When it comes to implementing the goals set by the Kremlin, the Russian domestic secret service FSB has always been uncompromising. Several assassination attempts against dissidents have been carried out by the secret service. One of the most spectacular was the poison attack on Alexei Navalny, Russia's best-known opposition politician. The FSB also uses former convicts or followers of the Islamic State to carry out such operations. Men like Baurzhan Kultanov.
Kultanov was born in 1991 in Astrakhan, Russia. With almost five hundred thousand inhabitants, the city is located in the Volga Delta. And although it is over 100 kilometers from the Caspian Sea, fishing and trade still shape the lives of the people there today. The Kazakh border is also just under 70 kilometers away. Many Kazakhs live in Astrakhan.
Baurzhan Kultanov is also ethnic Kazakh. In 2012 he moved back to Kazakhstan, where he married and his first daughter was born. He supports his family by selling clothes from China. In 2013, when the Syrian civil war was in its second year, he saw videos on social media showing the suffering of the population. It is the moment when Kultanov decides to go to Syria himself to help the people in the fight against the Assad regime. He is 22 years old then.
At the end of October you will travel by plane from Moscow to Istanbul. This is proven by excerpts from a Russian departure database that are available to the editorial team. From Istanbul he then reaches the Turkish-Syrian border. When he arrived in Syria, Kultanov, like all new arrivals, first went through a military camp in Khan Tuman in northern Syria. He is there for a total of a month, he reports in the interview. The Islamic caliphate of the later IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did not yet exist at that time. “At this point, the Free Syrian Army was still fighting side by side with the Al-Nusra Front against Assad,” said Kultanov, who was quickly caught up in the seriousness of the war.
In December 2013, his group was surrounded and under siege and shelling for two months before the fighters were given the opportunity to retreat to Raqqa. Shortly afterwards, in June 2014, al-Baghdadi proclaimed the caliphate in the Grand Mosque in Mosul, Iraq. In Raqqa, Kultanov joins the Islamic State.
At that time, IS acted like a magnet for radicalized Muslims from all over the world. Propaganda videos are flooding social media praising the fight against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. In fact, the terrorist group has achieved notable military successes in Syria and Iraq within just a few months. Raqqa is chosen as the new capital. At the Islamic State, Kultanov also meets many fighters from Europe. "From Germany, from France. Actually from all over the world. But since I didn't speak English or Arabic, I was accommodated in a Russian-speaking group. With a lot of Chechens and Dagestanis."
However, in the fall of 2014, Kultanow began to have doubts about the legitimacy of the terrorist organization. "It must have been in September when I started to understand that the Islamic State worked exactly like an intelligence service. Islam was just a pretext for a reign of terror. There was a unit that was similar to the FSB. We couldn't get along express themselves more freely."
He decides to break away from IS. After a short stopover in Mosul, he initially tried in vain to get to Turkey via Syria. Together with his wife and little daughter. The terrorist militia's border guards intercept them at the border. Only after a few days in captivity did Kutlanov manage to leave the country.
In Ankara, he tried to apply for political asylum through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the grounds that he would be persecuted in Russia because of his religion. He hides his membership in IS, now listed as an international terrorist organization. Kultanov doesn’t get any help. He himself is already in the focus of the FSB.
Because of his unclear asylum status, Kultanov is currently in immigration detention with several other fighters for several months. "At around 4 a.m. they came to my cell. I don't know who they were exactly. They just said that I should pack my things. Then I understood that they wanted to take me back to Russia," he says.
In order to avoid extradition to Russia, Kultanov slits his wrists on the way to the airport. He survived. A later attempt to escape at the airport also failed. From Istanbul he is flown directly to Moscow, where Russian security forces are already waiting for him. They take him from Moscow to Astrakhan, where he falls completely under the control of the local FSB unit - and shortly afterwards has to make a difficult decision.
"The FSB employee said to me: Either you sign this confession or we will shove a pipe up your ass and then you will sign everything to us!" If convicted of being a member of a terrorist organization, he could face up to 20 years in prison. Kultanov signs everything that is presented to him.
This reduces his sentence to four years. He spends several months in solitary confinement and has to endure numerous interrogations by the secret service, he reports. At this time he was also assigned his personal FSB handler – Alexander Vladimirovich Gushin, also born in Astrakhan. Kultanov was finally released from prison in June 2019. Gushin is now his constant contact with the FSB. And he is very specific with his wishes and demands: Kultanov should help spy on Russian IS networks.
For terrorism expert Peter Neumann from King's College London, this is not an unusual occurrence. “Virtually every secret service in the world tries to recruit terrorists or former terrorists as informants.” And Islamist terrorism has been a big issue in Russia since the two Chechen wars. "The situation became worse in the 2010s when many fighters from the Caucasus joined the Islamic State in Russia," explains the expert. “The CIA’s old “MICE” rule still applies when recruiting former terrorists,” Neumann continued. According to the expert, ex-terrorists usually turn away from their old comrades and allow themselves to be recruited by a secret service for four reasons: they want money, they have changed their beliefs or are disillusioned with the terrorist group (ideology), they will forced or blackmailed, at the FSB often combined with Kompromat (Coercion) or they have a great need for recognition (Ego).
