A View of Chechens in Syria

Since the bloody Syrian civil war began in 2011, foreign fighters have been streaming in to join the fight against the infidels, as Bashar al-Assad’s regime is known. What began as a revolution to overthrow the Assad regime has turned into a training ground for jihadis from all over the world, many from European nations. One group of foreign fighters is making their presence known, due to their experience and tenacity. While most of the world is focused on the battle between Assad and the Syrian rebels, Chechens are becoming known as some of the best fighters in Syria. Their prominence is growing, and it is alarming.

Initially, the Chechens joined established groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and Al-Nusra Front (JAN). Mounting tension between the groups caused the Chechens to form a new group, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA). JMA was fronted by Omar al-Shishani. A recent, interesting explanation for the rift can be found here. Even like-minded terror groups fall victim to sectarianism.

Omar Shishani chose to pledge his allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Many other Chechens in JMA had already sworn their allegiance to (late) Caucasian Emirate leader Doku Umarov, and ultimately split from Omar al-Shishani and ISIL. Now there are at least four known Caucasian groups fighting in Syria. In the ISIL faction, they are led by Omar al-Shishani. Salahuddin Shishani fronts Caucasian Emirate-loyal JAM. In Abu Mohammed al Jolani-led JAN, Caucasians were originally under the leadership of Sayfullakh Shishani, until he was killed in an attack in February 2014. The last group is independent of the major factions in Syria. That group is Jundu Sham (sometimes called Jund al-Sham), led by Muslim Abu Walid Shishani. Unfortunately, there is little known about this group, as it shares its name with a Lebanese-dominated jihad faction.

Perhaps the most well know operation involving the Chechen factions was the 2012/2013 attack and eventual siege of the Menegh Air Base in northern Syria.

Chechen fighters have been on the forefront of some major attacks inside Syria. The February 2014 attack on Aleppo Central Prison by JAN and Islamic Front involved many Chechens, and was the battle where Sayfullakh Shishani was mortally wounded. Chechen fighters have been major players in fighting in Latakia, as well. Perhaps the most well know operation involving the Chechen factions was the 2012/2013 attack and eventual siege of the Menegh Air Base in northern Syria. JAM was a leading force, along with JAN, ISIL and the Free Syrian Army, in taking the air base.

The takeover of the air base, and the subsequent treatment of captured Syrian military personnel, showed what many already knew, the brutality of Chechen jihadis. Those who were captured were summarily executed, their throats slit then beheaded. Others were merely lined up, placed on their knees, and shot in the back of the head. Some fighters even proudly recorded their feats. The Chechen fighters are earning a reputation as some of the most ruthless, but best fighters in Syria. Some of the atrocities are described here. Chechens also reportedly make up about a tenth of the ISIL forces fighting in both Syria and Iraq. Remember, this is a group so extreme in its actions that even one-time ally al Qaeda disavowed them.

The fear is that the Chechen fighters are using their time in Syria as combat training to bring back to the Caucasus. It is still the desire of many in the North Caucasus to create an Islamic Emirate. While the Chechen Wars may have ended, there are still occasional incidents between Islamic militants and Russians in the Caucasus, but there is no ongoing major conflict, such as that in Syria. Fighting in Syria against a major Russian ally could be the combat training the Chechens use to renew the insurgency in the Caucasus. Initially, now-deceased Islamic Caucasian Emirate leader Doku Umarov, tried to dissuade Chechens from traveling to Syria, stating it was more important to wage jihad at home against the Russians. One hope was that the fighters would come back and focus their efforts on the Sochi Olympics. Despite threats, the Games went off without incident. Umarov eventually relented; realizing fighting in Syria would give the Chechens more training in their own fight. Umarov’s successor, Ail Abu-Muhammed, also supports Caucasians fighting in Syria, specifically JAM, who has pledged their allegiance to the new Emir.

Another thing to consider is who or what is funding the Chechen fighters. As far back as 2000, there have been claims of Saudi Arabia financing fighters in Chechnya. In anarticle by the Jamestown Foundation, the FSB (Russian Security Services) makes the claim of Saudi financial support. Many sites claim that Saudi Arabia, among several other countries, is helping fund the fighters now in Syria. As both the Saudis and the Chechen Islamist are Wahhabis Sunnis, it is not impossible to think the former would be helping the latter defeat the Syrian Alawites. Saudi Arabia has, financed or at the very least hosted terrorists in the past. We cannot forget that many of the September 11 hijackers were Saudis. Many of the claims I have found are from less than legitimate sites, but there are enough rumors to at least consider the possibility.

The Chechens will apply what they have learned on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, and very well may lead the way in the next global jihad movement.

If and when the Chechen fighters ever return to the Caucasus, it could turn that region into the next battleground. They will not be satisfied with defeating the infidels of the Assad regime, and helping bolster the ISIL led caliphate. Whether any other jihadis travel to the Caucasus to defeat the Russian infidels remains to be seen. But the Chechens will not stay contained in the Caucasus. The current Syrian war will be felt long after it is over, and will reach far beyond its borders. The Chechens will continue to fight (as evident in Yemen, where a Chechen was killed earlier this year fighting with AQAP). The Chechens will apply what they have learned on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, and very well may lead the way in the next global jihad movement.

Brandee Leon is a student of counter-terrorism and international relations. Her main area of focus is terror in Europe. She writes for The Bridge and The Eastern Project.

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Header image: Omar al Shishani in an image made from undated video posted June 28, 2014. (AP)