(UPDATED – see below) A Georgian news outlet has published an interview with a childhood friend of Muslim Shishani (Murad Margoshvili), the Emir of the Latakia-based jamaat Junud a-Sham. Continue reading
There has been a lot of media attention recently on the threat posed, specifically to Russia, by “Chechens” in the Islamic State. (I wrote about that here.)
Here is some new information that I obtained recently from some sources close to Islamic State:
— About a week ago I noticed that some Russian speaking IS-associated individuals were using the term Abu Kamil Jamaat in connection with the offensive on Kobani, specifically regarding the units approaching from the south and then later with respect to deaths of jihadis inside Kobani.
— After doing some digging I learned that:
— The Abu Kamil Jamaat is not a purely Chechen jamaat but contains various ethnic groups, but appears to be comprised predominantly of North Caucasians and possibly others from the former USSR, including Azerbaijanis.
So that’s something worth watching in terms of figuring out who is fighting at Kobani… I still don’t know how large this group is or who its leader is, but I am working on finding out.
Outside of the Kobani offensive, there are a number of jamaats of fighters from the former USSR. These jamaats are roughly but not completely based along ethnic/kinship ties.
Jamaats do usually have a majority ethnicity e.g.
Jamaat Sabri is “a more Dagestani jamaat” (I had previously thought it to be more Uzbek, but it seems its composition has changed).
Jamaat Adama and Jamaat Akhmada – Chechen jamaats.
Jamaat Daoud – Kazakh jamaat.
Jamaat Khattaba – Azerbaijani
Abu Hanif – Uzbek
There are barely any jamaats that have only one ethnicity, even if they have a majority of a single ethnicity. For example, the Daoud faction in IS is referred to as a Kazakh Jamaat but as well as Kazakhs it contains Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Nogais, Karachaevs, Russians, Ossetians, Dagestanis, Chechens, Tajiks, Arabs, and a German.
“WE ARE A GATHERING OF NATIONS, A MELTING POT”
IS fighters insist that there is no division by ethnicity in jamaats. In fact, the line given by IS fighters from these jamaats is that IS is a melting pot of Muslims, and ethnicity is not only not important, but a negative trait, a sign of “nationalism”. They say that the reason the West cannot defeat IS is because it is comprised of Muslims from all over the world.
It is interesting to note that I have heard this same line from fighters in non-IS factions including from those in Latakia factions who were previously fighting for the Caucasus Emirate and who one might expect to express a sense of national or ethnic pride toward Chechens. However, these Chechen fighters tend to express the following ideas:
— “Chechen” or “Shishani” has been turned into a “brand” in Syria. Jihadis think that having the name “Shishani” will make people think they are better fighters. E.g. Umar Shishani gives himself that name but he is really a Georgian (non-IS Chechens tend to be very negative towards Umar and one way of insulting him is to call him Umar Gruzinetz – Umar the Georgian, an ironic insult when the speaker is trying to assert that nationality is not important!). Abu Jihad, Umar’s second in command, has also dubbed himself “Abu Jihad Shishani”, though he is apparently a Karachai.
— Fighters won’t talk about being Chechen “in case you think we are being nationalistic”, which is against jihad.
A SMALL DIGRESSION ABOUT RESEARCH METHODS
The media coverage of “Chechens” made me realize (again) that (a) “Chechens” is often used as something of a catch-all term for “Russian-speaking foreign fighters and/or foreign fighters from the former USSR”, and (b) actually very little is known about WHO these fighters are, where they are fighting, their groups and so on.
That is hardly surprising. There is not an awful lot of readily-accessible information out there about these fighters, even less so since what I have dubbed the Great VK Banning of Jihadi Accounts. Even then, these accounts are often not opaque in terms of the information they present (they are mostly in-group discussions, they definitely don’t talk to Western journalists); they are in (bad) Russian so that means non-Russian speakers can’t find or access them anyway; and they are mostly private accounts.
Sometimes, when one reads a news report that states, unequivocally, that one fighter or another (usually Umar Shishani) is in a certain place or is responsible for a certain strategy or has made a certain threat, digging back to the source of those stories is frustrating, leading either to a dead end, an unconfirmed quote, or a very dubious Iraqi or Kurdish news source that cites “unnamed security sources” who just so happen to have thorough knowledge of Umar’s plans to attack, say, Kirkuk from a particular direction at a particular time.
Nevertheless, it is possible to get information: one has to dig for it, figure out where people talk, access networks (time consuming and not easy), talk to people, piece things together, translate lengthy video addresses, ask other researchers, share information with them, and so on. And I’m sure other researchers do far more painstaking work than my humble efforts.
