December 7, 2014
Fighters from Chechnya are one of the forces behind IS’s meteoric rise in Syria. The attraction to jihad is not only ideological but practical.
“The Syrian ‘jihad’ began as a sort of proxy conflict for fighters who could not go home to fight in Chechnya or Dagestan,” says Joanna Paraszczuk, a journalist and blogger who has lived and worked in the Middle East and Russia and has a special interest in researching Russian-speaking foreign fighters in Syria. Many of them, she says, are wanted by security authorities.
Branching out from the Caucasus and fighting for the Islamic State is now seen as “prestigious,” Paraszczuk, who writes and curates Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's blog on the Islamic State, tells Syria Direct’s Kristen Gillespie.
“IS gets a lot more media attention than the Caucasus Emirate, which they see as a parochial sort of jihad, struggling away unnoticed while the IS Chechens are part of a movement that controls vast tracts of land and is (to them) successful.”
Q: Was there any Islamic State involvement or Syria connection to the attacks last Thursday in Grozny?
While there has been some speculation as to whether the Islamic State could have been behind the recent attacks in Grozny, this is highly unlikely. In the first place, the Grozny militants identified themselves as being from Vilayat Nokhchicho, the Chechen wing of the Caucasus Emirate (CE). They said that the attack had been ordered by the leader of the Chechen wing, Emir Khamzat, and that they were under an oath of allegiance to CE leader Ali Abu Mukhammad.
There is no affiliation between IS and the Caucasus Emirate. The Caucasus Emirate does have a branch in Syria, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, however that faction is heavily involved in fighting in Aleppo province and not in a position to organize local attacks in Grozny.
Chechen and North Caucasian insurgents from both IS, JMA and other factions in Syria have praised the attacks in Grozny, which indicates that at least some IS Chechens are still very interested in the political situation in Chechnya.
Q: Your blog, Chechens in Syria, digs deep to look at their presence in the Syrian war. Are Chechens gravitating to the Islamic State only, or are they represented in different rebel groups?
Chechens (and other fighters from the North Caucasus) are present in a number of different rebel groups. The largest, outside of the Chechen faction in the Islamic State, is Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, which is based in Aleppo province.
The Emir of JMA is a Chechen from the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, Salakhuddin Shishani (Feyzulla Margoshvili). The group calls itself the official branch of the Caucasus Emirate in Syria.
Q: Didn’t they recently mediate the reported meeting between Jabhat a-Nusra and IS?
Yes. Salakhuddin said that he was appointed as an emissary to go to Raqqa and present a truce proposal to the IS leadership there (I suspect that meant Umar Shishani as well as others.)
However, the proposal was not well-received by IS, if we are to believe the reports of IS Chechen social media accounts which have been close to Umar Shishani.
Q: What is Jaish al-Muhajireen? Are they entirely Chechen? And how did they position themselves to mediate this conference?
JMA contains fighters from several parts of the North Caucasus and also Crimea. The military emir of the group, Abdul Karim Krymsky is a Crimean Tartar, for example. The group has also absorbed some local Syrian fighters and Saudi factions, but it is predominantly a North Caucasian/Russian-speaking group.
Q: How does a group like that assimilate so seamlessly into north Syria?
JMA has been increasingly closer to Syrian rebel groups including JAN and Ahrar, and has been neutral in the “fitna” between IS and these groups; also Salakhuddin is Chechen like Umar Shishani, so he is a good choice to negotiate.
They have assimilated, I think, for several reasons. One is because they have fought the Assad regime alongside other rebel factions. They proved to be good fighters, e.g. in the offensives at Layramoun in Aleppo.
But there is also a strong network of Chechen and North Caucasians in Syria and Turkey, so there are networks for funding and support there too.
Q: Do these Chechen leaders have some sort of prior history with other jihadi leaders now in Syria?
Not as far as I am aware; but there is one Chechen leader, Muslim Abu Walid Shishani, one of the Junud a-Sham faction in Latakia, who has had links with Arab foreign fighters in Chechnya during the Second Russo-Chechnya war and likely kept these links.
Most of the Chechen leaders, including Umar Shishani, had no links to the Syrian rebels before coming to Syria, though.
Q: Chechens in Jordan, for example, have historically been allied with the Hashemite rulers. The guards and many advisers to Jordan’s kings, for example, have been Circassian. Yet in Syria, Chechen fighters are battling the regime. Thoughts?
