Airat Vakhitov

Airat Vakhitov is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and alleged member of ISIS. Arrested in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 1999, Vakhitov was eventually transferred to U.S. custody and held at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for two years before extradition to Russia.“The Guantanamo Docket: Aiat Nasimovich Vahitov: JTF-GTMO Assessment,” New York Times, accessed July 7, 2016, http://projects.nytimes.com/guantanamo/detainees/492-aiat-nasimovich-vahitov. He was arrested by Turkish authorities in July 2016 in connection to the June 28, 2016, triple suicide bombings at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. According to Russian security services, Vakhitov fought, recruited, and fundraised for ISIS prior to his arrest.Fatima Tlisova, “Russian Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Linked to Turkey Airport Attack,” Voice of America, July 5, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/content/russia-guantanamo-detainee-turkey-airport-attack/3405302.html.

Vakhitov was born in 1977 in Naberyozhnyj Chelny in the Russian Republic of Tatarstan.“Counter Terrorism Designations,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, July 13, 2016, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20160713.aspx. His mother sent him to a madrassa (Islamic religious school), where he reportedly outperformed his peers in religious studies. Vakhitov continued his education at a strict Turkish madrassa at which teachers reportedly beat students with sticks. He reportedly fled the school and attempted to cross into Georgia, but was stopped by Georgian border officers and detained at a juvenile prison for several weeks.Nabi Abdullaev, “From Russia to Cuba Via Afghanistan,” Moscow Times, December 18, 2002, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/from-russia-to-cuba-via-afghanistan/241435.html.

In 1991, Vakhitov enrolled in a Russian madrassa called Yildyz to become an imam. Russian authorities closed Yildyz in September 2000 after several former students were alleged to have carried out terrorist attacks.Nabi Abdullaev, “From Russia to Cuba Via Afghanistan,” Moscow Times, December 18, 2002, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/from-russia-to-cuba-via-afghanistan/241435.html. Vakhitov reportedly assumed leadership of a Salafist mosque in Tatarstan, Russia, after his graduation from Yildyz in 1996.Andrew McGregor, “A Sour Freedom: The Return of Russia’s Guantanamo Bay Prisoners,” Jamestown Foundation, accessed July 7, 2016, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=3258&no_cache=1#.V35qyI-cGM9.

Vakhitov reportedly made several trips to Chechnya during the next three years. He was arrested by Chechen forces in February 1999 for allegedly spying for the Russian government, which was struggling to contain Chechnya’s ongoing movement for independence. He was reportedly jailed for two months, during which he was regularly beaten. Vakhitov was released in April 1999, and returned to Russia as an imam at his mosque in Tatarstan. After his return, according to Russian newspapers, members of Vakhitov’s mosque said he became aggressive and would “attack people with his fists or even pull out a knife.”Nabi Abdullaev, “From Russia to Cuba Via Afghanistan,” Moscow Times, December 18, 2002, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/from-russia-to-cuba-via-afghanistan/241435.html. In October 1999, Vakhitov was forced to resign from the mosque, and was subsequently arrested by Russian authorities, following sermons in which he denounced Russia’s military actions in the North Caucasus. He was released after 10 weeks due to lack of evidence against him.Nabi Abdullaev, “From Russia to Cuba Via Afghanistan,” Moscow Times, December 18, 2002, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/from-russia-to-cuba-via-afghanistan/241435.html.

