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How A YouTuber Duped Indians Into The Russia-Ukraine War

An image of the frontline in the Russia/Ukraine war, with an image of Mohammed Sufiyan, who was lured into that conflict by an Indian YouTube influencer.
Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu via Getty Images

When 23-year-old Mohammed Sufiyan left India for Moscow on Dec. 17 of last year, he assumed that he would be working as a helper in a Russian government office. He had been promised a monthly salary of up to ₹100,000 ($1,196) and, a year later, Russian citizenship. Instead, a few days after he landed in Moscow, Sufiyan was sent to a military training camp for 15 days, and then was shipped off to the Russia-Ukraine border to fight on behalf of the Russian forces.

On Feb. 21, while posted in the Donetsk region on the border, Sufiyan was digging a pit for a bunker, when, about 200 meters away, a Ukrainian drone struck their base. The airstrike killed 24, says Mohammed Salman, Sufiyan’s brother and a 31-year-old auto rickshaw driver in the south Indian state of Telangana. The deceased also included an Indian national, Hemil Mangukiya. 

“My brother saw it with his own eyes. He was afraid, but he started lifting the bodies and loaded them onto a truck. Then [the Russian army] brought them back, about 50 or 60 kilometers away from the border,” said Salman. “He’s not safe. They can take him back to the border any time.”

Salman alleged that a YouTuber, Faisal Khan, duped both Mangukiya, 23, and his brother Sufiyan into fighting for the Russian forces. Khan ran the now-defunct YouTube channel, Baba Vlogs, which had 305,000 subscribers and is now under police investigation for trafficking Indians into the Russia-Ukraine war. In the past few months, Khan had posted multiple videos promoting jobs in Russia—for delivery boys, taxi drivers, and helpers with the Russian army. 

In one of these videos, since taken off YouTube, Khan walked the streets of Russia’s Saint Petersburg, saying, “Look... There’s no war happening here.” He repeatedly assured jobseekers that they wouldn’t be sent to the frontlines—and that all they had to do was vacate buildings, remove precious items from demolished buildings, and guard the armory. “Had there been any risk, I wouldn’t have told you about this job,” Khan said. “I confirmed everything this morning. There is no risk.”

Several youths fell for the social media influencer’s claims. By his own admission in an email to Defector, Khan said that he had sent 16 candidates to Russia in the past few months. Two of those, Mangukiya and 30-year-old Mohammed Afsan, were killed while posted in the war zone. Meanwhile, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India’s crime detection agency, discovered that about 35 Indians have been duped into fighting for the Russian forces. In light of the CBI’s findings, India, on March 8, “strongly” asked Russia to discharge its nationals. However, their fate still remains uncertain. 

“Afsan has an 8-month-old daughter and a 2-year-old boy,” said Mohammed Imran, as he transferred his brother’s body home from New Delhi on March 17. 

The Fraud

On Feb. 3, more than a month before Afsan was killed on the Russia-Ukraine border, his 28-year-old wife, Asma Shireen, filed a complaint with the Nampally police station in their southern Indian city of Hyderabad. Her complaint, of which Defector has a copy, stated that her husband and his two friends had been “trapped and misguided” by Khan and his two employees. She mentioned that they were “being forcefully shifted to the Ukraine border” and that their lives were in danger.

“They are not being given training also and they took them to the border and now they are in the front line-red zone area in High Alert and has been injured by the bullets and the people are not in contact with their families since 1 month, the families are very much worried about them,” she noted in her police complaint, adding, “Their entire families and their children are suffering a lot. There is no information, no phone calls since last one month about them.”

Afsan did not return alive. On March 6, the Indian embassy in Moscow announced his “tragic death” in a post on Twitter. The post provided no details on the circumstances of his demise. 

Afsan’s brother, Imran, said that his brother learned about Khan through YouTube, as did the families of the other youths this reporter interviewed. Khan had promised Afsan a monthly salary of ₹45,000 ($538) for the first three months, which would then increase to ₹150,000 ($1,794), as well as a Russian passport and citizenship. Afsan, a business graduate who had previously worked as a salesperson in a men’s apparel store, left for Moscow on Nov. 9. “There were no financial issues in the family,” said Imran. “He fell for the greed he was enticed with. Faisal Khan took ₹300,000 ($3589) to send him to Russia.”

