The Jihadi bride
This sweet, delicate polyglot girl once went by the name of Varvara Karaulova. In May 2015 she left her parents and her philosophy course at Moscow State University to elope with her Islamic State boyfriend, but after just two weeks returned home to a media frenzy.
As half of Russia knows, the now 21-year-old found her true love online, but her chosen one turned out to be a recruiter for Islamic State.
She is now known as Alexandra Ivanova. Her parents say she was forced to change her name – after returning to Moscow (and before criminal charges were brought) she needed to start a new life and protect herself from the glare of publicity.
Such a story could happen anywhere in the world, but this one bears a few uniquely Russian traits. For a start, in late December 2016, a Russian court sentenced the accused to four-and-a-half years in prison, having heard only the prosecution and completely ignoring the defence.
Varvara Karaulova went on trial in October 2016, charged with intent to join a terrorist organisation. Before facing the court, Karaulova spent a year in detention. The roughly five months between her return to Russia and subsequent arrest were spent at home, but under the watchful eye of the intelligence services, who initially claimed that Karaulova was only a witness, not a suspect.
Needless to say, her flight across Turkey and Syria in the name of love failed to impress the state prosecution: “I can imagine that young people can feel a certain liking for each other online, but let’s not call it love. After all, they hadn’t even telephoned or Skyped each other,” said public prosecutor Reznichenko during the pleadings, stressing that if Karaulova had not been intercepted at the Syrian border, she would probably have become a terrorist.
Neither did the three stern-faced military judges delve too deeply into the romantic feelings of the accused: “Ivanova [Karaulova] decided to join Islamic State. She shares the ideology of this organisation and saw her ultimate goal as the creation of an Islamic caliphate,” they adjudicated, choosing to turn a deaf ear to the defendant’s own words. Perhaps they should have listened to her: “I am not a terrorist and never wanted to become one. I never wanted to hurt or harm other people… For me, he wasn’t a member of an organisation, but a man I loved. I totally agree this love was like an illness… I really want to put it behind me.”
In May 2015, having organised a search, Vavara’s father, Pavel Karaulov, brought her back from Turkey, where she had been picked up by immigration officers on the Syrian border. However, it was after their return to Moscow that the most difficult period began for Varvara and her divorced parents: she fell into a severe depression, yet had to deal with the FSB almost daily. They had bugged all her smart devices and were sure that she was still in touch with her beloved Islamic State recruiter (by now the three-year-old virtual relationship was weighing heavily on Varvara). Varvara’s mother, Kira Karaulova, saw with her own eyes how the FSB officers dictated messages to her daughter: “They needed her to keep up the correspondence, only this time under their control. It was like giving an alcoholic a bottle. Varya found it increasingly difficult to do.”
Meanwhile, the FSB sometimes managed all by themselves. “We gave them all our passwords and logins. Then Varya saw that messages were being written in her name. We thought we were doing the right thing,” said the girl’s father after the verdict.
All correspondence pertaining to the case is crucial, because at the trial the FSB denied any involvement, asserting that after her return to Russia, Varvara re-established contact with the Islamic State militant of her own volition. In addition, the court expert (an FSB officer, according to Kira Karaulova), having analysed all the correspondence, decided that Varvara’s intention was to link up with Islamic State, not her future husband. The court accepted the conclusion unreservedly; although it is still unclear what Varvara wrote herself; what was dictated to her and what was added on her behalf.
The Karaulovs’ lawyer, Ilya Novikov (who defended Nadezhda Savchenko), was under few illusions: “The state preferred jail to redemption — that much is clear from the court verdict. No one cares if you’re a victim of brainwashing. If you’re involved in any way at all, they’ll put you away.”
“To reduce terror attacks, sometimes it’s necessary to punish the innocent,” pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov says candidly – a paradox that Voltaire would have loved.
As for public opinion, it was split in two. Here are two typical responses:
Satorie Khasimoto: “She didn’t do anything, didn’t kill or steal. Why such a long sentence? Just for trying to cross the border? She didn’t even get across, didn’t take part in any fighting! Extremist militants and commanders with blood on their hands are amnestied and pardoned, but Karaulova gets thrown in jail! It’s an outrageous injustice and utter stupidity!”
Vera Zamyatina: “I have one question for all those who feel sympathy for this ‘girl.’ Don’t you realise she wanted to join a group that decapitates people in cold blood in front of the cameras? She went voluntarily. God only knows why. They’re not short of local brides over there.”
What can one say? We’re reminded of that well-known Russian phrase: “It’s worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.”