What do we know about the Ukrainian soldier accused of wearing an 'Islamic State badge'?
Since Thursday, February 16, numerous posts online have featured screenshots of a Danish television report showing a Ukrainian soldier with a patch on his uniform that some are saying means he belongs to the Islamic State organisation. However, there is no clear proof of what this patch represents. The Ukrainian soldier in question has given his own version of events.
"As if Nazi insignias weren't enough, now, we see the black flag of ISIS on the uniforms of soldiers in Ukraine..." says one person in a Twitter post that contains photos of a man wearing a patch on his arm.
The patch appears to show a symbol which has been used since 2007 on the flag of the Islamic State organisation. It contains a white circle on a black background with three words, known as the "Seal of Muhammad".
The photos were also relayed by the Twitter account of the Russian embassy in Denmark after they were shown on the Danish TV channel DR Nyheder. "Another clear example of what values the Ukrainian military adheres to," the embassy commented in its tweet. Russia and its supporters have accused the Ukrainian authorities and army of adhering to Nazi ideology.
The photo and its caption were also picked up by several international media outlets such as India's Hindustan Times, Iran's Tasnim News and Russia's Russia Today, presenting the images as evidence of links between the Ukrainian army and the jihadist organisation.
Where did these images come from?
The screenshots are actually from a report by the American news agency Associated Press broadcast on February 14. They were filmed on February 13 on the frontline in the Donbass region. They were picked up by DR Nyheder.
The man is seen several times – face hidden by a balaclava – as he approaches armoured personnel carriers.
According to the description of the video provided by AP, the man is called "Kurt". In front of the camera, he addresses his comrades and tells them: "Those who don't have enough ammunition must try to get some. Nobody is going to bring us ammunition, that's a fact".
He then turns to the journalist filming him and explains: "In order for us to win soon, we need fighter jets. Rockets. So that Ukrainian servicemen will not be killed, as is happening now."
No further details are given about the soldier, and no indication of his patch is mentioned in the Associated Press or DR Nyheder reports.
Counter-offensive by "Kurt" in a video
Following the controversy, the Centre for Ukrainian Strategic Communication – called "Spravdi" – published a video on February 17 in which "Kurt" is this time filmed with his face uncovered.
He explains that he wanted to respond to "Russian propaganda" and gives his version of events:
"I put this badge on my shoulder after I found it on the site of enemy positions belonging to Wagner [Editor's note: a Russian militia fighting with the Russian army]. I am not part of the Islamic State organisation, I am a Christian. I have been in the Ukrainian army since the beginning of the war."
In another interview given on February 19 to Polygraph.info, the verification arm of the American media Voice of America, "Kurt" appears with his face uncovered and explains that he "collects" these patches by picking them up on the battlefields (interview with English subtitles below).
He says he wears another badge which he says is a Christian biblical reference, "the law of retaliation", referring to the expression "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". The expression appears in the New Testament in the Gospel of Matthew.
The logo shown by the soldier is also present in several of the videos mentioning his unit: the logo of a skull and crossbones in an ace of spades, with the words "Lex Talionis" and the numbers 13 and 28.
"He is crazy," says a journalist who met him
The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted "Spravdi" and the Ukrainian army spokesperson to ask for more information about the soldier and his badge, but they have not yet replied. We are unable to independently verify "Kurt"'s version.
A journalistic source who claims to have met "Kurt", but who requested anonymity for his own safety, told our office that the soldier is Ukrainian, and not Chechen, as some comments might suggest.
"He is cray," the source said, claiming that he probably wore the badge to "troll" or as a war trophy, without necessarily "knowing what it means".
'This badge may have nothing to do with the Islamic State organisation'
Is this badge in itself a definite reference to the Islamic State organisation, as many posts claim? We spoke to Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24's specialist in jihadist movements for clarification:
It's the seal of the prophet used by different jihadist groups, whether it's al-Qaeda, the Islamic State organisation or others. There are also rebel groups in Syria that have used it, it's quite generic. So it's not at all a proof of belonging to the Islamic State group.
It could even be found on fighters who are veterans of Syria. Tatars [Editor's note: Turkish people settled in the 13th century in the Crimean peninsula] even declared jihad from Syria to liberate Crimea in 2014, to no great effect [Editor's note: article in Arabic on France24.com]. There are also Chechens and Albanians who have left Syria for Ukraine in recent months.
What do we know about 'Kurt'?
There is very little information available about this soldier. "Kurt", the way he is presented in every report, is likely a pseudonym. He belongs to the 28th Ukrainian mechanised brigade created in 2001. His rank is not known for sure, but he is sometimes presented as "commander", other times as "chief" of the brigade. He claimed in the interview with Polygraph.info that he had been fighting in the Ukrainian army since 2014.
He had been filmed in other reports, such as this one by Radio Free Europe, posted on February 15, in which he also wears a badge similar to that of the Islamic State organisation.
He is also regularly seen on Twitter, as in this video posted on February 10 where he shows a manoeuvre with his squadmates. The badge in question can also be seen in the 52nd second of the video.
The soldier was also interviewed in November 2022 by the German media Deutsche Welle. He was wearing a heavy jacket at the time, but the Islamic State badge is not visible.
Украинский снайпер с позывным Курт - один из лучших в ВСУ. Сейчас он защищает освобожденный Херсон. Его задача - не позволить российским войскам закрепиться на другой стороне Днепра, чтобы обстреливать город pic.twitter.com/NeTfP0lTS6— DW на русском (@dw_russian) November 22, 2022
On November 7, 2022, he made headlines in the Ukrainian media for shooting down a Shahed-136 drone. His left shoulder, visible at the time in a photo in an article, shows no notable patches or badges.
The man is not a new recruit to the Ukrainian army: he is also featured in an article from 2021 where he claims to want to kill Vladimir Putin himself.
There is currently no other footage to support the claim that the soldier has been wearing a chevron resembling the flag of the Islamic State organisation for a long time. The earliest instance found by France 24 Observers was published online on February 10.
Although it is not clear why he wore the badge, there is no evidence that the soldier fought on other battlefields before 2014, or that he has had any connection to jihadist groups.
The Ukrainian army is regularly the target of false information from pro-Russian accounts or media outlets, often with images that are manipulated or taken out of context.
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