Sufiyan, too, paid ₹300,000 to Khan, and was lured with similar promises. He worked as a packer in a Dubai-based company for two years before leaving for Russia. His brother, Salman, alleged that Khan endorsed the Russian job, saying, “You’re earning ₹25-30,000 in Dubai. I’ll get you ₹100-150,000, plus citizenship, so you can travel to 16 European countries. Food and stay, both free.”

“This is how he brainwashed my brother,” Salman told me, adding that Khan also made the men delete the records of their money transfers to him. “But some of them have screenshots of the transactions.”

Sameer Ahmed is another Indian youth now stuck in the war zone; his brother, Mustafa, said he flew to Moscow after being “impressed” by Khan and his YouTube videos. Sameer was particularly convinced by the testimonials of other jobseekers who had landed jobs through Khan, and whose experiences Khan had shared on his channel. Mustafa now feels that the videos were to “attract other kids.”

“He has more than 300,000 subscribers on YouTube, an office in Dubai,” Mustafa said. “Who wouldn’t trust him?” 

To convince Sameer that the job was safe, Khan offered several arguments, says Mustafa—that he was being recruited for a helper’s job in Moscow, that he would not have to go to the warfront, that he would not have to fire a gun or throw a grenade, that the job would be in the city, that he’d work in a building, helping in the kitchen, or fixing broken things.

“I spoke to Faisal Khan for a month,” Mustafa said. “The way he spoke to me, I was convinced that only he could get my brother out of Russia. These agents can risk anybody’s life for some money.”

Syed Nawaz Ali is the father of 22-year-old Syed Ilyas Hussaini, who also ended up on the Russia-Ukraine war front; he confirmed that his son, too, contacted Khan after watching his YouTube channel. Khan told him that he’d work in Russia as a security guard. “That agent deceived us,” he said. “He said he sends people to all countries. My son left for Russia, and then realized he had been duped.”

The Journey 

Afsan left for Russia on Nov. 9; Sameer, Sufiyan, and Ilyas left for Russia together on Dec. 17, on tourist visas. According to that trio’s kin, three Russia-based agents of Indian origin—they identified themselves as Moin, Ramesh, and Nazir—picked them up from the Moscow airport, and got them settled in a hotel. A few days later, the agents made them sign papers written in Russian.

“They didn’t let them read the papers or click pictures,” said Salman, Sufiyan’s brother. “They were told that those were bank papers, which they had to sign to receive their payments.”

Soon thereafter, the men were sent to an army camp for their 15-day training, where they were taught how to handle guns. The men approached Khan, who pacified them saying that the “basic training” was mandatory in Russia, as the country was at war and people should be prepared in case they had to escape. The men trusted him. 

“They met other Indians in the training camp, and that’s when they realized that their agent had cheated them,” said Salman. “Someone had a broken hand, someone had a broken leg, and some were going to the hospital. Talking to them, they realized they’ll be sent to the war zone.”

At that training camp, another Indian man, from Kashmir, sustained a bullet wound to his foot, said Sameer’s brother, Mustafa. He added that during these 15 days, the families had no contact with the youths. When approached, Khan told them that the military camp had affixed network jammers, which prevented the recruits from calling them.  

“We were so worried, we didn’t know what to do, whom to ask,” said Mustafa.

Around Jan. 10, when the men were allowed to rest for a few days after their training, they contacted their families. Sameer begged his brother for help, saying that Khan had scammed him and several others. The families then contacted Khan, who assured them that there was no problem, and that the youths were going to be safe. “He fooled us like this for a month,” said Salman. By then, the men were already in the war zone.

Then came the Ukrainian drone strike that killed 24, including the Indian national Mangukiya. The youths “fell into depression” after his death, said Mustafa; Mangukiya, too, had come to Russia via Khan, and started his journey with the three men on Dec. 17. Mustafa said that the last time he spoke to his brother, “Sameer was crying. He kept saying, ‘They’re taking us where Hemil died.’” 

The Influencer

A sixth-grade dropout from Mumbai, Khan worked as a fish seller in the city for a few years before finding a job in sales in the UAE in 2008. In 2016, the year he launched his YouTube channel, Khan also started his job consultancy and recruitment firm in the UAE by the same name, Babavlogs. All its current job listings are for the UAE, but the firm’s YouTube channel, before it was taken down, had advertised jobs in countries including Serbia, Croatia, Germany, and Singapore. 