So none of the information I find is a 100% total picture of what is it like on the ground in Syria. Loyalties shift, jamaats come and go, battles happen, jihadis are killed, some disappear or change their screen names, there is a moral outrage on Twitter from people who never cared about jihadis previously and VK bans accounts, you name it.
This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for RFE/RL’s Islamic State blog, Under The Black Flag, discussing recent media reports warning that the Islamic State is “grooming” Chechen fighters against Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
How credible are these threats, and rumors of threats, from Islamic State? Does Islamic State have plans to mobilize its North Caucasian and other fighters from the former Soviet Union against Russia?
At least until recently, any direct threat of “blowback” — jihadis returning from Syria and committing terrorist acts in their home countries — to Russia would more likely have come from North Caucasian fighters in factions other than Islamic State, particularly those linked to the Caucasus Emirate, the North Caucasian jihadi organization considered a terror group in Russia.
On September 23, US air strikes targeted Jabhat al-Nusra jihadis in Rif al-Muhandasin in Aleppo. The US said the strikes targeted the “Khorasan Group”, a secret Al Qaeda cell that planned attacks on Western targets.
Video and other reportage from pro-jihadi groups since May described the group and its leader Abu Yusuf al-Turki as running an elite sniper school for JAN fighters in Aleppo. Video footage of the school and the training, from May, are given below. In one propaganda video, the group is shown to use a logo depicting a wolf, and is referred to as the “Al Qaeda Snipers”. Continue reading
The Khilafa website, which is associated with Chechen fighters in Latakia-based faction Ansar a-Sham, has published an account of this summer’s battle for Kessab.
WHO ARE ANSAR A-SHAM?
Ansar a-Sham is a predominantly Syrian faction but its Emir is a Chechen, Abu Musa Shishani, and his jamaat fights with the group. It is an independent faction; Abu Musa Shishani is allied with Muslim Shishani and formerly with Seyfullakh Shishani.
The account of the journey to the battle in Kessab is written by a Chechen fighter who goes under the pen-name “Nuha Chechenskiy”. We have encountered him before, talking about his training.
This account does not actually discuss the fighting at Kessab but only the group’s night march to the town.
The jamaat has published several videos of the fighting around the town, including this one:
WHY WRITE THIS ACCOUNT? RECRUITMENT?
There has been a lot of discussion and talk in the media and social media about recruitment by the Islamic State and “Islamist” factions in Syria, and the use of the internet and social media by groups to attract and recruit others.
In this regard, it is worth making a few points about how social media/ websites and accounts like this one are used by Chechen fighters in Syria.
1. These groups — including the jamaat that eventually went on to become Umar Shishani’s jamaat in IS — maintained websites since they first went to Syria and crystalized into various jamaats and factions. Many of the websites are now either not updated or removed from the net. The websites served several functions: to share news, photos, and videos; to fundraise either directly or by showing potential supporters how impressive the jamaat was; and to show the groups’ attitudes toward Islam by publishing various religious or jihadi texts.
2. Personal stories and even poems have been another feature of how Chechen/ North Caucasian fighters in Syria engage with their community. This storytelling usually has some common features: personal stories or dreams (dreams usually function as “fan fiction”, allowing the dreamer to explore situations where he can meet “famous” jihadis like Umar Shishani and engage in daring feats of battle against “kuffar”); tales of personal hardship in dealing with training or (in this case) the hard march to the battle field; emphasizing one’s devotion to Islam.
The most important feature, though, is that of community. The stories emphasize — though not overtly — the sense of community, communal eating (this is a big feature of a lot of the photographs shared by North Caucasian jihadis, too), living together, cooking together, and fighting together. The “outsider” — the Chechen jihadi who back home would have been wanted by the authorities – is part of a community.
What is missing from the stories is any sense of politics (the writers do not care about the details of the battle other than that it is against the “kuffar”). There is no message of “fighting against the US or Europe” (or even against Assad, usually).
So these tales are not “recruitment” tales per se, but part of a story-telling tradition that reinforces values of kinship, community, religion, and a generalized concept of “good versus evil”, with the jihadis fighting the nameless “kuffar”.
On the day before the amalia [operation], I was on duty. And this is how AbduRokhman, my kitchen partner that day, put it:
“Me and you have definitely lucked out. This is a real clemency [NB he uses the slang term скачуха so if anyone has a better translation…]”
That’s what he called the opportunity to earn ajr [“plus points”]. He’s an interesting and original brother.