Vladimir Ossetchkin also knows that the Islamic State has always been of greater interest to Russian intelligence. The founder of the human rights organization gulagu.net tells our editorial team about several attempts by the FSB to infiltrate the terrorist militia. Ossetchkin is also familiar with Kultanov's case.
From summer 2019 at the latest, the FSB will be working on preparing Kultanov for his first mission. He gets a new identity and is now officially called Muhammad Abdullaevich Usmanow. This is what it says in the passport documents that he presented to the editorial team. And that's how it is recorded in the Russian database, which the star was able to see.
The FSB wants former IS fighter Kultanov to volunteer in Ukraine to infiltrate Isa Akayev's group. This is what it says in a letter that Kultanov presented to the editorial team. Akayev is the commander of a Muslim volunteer battalion and a figurehead of the Crimean Tatars. He has been resisting the Russian occupiers since 2014. Akayev regularly appears as a conversation partner in the Ukrainian media. Four days after the outbreak of war at the end of February 2022, he addressed Russia's Muslims in an internet video demanding not to support Putin's war. His Crimean battalion, said to be around 100 strong according to a Reuters report, fought in the Kiev region at the start of the war. Later also in the Battle of Kherson.
Kultanov seems predestined for infiltration. He speaks Russian and knows the mentality of the Crimean Tatars, many of whom were born in Uzbekistan after Stalin's deportation. And he has combat experience in Syria.
Kultanov is being prepared for the operation in Crimea by another FSB agent: Vadim Stetsenko. Stetsenko is actually a native Ukrainian and originally comes from Sevastopol in Crimea. Until the annexation of the peninsula, which violated international law, he was an officer in the Ukrainian secret service SBU. In 2014 he defected to the FSB and has since been wanted in Ukraine under an arrest warrant for treason. He is registered in Astrakhan until the end of 2022. Then in Krasnodar. This emerges from an internal dossier and passport documents that the editorial team was able to view. In contrast to Gushin, who has at least one deleted VK profile, there is little publicly known information about Stetsenko, no profiles on social networks and no public photos.
Kultanov is able to stall the two FSB agents and dissuade them from their original plan. "I explained to them that it would be easier for me to come to Ukraine through Turkey because I know Turkey and I have many connections in Turkey that could help me come to Ukraine," he reports . Obviously he can convince with this.
Instead of traveling to Ukraine, he travels to Turkey several times with his new identity. "They gave me $5,000 and told me to go to Turkey for two months to adapt." He travels from Moscow to Istanbul several times, most recently in February 2023.
He then contacted human rights activist Ossetschkin, to whom he reported his situation. Ossetchkin and his organization have repeatedly exposed appalling conditions in Russia's prisons - now Kultanov hopes to get political asylum in France with Ossetchkin's help. His bargaining chip: secret recordings of conversations with Gushin and other FSB agents.
"I am aware that I have put myself and my family in danger by going public with it. But I was threatened with 20 to 25 years in prison, and torture was not ruled out," he said in an interview with Stern.
To support his version of the story, Kultanov gave our editorial team several documents, including the personal telephone number of his FSB curator Alexander Gushin, as well as photos and handwritten notes. Based on the data and documents provided as well as our own research, it was possible to verify Kultanov's statements about his past and, above all, about Alexander Gushin. An app popular in Russia that uses its users' address books made it possible to prove that both Guschin and Vadim Stetseonko were saved by several users independently of each other with the addition "FSB". The editorial team also has the passport details of Gushin and Stetsenko, which match the information provided by Kultanov. He also confirms to the editorial team that the man on Vadim Stetsenko's passport document is the FSB agent who instructed him on the mission. An internal dossier shows that a black BMW X5 was registered to Stetsenko. This very car model appears in a street view photo of the FSB headquarters in Astrakhan. And on his tax return he listed a military unit in the Volga city as his place of work.
According to his own statement, Kultanov is not the only one who was prepared by the FSB for such operations. His FSB curator Alexander Guschin told him that there were many like him. The FSB network is particularly large in Turkey. But Kultanov never met any of them personally. "They once wanted me to contact some people, but in the end they weren't sure whether they could be trusted," says Kultanow. We tried to contact both FSB officers - they left written requests and several calls unanswered.
And Kultanov? He is currently stuck in Turkey. He can't say what will happen next for him.
Sources: Interview Baurzhan Kultanov / Interview Vladimir Ossetchkin / Interview Peter Neumann / Myrotvorets Center / Telegram / VK.com