When approached, Khan wrote in an email to Defector that his YouTube channel was aimed at helping people get jobs, mostly in the UAE. He claimed that he had helped over 500 jobseekers—his website says 5,000, and names partners like Bolt and Deliveroo—find work as helpers, laborers, bike riders, taxi drivers, and salespersons. He denied trafficking Indians into the Russia-Ukraine war, writing that he had fallen prey to an “international cheating matter in recruitment.”

Khan stated that a Russia-based agent, Moinuddin Chippa, approached him through YouTube, and invited him to Russia to tell him about helper jobs in the Russian army, which Khan could in turn advertise through his channel. Chippa, Khan alleged, promised him that none of the recruits would end up in the war zone. Khan started posting the videos, and 16 job seekers paid him ₹300,000 each, of which he transferred ₹250,000 per candidate to Chippa. Not long after, they were in the war zone.

In a 2020 global report on trafficking in persons, the United Nations (UN) observed that internet technologies are increasingly being used for human trafficking. Victims are often recruited through social media, and traffickers also use those platforms to facilitate the movement of people between countries. Cross-border trafficking facilitated by technology typically requires the involvement of several connected perpetrators, including one recruiter in the country of origin and another person acting as the enforcer in the country of destination where the victims are exploited. The same is also true in this case, where Khan is alleged to be the recruiter in India and Chippa the enforcer in Russia.

“Of the 79 examined court cases involving an aspect of internet usage, 34 involved victims who were transported across borders between two or more countries, amounting to 57 per cent of the total victims identified in the dataset,” the UN report notes. “Internet-based technologies may prove particularly useful for assisting flows across borders, as they provide efficient and convenient ways also to facilitate international money transfers.” 

The 16 men Khan recruited went to Russia in three subsequent batches. While Khan was awaiting visa clearance for a fourth batch of 19 men, he said that he learned from one of the recruits in Russia that he had been sent to the frontlines, was injured, had escaped the war zone, and landed in a hospital. Khan claims that he asked Chippa to remove the men from the Russian army, and that Chippa allegedly told him that “I am trying my best but army people are not giving them back.” Six of the 16 candidates were pulled out of the war zone; the rest are still in the army camp. 

“My intention was only to make their future bright by earning for their loved once [sic],” Khan wrote in his email. “Even I have been victim by these agent[s] who are sitting in Russia and targeting people like me with fake promises and fake commitment.”

The Investigations

The day after Afsan’s death was announced, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided 13 locations across seven Indian cities to bust the trafficking network. In addition to Khan, the agency registered cases against three travel and visa-consulting firms. While it is still unclear if these firms worked with Khan, two Russia-based agents, including Chippa, are under CBI scrutiny.

Police Inspector Abhilash Begari, who is in charge at the Nampally police station where Afsan’s wife registered a complaint, told Defector that their investigation is in progress. While the CBI is conducting a parallel inquiry, Begari’s police station has registered a case against Khan and his two employees under various sections of the Indian Penal Code—human trafficking, unlawful compulsory labor, criminal breach of trust, cheating, wrongful confinement, and criminal conspiracy. 

Begari said that his team is in the process of collecting evidence against Khan, including call data records and account transaction details. “We’ll get all these details, prepare prima facie evidence, and we’ll definitely arrest him,” said Begari.

For the men’s kin, however, their family members’ repatriation is the priority. Each of the four families this reporter interviewed told her that they had approached multiple authorities, including the Indian government, opposition leaders, local parliament members, the police, and the Indian embassy in Russia. All they have been hearing is that “the process is underway."

Says Sameer’s brother, Mustafa, “I don’t understand why it’s taking so long. Two of the boys have died already.” 

As far as their families know, the youths are currently living in tents, in a forest about 50 kilometers away from the Russia-Ukraine border. On March 12, Sameer, Ilyas, and Sufiyan posted a video appeal, requesting help from Indian authorities.

“We've received orders to go to the border. Eight men have returned from the border, and we're being asked to go as their replacement,” said Ilyas, as Sameer and Sufiyan stood behind him. All three are dressed in army uniforms. “We request you to please get us out of here as soon as possible. They're not listening to anything we're saying. They're saying we will have to go [to the frontlines].”

The Indian embassy in Russia wrote that the cases have been raised with the Russian authorities, but there has been no progress yet.

“Hemil’s father went to Russia to get his son’s body back,” says Salman. “We’re praying that the same doesn’t happen to us.”

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