Chechen-led faction Jaish Al-Muhajireen Wal-Ansar (JMA) claimed on Sunday to have captured a strategic hilltop near the village of Handcart in Aleppo Province. 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.