William Plotnikov, a Canadian turned militant killed in Dagestan

Stewart Bell
National Post
Aug 20, 2012 9:33 PM ET | Last Updated: Aug 21, 2012 11:40 AM ET

In the video he shot inside his hut in the mountains of Dagestan last winter, William Plotnikov narrated as he panned from the black flag of jihad to three bearded rebels and their assault rifles.

Then he turned the camera on himself.

“I ask Allah that the next season he’ll give us the opportunity to kill as many kafirs [non-believers] as we can, just to shred them to pieces,” William said. “Allah is almighty.”

Watching the clip on the computer in his apartment north of Toronto last week, Vitaly Plotnikov looked both heartbroken and perplexed. It was hard for him to accept that this was his son.

“It’s just like a different person to me,” he said.

Russian security forces announced last month that they had killed William, a 23-year-old Canadian, during a gun battle in Dagestan. Since then, the Canadian government has been trying to verify the Russians’ account.

But in an interview with the National Post, Mr. Plotnikov confirmed William’s death and spoke for the first time about his son’s rapid transformation from Toronto teenager and champion boxer to Muslim convert and jihadist fighter.

What seemed to amaze Mr. Plotnikov most was how fast it all happened. His son only became interested in Islam in 2009, he said. Within a year, he had left Canada and by July he was dead. He had gone from convert to martyr in less than three years.

He is not the first radicalized Canadian to die under such circumstances, but he is believed to be the first Canadian convert to die fighting in the name of jihad— all the others having been born into their faith. His father said William became so radicalized he did not even consider the other Muslims he met to be true Muslims. He claimed that Canada and the U.S. were a source of evil for Muslims.

“How can the mind of a person be changed in such a short period of time?” Mr. Plotnikov asked inside the York Region apartment where he keeps William’s boxing medals in a copper trophy on a shelf.

Before moving to Canada, the family lived in Western Siberia, where Mr. Plotnikov worked for an oil company. An athlete himself, he introduced his son to boxing at age nine, and William went on to twice win the Russian youth championships.

After losing his oil company job, Mr. Plotnikov found work at a bank but he wanted more than Russia had to offer. He and his wife also wanted to make sure William got a good education, and they were concerned about the gangs that attracted some former Russian athletes, so they decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of emigrating to the West.

Mr. Plotnikov immediately felt at home in Toronto. Soon after arriving, he got a job stocking shelves at a Highland Farms supermarket on Dufferin Street. “I came as though I was born here,” he said, speaking through a Russian translator.

The move was more difficult for William. He was 15 and had left his friends. He could not understand why the boys at his new high school wore baggy pants and piercings, and he was turned off by the heavy drinking of the Russian expats he met.

Boris Gitman saw athletic potential in the lanky teen who turned up at his boxing club in Thornhill. “I was impressed. His coach in Russia did a good job,” said Mr. Gitman, who coaches at the European Boxing School.

Tall and skinny, William needed to work on his strength and endurance. “He was not physically strong but he was very, very talented.… Very smart,” Mr. Gitman added. “In boxing, it’s very important to be smart. He understood about boxing a lot and I just knew he needed a couple of years. From my experience I thought he would be a good Olympian.”

The coach dedicated himself to William and came to respect his parents. “I know that his father used to work hard, very hard. He did everything possible just to support his family,” Mr. Gitman said. “A very nice man.”

William began to win fights in Ontario. He won a silver medal at the 2006 Brampton Cup, and followed that by winning a club bout at Exhibition Place. He won another silver at the 2007 provincial championships in Windsor.

But by the time the Plotnikovs became Canadian citizens in 2008, William was drifting away from boxing. He tried Jujitsu, Aikido and Thai boxing. Mr. Gitman said the young athlete was struggling to adjust to Canada.

“Two of my sons came here almost at the same age and I know how difficult it was for them because they lost a lot of friends over there,” he said. “All their life was in Russia and, especially William, he had a good life over there.

“He came here and he sees that his parents are working somewhere, not a good position maybe. And like any kid he has some difficulties — language difficulties, to study at school, different culture, different everything.”

