AP

Alleged Islamic State sniper trial looks at foreign fighters

Feb 2, 2023, 8:16 AM | Updated: Feb 3, 2023, 12:42 pm

FILE - In this courtroom sketch, Ruslan Asainov appears in court, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in New Yor...

FILE - In this courtroom sketch, Ruslan Asainov appears in court, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in New York. Asainov, who was born in Kazakhstan and lived in Brooklyn, is charged in a five-count indictment with conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State. (Aggie Whelan Kenny via AP, File)

(Aggie Whelan Kenny via AP, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — He had been brought from the battlefields of Syria to a New York lockup, a U.S. citizen charged with serving as a sniper and weapons trainer for the Islamic State group.

And even in jail, Ruslan Maratovich kept a makeshift version of the militants’ black flag right above the desk in his cell, according to trial testimony this week.

“What’s the big deal? It’s mine. It’s religious,” then-jail lieutenant Judith Woods recalled him saying when she went to confiscate the hand-drawn image in 2020.

Years after the fall of the extremist group’s self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate, the trial is a reminder of the enduring and far-reaching fallout of a war that drew tens of thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq. Their home countries are still contending with what should become of them.

Jurors, who are expected to start deliberating as soon as Monday, have gotten a refresher course on IS’s gruesome rule and its sophisticated, social media-savvy recruitment of distant supporters to come and take up arms. Prosecutors say Asainov did so and rose through the group’s ranks, eventually becoming an “emir” who taught other members to use weapons.

In post-arrest videos shown at his trial, he gives his occupation as “a sniper” to FBI agents and readily tells them that he provided instruction in everything from rifle maintenance to ballistics to adjusting for weather effects — and, of course, “how to actually pull the trigger.”

“Oh, it’s a long lesson,” he explains, sitting on a bed in a room where he was being held. “I would give, like, a three-hour lesson, just on that, just to pull the trigger.”

Jurors have seen photos alleged to be of Asainov in camouflage, aiming a rifle, and of the handmade flag that Woods said she took from his cell. Witnesses have included his flabbergasted ex-wife, who testified that he morphed from a Brooklyn family man into a zealot. She said he weighed in from Syria to complain about their daughter donning a Halloween costume and sent a photo of the bodies of what he said were comrades killed in a battle, according to the Daily News of New York.

Asainov, 46, chose not to testify, telling the court that he was “not part of this process.”

“My body is present here. I’m not present here,” added Asainov, who similarly refused at his 2019 arraignment to enter any plea. One of his lawyers, Susan Kellman, entered a not guilty plea on his behalf, explaining that he didn’t recognize the U.S. legal system.

At trial, Kellman told jurors that Asainov went to Syria because he wanted to live under Islamic law.

IS fighters seized portions of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and declared the establishment of a so-called Islamic caliphate there, at a time when Syria was already convulsed by civil war. Fighting laid waste to multiple cities before Iraq’s prime minister declared the caliphate vanquished in 2017; the extremists lost the last of their territory two years later, though sporadic attacks persist even now.

During the height of the fighting, as many as 40,000 people from 120 countries showed up to join in, according to the United Nations. There is no comprehensive U.S. statistic on Americans among those foreign fighters; a 2018 report by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism found at least 64 who had joined jihadist fighting in Iraq and Syria since 2011.

Since IS’s defeat, some foreign members and their families have lingered in detention facilities in Syria because their countries refused to take them back. Others accused of being foreign fighters have returned to their countries, including some who were prosecuted.

Recent U.S. cases include a Kansas mother who led an all-female IS battalion, a Minnesota man who served in a battalion that prepared foreign fighters for suicide attacks in Europe, and a Detroit-area man convicted this week of training with and then spending more than two years with the group.

Born in Kazakhstan, Asainov is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He lived in Brooklyn starting in 1998, married and had a child.

Then he flew to Istanbul on a one-way ticket in December 2013 and made his way to Syria to join what he later described in a message as “the worst terrorist organization in the world that has ever existed,” authorities say.

“You heard of ISIS,” he said in another text message in January 2015, according to prosecutors’ court filings. “We will get you.”

By that April, Asainov told an acquaintance — in fact, a government informant — that he’d been fighting in Syria for about a year, according to court papers. They say that in various exchanges, he urged the informant to come to Syria and help with IS’s media operations, asked for $2,800 to buy a rifle scope, and sent photos of himself with fatigues and rifle, saying he “didn’t mean to show off” but was showing what was “just normal” in his new life.

Authorities announced in July 2019 that U.S.-backed forces in Syria had captured Asainov and turned him over to the FBI.

Asainov faces charges that include providing material support to a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Image: Members of the Makah Indian tribe paddle away from the rising sun as they head from Neah Bay...

Associated Press

Washington’s Makah Tribe clears major hurdle toward resuming traditional whale hunts

The U.S. granted the Makah Indian Tribe a long-sought waiver that helps clear the way for its first sanctioned whale hunts since 1999.

11 hours ago

jerry west...

Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press

Jerry West, a 3-time Hall of Fame selection and the NBA logo, dies at 86

Jerry West, a three-time Basketball Hall of Fame inductee whose silhouette is considered to be the basis of the NBA logo, died Wednesday morning.

2 days ago

Photo: Construction vehicles are parked outside of the Station U & O building on Tuesday, June 11, ...

Haleluya Hadero, The Associated Press

Amazon adds $1.4B to affordable housing fund for regions where it has corporate offices

Amazon is adding $1.4B to a fund for building more affordable housing in regions where the company has major corporate offices.

2 days ago

hunter biden...

Randall Chase and the Associated Press

Hunter Biden convicted of all 3 felony charges in federal gun trial

Hunter Biden has been convicted of all three felony charges related to the purchase of a revolver in 2018, but no sentencing date was set.

3 days ago

Photo: A Bremerton man who made 20 "swatting" calls around the U.S. and in Canada, prompting real e...

Associated Press

Bremerton man sentenced for 20 ‘swatting’ calls of false threats in US, Canada

A Bremerton man who made 20 "swatting" calls around the U.S. and in Canada, prompting real emergency responses, has been sentenced.

3 days ago

Image: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, speaks with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zele...

Associated Press

Ukraine uses US weapons to strike inside Russia, a Western official tells AP

Ukraine has used U.S weapons to strike inside Russia in recent days, according to a Western official familiar with the matter told the AP.

9 days ago

Alleged Islamic State sniper trial looks at foreign fighters