In his messages, Khasiev referred to his fellow fighters as
"brothers" and started using common Islamic expressions more and
more often. Zyzin said his friend told him "he simply collected dead
bodies ... He told me he was tired of picking up pieces."
The last message from Khasiev was in February. Zyzin had asked his
friend to come home.
"He said that he may come to visit. But at the end he wrote that he
got tired. He sent voice messages. Back then I realized already,
that he would not come back. There is simply no way back from
(Edited by Christian Lowe and Simon Robinson)
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