After graduating from high school, William enrolled in the international travel and tourism program at Toronto’s Seneca College. He also began asking life’s Big Questions. He reflected in his diary about human existence. He read the Bible, the Torah and the Koran.

Curious about why Muslims prayed five times a day, he decided to visit a Toronto mosque. “So he went to the mosque to clear that up and he just got caught up with a mullah who had very radical views,” his father said, although he does not know which mosque or cleric. “Islam on its own, it’s not a bad religion,” he added. “But like in any other case, the extremists are not always good.”

Before long, William was praying five times daily and fasting for Ramadan. He stopped shaving and eliminated pork from his diet. He became withdrawn and isolated from friends and family. “It wasn’t extremism but first of all his behaviour changed. He practically stopped communicating with us,” Mr. Plotnikov said.

His father tried talking to him.

“We’re Christians,” he said, but William countered that his mother’s family were ethnic Tatars, who had a tradition of Islam. His father explained that William had been baptized in a church. “You didn’t ask me, did you?” William responded.

Early in September 2010, Mr. Plotnikov and his wife returned from a Florida vacation and found a note on the table. It was from William. He said he was sorry and that he had gone to France for Ramadan.

“He just took $3,500 from the bank and left with it, and we ended up paying the debt for him,” Mr. Plotnikov said. “We waited for a week, two, one month, two months. Then we found out that he’s in Moscow.”

The family got word that William was staying there with a friend from Toronto who had grown alarmed by William’s hardening beliefs. “William started expressing his radical views, that basically from here he was already a ready-to-go, prepped fighter,” the father said. “He only was looking for a chance to get inside, into mujahed [jihadist] forces.”

From Moscow, William travelled by train to Dagestan. Sixteen hundred kilometres south of Moscow, Dagestan is a republic in the North Caucasus region of Russia. It shares a border with Chechnya, a notorious magnet for Islamist militants in the 1990s.

After Russia brutally crushed the Chechen insurgency, some rebels crossed into Dagestan, spreading jihadist ideology and calling for “holy war” — although the region has long practiced the moderate Sufi school of Islam.

Jihadist groups such as Shariat Jamaat formed to implement Islamic law throughout the North Caucasus, and began committing almost daily attacks on police and security forces, as well as government officials and moderate clerics. In March 2010, two suicide bombers from Dagestan attacked the Moscow metro during rush hour, killing 40.

Russia’s crackdown in response to the insurgency has been blamed for further inflaming the conflict. In its 2011 World Report, Human Rights Watch accused law enforcement and security agencies of torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

The Dagestan conflict is driven mostly by local issues ranging from corruption and unemployment to the divide between traditional Sufi Islam and intolerant Salafi Islam. But it has drawn a handful of outsiders.

Probably the best known was Alexander Tikhomirov, alias “Said Buryatsky,” a Russian volunteer who was responsible for a 2009 train bombing that killed 26 and other attacks until his death in 2010.

“He converted and ended up becoming one of the most charismatic insurgents around, and he used a lot of audio lectures and the Internet to rally a following, especially among young people,” said Sabine Freizer, a North Caucasus analyst at the International Crisis Group. “He was really seen as a kind of white hero of the insurgency amongst young fighters.”

So when William arrived in Dagestan, there was already a precedent of converts fighting for the rebel forces. William lived in a village of about 3,000, called Utamysh, not far from Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala, his father said.

Concerned after hearing about the radicalism William had expressed in Moscow, his father called the Russian Interior Ministry. He hoped the Russian authorities would stop William and explain the consequences of his actions. The Russians subsequently raided the house where William was staying and told him to go home. He returned to Moscow, but soon made his way back to Dagestan.

William did not communicate with his family at all during this time. But photos Mr. Plotnikov received from a local newspaper following his son’s death made clear what the Canadian was up to. They showed William standing in the leaf-carpeted mountains, posing guerrilla-style with other armed men.

He wore an olive windbreaker with a camouflage ammunition belt over top. He had one hand in his pocket and held an assault rifle in the air with the other. In another photo, he sat in the dark reading a pocket Koran with a headlamp.

