Trusted sources who knew Rustam Gelayev, the son of Chechen commander Ruslan Gelayev, well (and who were also acquainted with Ruslan), have confirmed that Rustam was killed in Syria in August 2012 and have given more details about the early days of the North Caucasian involvement in the Syrian civil war, which show that Imarat Kavkaz was involved in the conflict, in a sense, from very early on. It also gives clues to the struggles within IK, including between its Chechen and Kabardinian elements.
As ever, I dislike having to say this, but: bad experiences. So if you use my work, acknowledge me. It doesn’t mean you magically did the research yourself if you don’t.
The sources say they knew Gelayev’s son Rustam (b. 1988) very well and say that they can confirm that he was indeed killed fighting in Aleppo in August 2012. Kavkaz Center and other Islamist insurgency sources had of course at the time insisted that he had died fighting in Syria, though Kommersant reported that a relative of Rustam’s had denied this and said he had been in Syria to study and had a died in a bombing on a mosque where he had been sheltering overnight while en route to Turkey to escape the fighting. Incidentally, this story has also been repeated by others who say they knew Rustam.
In those early days, early spring 2012 through the end of the year, there were very few North Caucasians in Syria. In the summer, there were only around 15-17 men. Among these were Umar Shishani and Sayfullakh Shishani, both from Pankisi as well as Rustam Gelayev. They gathered in what was the very first North Caucasian jamaat in northern Aleppo under the command of a veteran Chechen fighter named Vakha, aka Khamzat. The jamaat was effectively an outpost of IK, and it had lots of links to Gelayev — not only was Rustam there, but Vakha — who was the first Imarat Kavkaz emir in Syria — was a veteran fighter, born in 1978, who had fought alongside Gelayev from 2000-2003. He was known in the insurgency as “an experienced fighter who was skilled in using any weapon.”
Here’s Vakha in the center:
Both Rustam and Umar Shishani (incidentally, the sources refer to him as “Umar the Georgian” because they want to emphasize that he is not from Chechnya proper and had never fought in the insurgency), who was also one of the first North Caucasians in Syria, had pledged allegiance to Vakha (and thus, it was felt, to Imarat Kavkaz, since Vakha was an IK amir).
However, Vakha was then kicked out of Imarat Kavkaz, after a conflict with Abdul Aziz Kabardinets, at that time one of the most powerful IK representatives in Turkey (and now IK’s главный амир). The sources say that Abdul Aziz wanted to run IK in Syria from Turkey, which Vakha did not agree with. Vakha left IK and went to fight alongside Ahrar al-Sham in Aleppo. (His replacement, Abdullakh Ingush, also a veteran fighter, lasted just a few months before quitting, according to the sources; he was replaced by Salakhuddin Shishani, which is a whole new story).
Vakha was killed in spring or summer 2012 in Khan Tuman in Aleppo, fighting alongside Ahrar.
The sources say that Rustam had been “worthy of his father” — the phrase сын достойного отца is an epithet that has been used elsewhere to describe him (including by those who insist he did not fight in Syria). He had “always wanted to to go Chechnya [i.e. to fight] but there was no route.” While there was no way for him to go to Chechnya Rustam went to study in Egypt. When the Syrian civil war began, he went to Syria to fight there, the sources say.
Rustam was killed in August 2012 in Aleppo.
Out of interest, let’s return to the part where Umar pledged bayah to Vakha, who was an IK emir, and look at Umar’s relationship with IK in Syria and elsewhere.
Umar left Vakha’s group, while Vakha was still with Imarat Kavkaz, and Sayfullakh Shishani went with him. The sources credit this to the fact that Sayfullakh was from Pankisi, like Umar (though unlike Umar Sayfullakh had experience fighting in the insurgency in Chechnya, for a few months back in 2000). Umar formed his own small group, Katiba Muhajireen, which in March 2013 joined with a Syrian group to form Jaish Muhajireen wal Ansar.
In around December 2012, after Abdullakh Ingush left Imarat Kavkaz in Syria (and joined with Abdulhakim Shishani, now emir of Ajnad al-Kavkaz), IK found itself in some difficulties and started to cooperate with Umar. Umar needed men, and Abdul Aziz Kabardinets could provide those, while Abdul Aziz needed authority in Syria, the sources say.
The sources say that Umar told Russian-speaking fighters arriving in Syria, the majority of whom at that time had bayah to Dokka Umarov, that he also had pledged allegiance to the IK leader. So lots of fighters joined him.
When Umar and his confidante (and influencer) Abu Jihad pledged bayah to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late 2013, they caused fury among IK loyalists, who accused the pair of being traitors/disloyal because they broke their bayah to IK, and also because they took with them to IS most of JMA’s weapons.
Both Umar and Abu Jihad then denied ever having pledged bayah to IK, which caused more anger (and is still a very sore point, especially to veteran Chechen fighters and even to those who are not or no longer connected to IK in Syria). They point to another video, made in 2013 (it must be very early-ish 2013) in which Sayfullakh Shishani, Abu Jihad and Umar Shishani are filmed with Abdul Aziz Kabardinets. In the video, Abu Jihad makes an address to Dokka Umarov and says that he wants to “give salam to him through this video as our amir.” He also notes that he is under bayah to him.
Here’s a screen grab: