Some thoughts on Salakhuddin Shishani, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and the idea of “displaced conflict.”
In a recent interview with the Turkish pro-jihad website Ummet-i Islam, the emir (commander) of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), Salakhuddin Shishani, commented on a range of issues, including the recent pledges of allegiance by North Caucasian Caucasus Emirate (CE) groups to the Islamic State (IS) group; the state of the fighting in Syria as fought by the Islamic brigades; the “fitna” between the Islamic brigades and the Islamic State group; and JMA’s involvement with other Islamic brigades in Syria, particularly in Aleppo province.
Each of these issues merits a separate discussion, since Salakhuddin’s comments sheds light onto the positioning of JMA within the Islamic brigades in Syria, and vis-a-vis the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus.
What I intend to raise some ideas about here, though, is what Salakhuddin’s comments have to tell us about a phenomenon that is of particular interest to me, and which I raised in my previous post: that of “displaced conflict.”
In that previous post, I mentioned Salakhuddin’s comments on why he came to Syria rather than fight in the North Caucasus.
This is an interesting issue; after all, after he took over from Umar Shishani as Emir of JMA, Salakhuddin re-branded the group as the “Imarat Kavkaz (CE) in Syria” and Salakhuddin has repeatedly emphasized (as he does once more here) his loyalty to the CE emir, Ali Abu Mukhammad. Indeed, in this interview, Salakhuddin says that he would leave Syria and go anywhere that the CE Emir commanded him; a lofty assertion, given that, in reality, Salakhuddin cannot fight in the North Caucasus (he is on an FSB wanted list and could not physically travel to Chechnya or Dagestan without being arrested; the U.S. have also designated JMA as a terrorist entity).
Loyal to CE but integrated into Syrian Islamist axis
At the same time as Salakhuddin emphasizes and re-emphasizes his loyalty to the CE and to the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, we have seen how he and JMA have become increasingly integrated within the axis of the Islamic brigades in Syria.
Under Salakhuddin’s leadership — i.e. after Umar Shishani’s move to the Islamic State group — JMA has fought alongside major Syrian Islamist brigades like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham in Aleppo province and has arguably more than any other foreign fighter faction become an integral part of alliances between brigades.
Salakhuddin’s integration of JMA into wider alliances is a pragmatic move, a reaction to the reality of the situation on the ground in Syria. In order to survive as a relatively small foreign fighter faction, JMA has no choice but to align itself with other groups. Salakhuddin has also managed to expand his group by absorbing fighters from other factions, and has not limited himself to admitting only Russian-speaking fighters.
The integration is also a reflection of JMA’s and CE’s ideological affinity with Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist groups, as set against its opposition to the ideology of the Islamic State group. (This is an area that I am just starting to explore, so it will be the topic of future posts, I hope.)
One outcome of the growing integration of JMA into the Syrian Islamist axis has been a deepening and hardening of the rift between JMA and the IS group.
Despite that rift, it was Salakhuddin who was chosen by Islamist factions in Syria to act as their emissary in an approach to IS leaders in Raqqa (those leaders very likely included Umar Shishani). (See my thoughts on that here).
JMA’s effective integration into the Syrian Islamist rebel axis, and Salakhuddin’s attitude towards it, are further discussed in the JMA emir’s latest interview — here is what the JMA emir has to say about the alliance (taken from a translation published elsewhere):
Ummet-i Islam: Could you give us information about your new formation Ansaruddin Front? Which jamaahs form Ansaruddin and how is the relationship between the jamaahs in Ansaruddin?
Salahuddin Sishani: We, as Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, formed an alliance with Fajr’ul Sham, where many Turkish brothers are also present, Sham al Islam Movement and Katibat al Khadra. Later Katibat al Khadra told us about their desire to merge with Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, which we accepted with great pleasure. Our brother Mu’tasim, leader of the Sharia Committee, did this great sacrifice. We are aligned in a row for our mutual goals. We were not mistaken about these brothers and they showed us their best virtues. We are very pleased with them and being united with them.
Ummet-i Islam: Some of the Amirs in Chechnya and Daghestan provinces retracted their allegiance from the leader of Causasus Emirate Sheikh Ali Ebu Muhammed and pledged allegiance to the leader of Islamic State group Abu Bakr Baghdadi. Hence a division emerged in Caucasian mujahideen. What would you like to say about this?
Salahuddin Sishani: Let alone an oath, fulfilling a promise is a matter of honour for even people in a state of ignorance (jahiliyya). This has been so in the Caucasus since ancient times. Thus if people claiming to be part of the jihad and mujahideen break their oath without a valid reason, I would think they have become far away from Islam and Shariah. And I think when they broke their allegiance to Ali Ebu Muhammed, whom they knew, and pledge to Ibrahim Awwad (Abu Bakr Baghdadi), whom they don’t know, they follow their ambitions and desires. But we I don’t care about these. People themselves are responsible for what they do. I think, perhaps the ranks of mujahideen are cleaned in this way. Allah knows best.
Ummet-i Islam: What advice would you like to give to mujahideen in the Caucasus related to this fitna (sedition)?
Salahuddin Sishani: This is similar to the previous question. I want to add that as Muslims we know this world is a test and this test does not end until death. It is the first victory of the young Muslims to leave aside all bonds relating them to their families, relatives, friends and homes and set out for jihad. However many people get relaxed forgetting that the test has not finished yet. And this test by no means consists only of clashes, bombardments and the intense attacks of the enemy. The most important thing is to remain on the straight path and not to go astray. It is possible that an armed man engage in suspicious things and end up in the wrong war. If a young and inexperienced Muslim does not know what to do, he should consult the people of knowledge. They should pay attention to scholars and what scholars say about this matter. Even if jihadi ulema (scholars) did not have so many statements about this issue, Muslims should have the necessary wisdom and attention to not follow those inviting to discord and aggression.