On the eve of the operation there was a great deal to prepare. I had already been preparing for several days but some stuff remained unfinished. I had to finish getting my backpack together and sort something out with my rifle.
Beforehand, I had taken a sniper rifle and trained with it. I was going to the operation as a sniper. I had already started to get nervous and so I wasn’t on time, we had to be ready for morning prayers, we would leave. But Abdu Rokhman says:
“Go finish your stuff. I’ll cope by myself.”
That calmed me down. But I couldn’t leave him alone. I asked a bunch of brothers to help him and went to finish my stuff. Of course, I managed everything with the help of Allah. AbduRokhman took on most of the kitchen work himself. The mujahideen were stuffed full of tasty food, and ready for battle.
We made our final preparations before leaving. Someone finished sewing camo shirts for the tents, so they wouldn’t get shot at. Someone pulled up the straps on the backpacks. I wrote a will.
We took a lot of things. When I got the bag ready, I catered for about a week of fighting. Spare things, sleeping bag, mat, first aid kit, a few liters of water and packed lunch. I decided that a machine gun could be useful, and took it. The rounds I had weighed 12 kg. 500 rounds of rifle more for the machine-gun. Grenades and spare pins. In short, we were loaded to the maximum. At the end of the day, our backpacks weighed 40-50 kilos.
After we loaded everything into the cars, we took a few snapshots and left. In a little less than an hour, we arrived at the base of an Arab jamaat whose name I don’t recall. I remember that on the road there was a sign saying “Kessab”, where naturally we took some more photos. The mood that day was on the up and up. We’d waited a long time for this operation, so you could say that on that day everyone was especially merry. Other groups were supposed to join us in this place, and while we waited, they handed out red armbands so we could recognize each other. There was a tank there, which me and my mates studied while we had the chance. When the others got here, we were on our way again. When we arrived at our destination, it was time for afternoon prayers.
There, we unloaded the cars. From there the road ran along a bumpy path up the hill. Most of our cars couldn’t drive along that path. But the path didn’t run close and we had to get as near to the enemy as possible in order to gather our forces. We took a bunch of pick ups and trucks. They couldn’t take a lot of brothers, so our things were sent on ahead and someone went on foot. So we reached there, some walking and others in the cars. This was the starting point, this was the place we could get to by car. Further on our path ran through the hills. This place was by the river, between two hills.
When we perched our backpacks on ourselves, and got going, it was about 10 o’clock in the evening. At first we walked along the river, occasionally passing through it, then to the right bank, then to the left. Then we walked up, then going down. There was one section, rather long, when the roads were solid rocks, large boulders, over which we had to climb. My rifle did not have a cover, and it kept clinging to the bushes, which we had to push through.
The night was very dark, and we weren’t allowed to turn on the flashlight. But I almost never fell, I still can’t understand why. We moved in a long column, one after the other. Movement had to be as quiet as possible. From time to time we stopped to breathe, for just a few minutes. There were only a few long stops during the move. The most difficult part of the way was getting up on the rock, in the literal sense of the word. More than once I had to climb fairly steep places, but I’ve was with a gun and luggage. And it wasn’t just that the slope was almost vertical, I had a backpack and a rifle of one and a half meters.
I’ll just digress to say after this campaign, I felt just how difficult are the conditions that our brothers are fighting in the mountains of the Caucasus. May Allah strengthen their steps and give them and us victory!
So we walked all night, knoll after knoll, hill after hill. There was no opportunity to rest before the fight. We had to attack at dawn, and therefore had to be at the appointed place on time. And we walked. Through the thickets, on trails along the river, over the hills, one landscape was replaced by another, but in the dark it was not noticeable. We felt just climbs and descents. One guy named Ayub, already at a ripe age, could not see in the dark and was led by the hand. Under these conditions, when it was very hard for the young and healthy guys, he walked ahead grabbed by his arm. By Allah, it was amazing. Then he told me that he felt as if he is helped by Allah. We walked all night, and dawn came when the first of our long column was already close to the appointed positions. We stopped for prayer, and continued on. And after a short time, I was offered a beautiful view. I I stood on a hill at the foot of which lay the city. Rays of the rising sun illuminated the rooftops. The city slept …
The Uzbek Imam Bukhari Jamaat (Albuxoriy Katiyba) has published a new video.
The faction has fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra in Layramoun, Aleppo. The footage here is not dated (although if there are any Uzbek speakers out there who can help shed light on when it was filmed, please let me know.