According to the Department of Defense’s Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF), in December 1999 Vakhitov traveled by train from Naberyozhyj, Russia, to Qurghonteppa, Tajikistan. He then crossed into Afghanistan and settled in the northeastern city of Imam Sab, where he was arrested by the Taliban on suspicion of being a Russian spy. He was subsequently imprisoned in Kandahar.“The Guantanamo Docket: Aiat Nasimovich Vahitov: JTF-GTMO Assessment,” New York Times, accessed July 7, 2016, http://projects.nytimes.com/guantanamo/detainees/492-aiat-nasimovich-vahitov. While he was held captive by the Taliban, Vakhitov’s mother told French newspaper Le Monde that her son had crossed into Afghanistan with others before the Taliban captured him. But Vakhitov later claimed that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) kidnapped him while he was in Tajikistan and transferred him to Taliban custody in Afghanistan.“Interview with Airat Vakhitov – Russian former Guantanamo detainee,” CAGE, October 29, 2014, https://www.cage.ngo/interview-airat-vakhitov-russian-former-guantanamo-detainee. While in detention, Vakhitov told a reporter from Le Monde that he had been held for seven months in “total darkness.” According to Vakhitov, “Two nights a week [I am] beaten until dawn and they [scream], ‘Confess, you brute, that you are the KGB agent.’”Nabi Abdullaev, “From Russia to Cuba Via Afghanistan,” Moscow Times, December 18, 2002, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/from-russia-to-cuba-via-afghanistan/241435.html. He was reportedly hung by his hands and whipped with electrical wire. Vakhitov was held for a year before he was transferred to another Kandahar prison controlled by the IMU.Andrew McGregor, “A Sour Freedom: The Return of Russia’s Guantanamo Bay Prisoners,” Jamestown Foundation, accessed July 7, 2016, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=3258&no_cache=1#.V35qyI-cGM9.

Vakhitov was transferred to U.S. control in late 2001 under unclear circumstances. He claims he was sold to U.S. forces for $5,000. U.S. authorities reportedly questioned Vakhitov on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. He said that he would reveal such information if he was given blankets and warm food. After receiving those items, Vakhitov teased that he had seen a photo of bin Laden on the cover of Time magazine. He was reportedly locked in a cell for six months following this incident. Andrew McGregor, “A Sour Freedom: The Return of Russia’s Guantanamo Bay Prisoners,” Jamestown Foundation, accessed July 7, 2016, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=3258&no_cache=1#.V35qyI-cGM9.

Vakhitov was held for a year at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Force Base.Mark Oliver, “‘They couldn’t take away my dignity,’” Guardian (London), November 18, 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/nov/18/guantanamo.usa#third. He was transferred to Guantanamo on June 13, 2002, due to his knowledge of an American citizen who was killed inside the same Kandahar prison in which he had been detained, according to the JTF.“The Guantanamo Docket: Aiat Nasimovich Vahitov: JTF-GTMO Assessment,” New York Times, accessed July 7, 2016, http://projects.nytimes.com/guantanamo/detainees/492-aiat-nasimovich-vahitov;
Fatima Tlisova, “Russian Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Linked to Turkey Airport Attack,” Voice of America, July 5, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/content/russia-guantanamo-detainee-turkey-airport-attack/3405302.html.

In December 2002, the JTF assessed that Vakhitov was affiliated with neither al-Qaeda nor the Taliban, held “no further intelligence value,” and posed no future threat to the United States or its allies. The JTF recommended that Vakhitov be transferred to the control of the Russian government. He was transferred to Russia two years later on February 27, 2004.“The Guantanamo Docket: Aiat Nasimovich Vahitov: JTF-GTMO Assessment,” New York Times, accessed July 7, 2016, http://projects.nytimes.com/guantanamo/detainees/492-aiat-nasimovich-vahitov.

Upon his transfer to Russia, Vakhitov was released by a Russian court, which was unable to produce evidence of terrorist activities.Fatima Tlisova, “Russian Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Linked to Turkey Airport Attack,” Voice of America, July 5, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/content/russia-guantanamo-detainee-turkey-airport-attack/3405302.html. One year later, he was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service for unclear reasons, and held for two months without charges. Following his 2005 release, Vahitov reportedly denounced his Russian citizenship and was granted asylum in the Middle East, though the name of his host country was not released. He reportedly lived in Istanbul for several years prior to his 2016 arrest.Fatima Tlisova, “Russian Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Linked to Turkey Airport Attack,” Voice of America, July 5, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/content/russia-guantanamo-detainee-turkey-airport-attack/3405302.html.