Although it is unknown what, if any, attacks William took part in, during the months he spent in their company, the rebels killed dozens of police officers and soldiers in bomb and shooting attacks. In May, two suicide bombings, 15 minutes apart at a police roadblock, killed a dozen people in the capital.

“It’s not only that they were reading the Koran in the forest, they were attacking the forces, the troops, the military,” said Mr. Plotnikov, 58, who works for a Toronto-area produce company. “I have the movie.”

In the video file, also given to the family after William’s death, the young Canadian offered a brief glimpse of rebel life, showing food cooking on a wood stove and a man dressed in camouflage joking about the merits of his assault rifle.

“What do you do?” William asked a man sitting on a bunk (according to Mr. Plotnikov, that man was a Turkish national who fought in Chechnya and Afghanistan and, like the others, is now dead.)

“Terrorism,” he replied. “I kill kafirs.”

William then put the camera down and sat next to him.

“So this is the way we live and suffer,” William said. His hair was trimmed short and he wore a sleeveless black Adidas shirt that showed how gaunt he had become since leaving Canada.

“We have food to cook and eat, thanks to Allah. And also have brothers and try to do as much as we can for Allah. Kafirs, you’re not going to get what you expect. Allah is with us. He protects us. You don’t have a protector.

“We will kill you. We’re going to build plans against you. But no matter how many plans you make, nothing is going to succeed because whatever He described in His book is the truth. Allah is the truth,” he said. “All of you others are waste, garbage.”

When the video finished playing on his computer, Mr. Plotnikov opened an old photo of William wearing his athletic training clothes, looking like just another Canadian youth. “See and compare the way he was,” he said. “You see this is the way he became. It’s like two different things, the sky and the ground.”

Before midnight on Friday July 13, Russian troops ambushed a group of gunmen in the forests near Utamysh. The Russians had “received information about the possible movements” of insurgents, according to a Russian government news release.

During the ensuing firefight, several security personnel were wounded and one was killed. By morning, seven militants were dead, including two local faction leaders. Islam Magomedov, alias Hamster, headed the Sergokala jihadist group and had been wanted since 2010 for various attacks.

Also killed was Arsen Magomedov, who headed a jihadist group in nearby Izberbash and “was involved in numerous murders of law enforcement officers and a number of IED explosions on the railway.”

The other dead were named as Isa Dalgatov, Shamil Akhmedov, Amin Ibiyev, Magomedsaid Mamtov and William Plotnikov. The jihadist website Kavkaz called William a martyr. “May Allah reward all the brothers.”

The Plotnikovs thought it was an Internet scam when they started getting emails expressing condolences over their son’s death. Then they saw the news reports and realized it might be true.

It is uncertain how many Canadians have met similar fates. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service would not disclose how many Canadians have died fighting for foreign armed groups. It’s possible the agency does not know, since many have gone to countries with non-functioning governments, or where missile strikes leave little in the way of remains.

Studies on radicalization suggest that converts are particularly vulnerable to extremist ideologues, who prey on their ignorance and zeal. According to a study on the RCMP website, conversion “can create an emotional experience that is easy for radicalization agents to manipulate.” As newcomers to their beliefs, converts may also feel the need to prove themselves to the group, a New York Police Department study said.

“You see it’s just like the Christians,” Mr. Plotnikov said. “There are Catholics, there are Orthodox, there are Seven Day Adventists. The same thing in Islam. Islam has lots of movements. Whatever he chose, it was not approved by his friends. And he was told that, ‘You went the wrong way.’ But like it says, blessed are those who believe. So he was programmed. He knew where he was going, he knew the aims.

So this is what he did.”

Because William was not wanted for any major crimes, and had only been a member of the insurgent group, Russian authorities agreed to release his body and Mr. Plotnikov flew to Dagestan to collect his son’s remains.

He buried William in Utamysh according to local Muslim traditions. “Because he converted to Islam, he was fighting for them, he lived there for some time. That’s why I buried him there. We will try and maybe fly over there, maybe once a year.”

Between visits, he said, the villagers will tend to the gravestone. It is a simple marker, about the size of a book. Inscribed on it are William’s name, birth date, date of his death and the symbol of a crescent moon.



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