A Russian jihadist has traded his weapons for wasabi by opening a small sushi restaurant in war-torn northwest Syria, as the conflict worsens and fighters seek alternative income.
Islam Shakhbanov, 37, from Russia’s predominantly Muslim republic of Dagestan, said he went to Syria in 2015 “to take part in jihad”.
But after years of war, the Damascus government has regained control of most of the country and Syria’s main front lines have been largely frozen, putting many foreign fighters out of a job.
“I finally opened this sushi restaurant,” the goatee told AFP, standing next to a banner showing fish, with slogans in Arabic, English and Russian.
Wearing warm vests, with a dark winter cap on his head, Shakhbanov said he fought alongside Jihadist factions and the rebel group Faylaq al-Sham until about five years ago.
Faylaq al-Sham is a Sunni Islamist group that has acted as Turkey’s proxy during several Turkish military campaigns on Syrian soil. He was the source of mercenaries for Ankara who were sent to battle in Libya on the side of the UN-recognized government.
The group has fought fierce battles against the Russian-backed Syrian regime in the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia, and is considered close to the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Shakhbanov said he has lived in countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, and was inspired to open “Sushi Idlib” after sampling Japanese cuisine during his travels.
He owed it to the first sushi restaurant in the conservative haven, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria where many people rely on humanitarian aid.
About three million people are in rebel-held Idlib, around half of whom have been displaced by 12 years of war.
– Pickled ginger, soy sauce –
It is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the former Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, and other rebel groups – some of which include fighters from Central Asia and the Caucasus among their ranks.
Idlib is surrounded by regime troops on land to the south but borders Turkey to the north, with the coast less than 25 kilometers (16 miles) away in some places.
Shakhbanov said he imports many of his ingredients from Turkey — pickled ginger, soy sauce, prawns and even crab.
Idlib was among the areas hit by an earthquake on February 6 that collapsed buildings and killed thousands, mostly in Turkey.
The sushi restaurant survived unscathed.
Behind the counter, two chefs, as well as ex-fighters from Russia, cut fresh salmon and cucumber, spreading the ingredients on a bed of rice and seaweed before tucking everything into a roll.
At first the restaurant struggled to attract customers in the poor cove where Japanese food is an oddity, but Shakhbanov describes his seaweed rolls as “affordable”.
A California roll is sold for 60 Turkish lira ($3), double the price of a large shawarma sandwich better known to local residents.
He said he now has about a dozen regulars and hopes to attract more customers by adding fried dishes to the menu.
But Shakhbanov, who is married to a Syrian woman and has two young daughters, said he is ready to leave the sushi behind and taste combat again if divided rebel factions agree on a military strategy.
“I opened a restaurant,” he said, “but I did not abandon Jihad.”