In June 2005, Vakhitov and the human-rights NGO Reprieve planned to file a lawsuit against the U.S. government alleging that guards had psychologically tortured him and other prisoners.“Russian who was kept at Guantanamo sues U.S. government,” Sputnik News, June 28, 2005, https://sputniknews.com/russia/2005062840774868/; Andrew McGregor, “A Sour Freedom: The Return of Russia’s Guantanamo Bay Prisoners,” Jamestown Foundation, accessed July 7, 2016, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=3258&no_cache=1#.V35qyI-cGM9. As of June 2018, Reprieve did not list Vakhitov in its open or closed Guantanamo case files.“Guantanamo Bay,” Reprieve, accessed June 4, 2018, https://reprieve.org.uk/topic/guantanamo-bay/. That November, Vakhitov spoke at the Amnesty International Summit in London about his experience as a Guantanamo detainee, and claimed to be a victim of torture at the hands of U.S. interrogators. Later, Vakhitov posted several online videos mocking the United States’ interrogation methods. He claimed the United States tortured him by using “exceptionally beautiful women” as interrogators, and claimed that Russian torture was much more physical and rough.Fatima Tlisova, “Russian Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Linked to Turkey Airport Attack,” Voice of America, July 5, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/content/russia-guantanamo-detainee-turkey-airport-attack/3405302.html.

On July 5, 2016, Vakhitov was among 30 individuals arrested and charged in Turkey in connection to the June 28, 2016, triple suicide bombings that killed 45 individuals and wounded over 230 at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. Russian authorities suspect Vakhitov of recruiting foreign fighters and fundraising for ISIS—as well as fighting in Syria and Iraq—prior to his arrest.Fatima Tlisova, “Russian Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Linked to Turkey Airport Attack,” Voice of America, July 5, 2016, http://www.voanews.com/content/russia-guantanamo-detainee-turkey-airport-attack/3405302.html. The U.S. government sanction-designated Vakhitov as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist later that month. The designation does not mention the Ataturk bombings.“Executive Order 13224 Designation of Ayrat Nasimovich Vakhitov, aka Aiat Nasimovich Vahitov, aka Airat Vakhitov, aka Aryat Vakhitov, aka Airat Wakhitov, aka Taub Ayrat Vakhitov, aka Salman Bulgarsky, aka Salman Bulgarskiy, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” Federal Register, July 14, 2016, https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2016/07/14/2016-16569/executive-order-13224-designation-of-ayrat-nasimovich-vakhitov-aka-aiat-nasimovich-vahitov-aka-airat; “Counter Terrorism Designations,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, July 13, 2016, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20160713.aspx. In November 2017, Turkey began court proceedings against 17 suspects whose identities were not publicly revealed. Vakhitov was not among six suspects released soon after the trial began.“Trial begins in Turkey over IS attack on Istanbul airport,” Deutsche Welle, November 13, 2017, http://www.dw.com/en/trial-begins-in-turkey-over-is-attack-on-istanbul-airport/a-41360914; “Istanbul Court Releases 6 Suspects in Ataturk Airport Attacks,” Sputnik News, November 16, 2017, https://sputniknews.com/world/201711161059139133-istanbul-court-ataturk-suspects-release/; “Turkish court releases six suspects on 2016 ISIS attack to Istanbul Airport,” Ahval, November 17, 2017, https://ahvalnews.com/isis/turkish-court-releases-six-suspects-2016-isis-attack-istanbul-airport. The U.S. non-profit group Truthout claims that Vakhitov was, in fact, arrested for visa irregularities, not in connection to the bombings. According to Truthout, Vakhitov’s trial was ongoing as of May 2017.Aisha Maniar, “The “Stamp of Guantánamo” Brands Russian Former Prisoners for Life,” Truthout, May 7, 2017, https://truthout.org/articles/the-stamp-of-guantanamo-brands-russian-former-prisoners-for-life/.

United States

July 13, 2016

The U.S. Department of State designated “Ayrat Nasimovich Vakhitov” as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224 on July 13, 2016.“Executive Order 13224 Designation of Ayrat Nasimovich Vakhitov, aka Aiat Nasimovich Vahitov, aka Airat Vakhitov, aka Aryat Vakhitov, aka Airat Wakhitov, aka Taub Ayrat Vakhitov, aka Salman Bulgarsky, aka Salman Bulgarskiy, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” Federal Register, July 14, 2016, https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2016/07/14/2016-16569/executive-order-13224-designation-of-ayrat-nasimovich-vakhitov-aka-aiat-nasimovich-vahitov-aka-airat;
“State Department Terrorist Designations of Aslan Avgazarovich Byutukaev and Ayrat Nasimovich Vakhitov,” U.S. Department of State, July 13, 2016, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/07/259932.htm.

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