Published22 hours ago
On Sunday morning, details of a flight arriving later that day from Tel Aviv were posted on a popular channel on Telegram in Dagestan, a diverse region in the most southerly point of Russia.
The channel on the social media platform was called Morning Dagestan (Utro Dagestan). It urged its followers to “meet the unexpected visitors” at Dagestan’s main airport, in Makhachkala. The flight would arrive at 19:00 local time.
At the designated time, hundreds of young men arrived at the airport, overwhelming security guards. They made their way onto the runway; some even got on to the roof. The mob was looking for Jewish passengers.
Videos show Palestinian flags being waved and antisemitic chants are audible. Police took several hours to disperse the rioters. According to Russian news agencies, about 60 people were arrested.
The protest clearly surprised the security forces, so how did the rioters manage to organise and co-ordinate themselves so effectively? The BBC has tracked the messages shared on Morning Dagestan. We also found other local Telegram chats sharing similar antisemitic rhetoric and calling for violence.
The Morning Dagestan is an anti-Russian and Islamist channel which advocates for an end to what it calls “Moscow’s occupation regime” in the Caucasus. It posts short updates about local events alongside messages on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It also posts messages about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with content supporting Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the UK and other countries, but not Russia.
It is a public channel that just a few days ago had 50,000 subscribers, but has since grown to more than 65,000.
On Sunday, its posts provided detailed instructions for those gathering at the airport, including forming a crowd to block the exit when passengers arriving from Israel left the plane.
“Allow them to exit one by one, curse the state of Israel, and then move on!”, read one post. “If they refuse to curse Israel, we’ll block the airport and won’t let them leave!”
It also urged its followers to photograph passengers’ faces and track their cars in order to compile a list of their addresses in Dagestan.
In the past few days, the same channel has called on people to join rallies in Makhachkala and other cities in the region to “support two million Muslims”. It has also shared antisemitic messages and called for local people to refuse to rent out flats to Jewish people.
We also found calls for violence in other Telegram channels with tens of thousands of subscribers, including those with no apparent prior political interest.
Avito is a website primarily used for buying and selling items. In its channel, we found messages targeting a Jewish family from Dagestan whose members were allegedly fighting for Israel.
In the channel Gorets, which has almost 17,000 subscribers, there were posts encouraging the persecution of local Jewish people and Israeli newcomers to Dagestan.
On Monday evening, Telegram’s owner, Pavel Durov, announced that “channels inciting violence will be blocked”, attaching a screenshot of a Morning Dagestan post. Shortly after that, the channel became unavailable.
Who is behind Morning Dagestan?
The Morning Dagestan channel has been associated with Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian MP who defected to Ukraine in 2016 and was granted Ukrainian citizenship.
Ponomarev runs social media channels calling for protests in Russia and the overthrow of Vladimir Putin’s regime.
On Monday, Ponomarev said that “some time ago”, he was “contacted by a group of Islamists from Dagestan” whom he helped organise and finance rallies against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While Ponomarev said that he had stopped supporting the channel in September 2022, his own statements contradict this claim. He called Utro Dagestan “our channel” in August 2023, and also referred to the channel as part of his operations in September.
Dagestan’s governor Sergey Melikov and Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova used Ponomarev’s connection to the channel to accuse Ukraine of orchestrating the riots at Makhachkala airport.
“Today we have received absolutely reliable information that the Morning Dagestan channel is administered and regulated from the territory of Ukraine by traitors,” said Melikov.
The channel itself then posted a statement, stating that it has no connection to Ponomarev or Ukraine.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky condemned the attack.
And while Mr Zelensky expressed support for Israel in the wake of the Hamas attack on 7 October, Putin used it to criticise what he saw as “a failure of the US policy in the Middle East”.
Instead of condemning Hamas’s actions, Russia’s foreign ministry called on both sides to de-escalate and tabled a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire. Last week, a Hamas delegation visited Moscow for talks, prompting a protest from Israel.
Outburst of antisemitic violence
Dagestan is the most diverse of Russia’s regions, with dozens of indigenous ethnic groups – predominantly Muslim, but including an ancient Jewish community – living alongside each other for centuries.
Rasul Abdulkhalikov, a Dagestani sociologist, believes this burst of antisemitic violence can be attributed to the actions of regional authorities, who did not allow pro-Palestinian rallies in the country, despite widespread support for the Palestinian cause and anti-Israeli sentiment among Dagestan’s young people.
“The governor Sergey Melikov is to blame that this sentiment came this far and wasn’t channelled elsewhere,” he says.
He believes Telegram channels, WhatsApp chats and Instagram pages spreading hate speech and misinformation only helped harden attitudes: “You look for information, find things that confirm your beliefs, and spread them further.”