Chechen fighters see the situation in Syria as jihad. Many of them, the senior ones in particular, are in Syria because they simply cannot return to Chechnya. They are wanted by security authorities there so came to Syria, where they can continue to wage jihad.
So if previously they were concerned with fighting the Russian government in the Caucasus, they extended that concept to a wider jihad against the “taghut” in Syria as well.
There are ethnic Circassians in Syria who are now fighting with the rebels too. A faction in Quneitra recently joined with the Chechen-led, pro-Caucasus Emirate Khalifat Jamaat in Latakia.
Q: Is the radicalization of this Chechen element relatively new, or just a phenomenon the West did not pay close attention to? What you’re describing is highly ideological, hardline fighters, not secular ones. Is this hardline jihadi strain within Chechen fighters a by-product of the Russian invasion?
The radicalization of Chechens is not new. What is new is their participation in jihad outside of the North Caucusus, especially in such numbers.
In effect, the Syrian “jihad” began as a sort of proxy conflict for fighters who could not go home to fight in Chechnya or Dagestan.
In time, that ideological trend has developed, with the rise of IS. Chechens in IS argue that the concept of global jihad is important, and that the fighting in Chechnya is “nationalism” and therefore wrong.
IS Chechens have even criticized jihadis back in the Caucasus, saying that they are waging “five-star jihad” in Syria while the Caucasus Emirate is “eating leaves” in the backwater of the forests in North Caucasus.
Q: What do they mean by “five-star jihad?” The ultimate playground for jihadis in Syria?
I think there are several things meant by that. In the first place they mean that it is more prestigious to be in IS and part of a Caliphate. IS gets a lot more media attention than the Caucasus Emirate, which they see as a parochial sort of jihad, struggling away unnoticed while the IS Chechens are part of a movement that controls vast tracts of land and is (to them) successful.
They also see themselves as being on the world stage. Umar Shishani is famous, whereas no one knows who the emir of the Caucasus Emirate is.
Q: The most recent Syria update from the Institute for the Study of War notes: "The deployment of valuable resources such as... Chechen fighters believed to comprise an elite ISIS unit...indicates that the Islamic State may still view Kobani as a primary line of effort." What are your thoughts on that? Are Chechens part of an elite force within IS?
As Chechens themselves have said, the concept of the "Chechen fighter" in Syria has become a sort of "brand," they are considered to be elite fighters.
Part of that is based on truth -- some of the fighters had previous experience of insurgency and it's true that Chechens have proved capable on the battlefield. There is a Chechen unit fighting in Kobani -- the Al Aqsa brigade that is close to Umar Shishani.
But not all of the Chechens in Al Aqsa come from Chechnya, some are European diaspora with no previous fighting experience and are not "elite fighters."
Umar Shishani's military prowess is also overblown, including in the Western media.
Q: Do you think the Western media is buying too much into the image Shishani has created for himself?
Yes. And partly the Western media is responsible for creating that image. There is no indication that Shishani is a great military leader; his former associates have said that he is simply a leader who does not care about sending many young and inexperienced fighters to their deaths as cannon fodder against the regime.
Q: We walk a fine line between reporting on the Islamic State and passing on their propaganda. I think as reporters we have to be aware when it's substantial news and when we are being manipulated.
Q: Is Vladimir Putin at all responsible for this radicalized Chechen phenomenon or is it a natural outgrowth of political circumstances in the Caucasus?
The fact that there are experienced Chechen fighters in Syria -- i.e. those who have had experience of fighting in a jihadist rebel group -- is a result of the Russo-Chechen wars.
Q: Can you imagine a world in which the Syrian regime bombs Chechen fighters with Russian planes? Yet another proxy war playing out in Syria.
Yes. It is a proxy war. And again, the media (this time the Russian media) has hyped that up, reporting on militants in Syria threatening Russia as if this is a real and immediate threat.
We also see Chechen and other Russian-speaking militants in Syria making video addresses threatening Chechen leader Kadyrov.
In many ways it is a displaced conflict.
Q: The danger of a proxy war is that some day it comes home. Is that a possibility?
Yes. Not only directly with the threat of fighters in Syria returning to the Russian Federation, but also via the spread of propaganda. There are a growing number of pro-IS networks on Russian social media, which spread propaganda domestically, increasing the chances of attacks on Russian soil.
The situation in Syria also destabilizes the Caucasus further, e.g. when we see North Caucasus groups splitting from Caucasus Emirate and pledging allegiance to IS.
We could end up seeing infighting between these groups as we have in Syria.