Umar Shishani – “Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar Joined ISIS After Al-Baghdadi Oath”

In a recent video, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’s northern region, the ethnic Chechen Abu Umar al-Shishani, responds to criticisms that he left his Chechen jamaat, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, when he swore allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

FiSyria, the Russian-language website that reports on developments connected with fighters from the North Caucasus in Syria, said that it had filmed a two-part video series with Umar and his associate Abu Jihad in the wake of many questions raised following Abu Umar’s announcement regarding the oath to Baghdadi.

BACKGROUND

Following Umar’s decision to swear allegiance to Baghdadi last month, and transfer his loyalties entirely to ISIS rather than to Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (JMA), there was talk of a split among fighters from the North Caucasus in Syria, with some those who did not want to pledge allegiance to Baghdadi, either because they had already pledged to the Emir of the Caucasus Emirate, Dokku Umarov, or because they believed they should remain independent, remaining with JMA or going elsewhere.

In this video, the first of two, Umar denies that there is any split among his former jamaat, but says that it moved in its entirety over to ISIS.

FiSyria describes Abu Jihad as ISIS’s new Emir of ad-Dana in Idlib Province. (It appears that Abu Jihad fought with ISIS previously, given that FiSyria has featured earlier videos with Abu Jihad, including this one from July in which he appears with an ISIS banner and explains that the fighting in Syria is the faithful versus the infidels.)

Umar describes the fighting in Syria in jihadi terms. He does not mention the local struggle of the Syrian people against the Assad regime. Instead, the fighting is part of the Islamic struggle to rid the world of infidel regimes who are humiliating the Muslims and holding them in servitude.

Umar, who is from the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia as are many of his fellow-fighters, has grown in importance and influence since he established the Kataib al-Muhajireen in Summer 2012. That group merged with two other groups, Jaish Muhammad and Kataeb Khattab, to form JMA in March. Since then, Umar was named the military commander of ISIS’s Northern operations in Syria. The decision to swear an oath to al-Baghdadi and move over completely to ISIS along with some of JMA will likely consolidate his power yet further. Umar’s main rival, his former second-in-command Seyfullakh whom he expelled from JMA in August on charges of takfir and fraud, and has said that the split with Umar was ideological because he and his followers did not want to become closer to ISIS. However, Seyfullakh has not emerged an an influential figure to rival Abu Umar following the split.

Below is a translation of some of the main points of the video, with FiSyria’s introduction.

ABU UMAR AL-SHISHANI AND ABU JIHAD DISCUSS RECENT CHANGES IN THE JAMAAT

Recently, after Abu Umar Al-Shishani swore an oath to Abu Bakr al-Bagadadi, our editors have received many questions in relation to these global changes. With the permission of Allah, we met with Umar and asked him to clarify some points, and asked him some questions. Abu Jihad, who has today become the Emir of the town of Ad Dana in the Province of Idlib, explains in detail about the structure and purpose of ISIS. The video is divided into two parts.

The video was shot on December 8, 2013

  • Abu Umar begins by greeting “all brothers and sisters whose hearts are concerned by the current situation” in which the Ummah has been humiliated, and who are helping with the jihad.
  • Umar says that the success of the jihad would be the establishment of Sharia Law — Allah’s law — and that the Ummah would then be able to live under Allah’s law. The laws of the infidels, which for a long time had been imposed on the Ummah, would be removed.
  • Umar talks about how the Mujahideen are waging jihad “fi sabil Allah”, i.e. on the path of Allah.
  • Abu Umar then goes on to say that he decided to make the video address because he had had a lot of questions, and he wanted to answer them. Abu Umar introduces Abu Jihad, the Emir of ad-Dana. He then goes on to give some details about himself: he is now the Emir of Northern Syria, and previously was the Emir of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar.
  • Abu Umar now answers the question of why he made an oath of allegiance to Al Baghdadi, and explains that there were some Mujahideen from the Caucasus Emirate who decided that they had already made an oath to Dokku Umarov (the Emir of the Caucasus Emirate).
  • “There are some brothers — a number of them — not many, about 17, actually, we don’t know the exact number — who chose not to give an oath to ISIS, and who left.”
  • “There are some who said that I wanted to give an oath to Baghdadi to leave Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, but that is not correct.”
  • Almost all of the original group of ours, Kataib Muhajireen, about 80%, made the oath, and so we can say that we joined with ISIS

ABU JIHAD:

  • “I wanted to tell you about some new events that have happened here in the land of Sham. There have been a lot of rumors and untrue things flying around on the internet.”
  • Abu Jihad blames those who have not come to join the jihad but who have chosen to sow discord among the “brothers”.
  • “So we will try to explain some of the questions, so that people will know what is going on and so that they can’t say we don’t know and we are afraid that we don’t have any information, etc.”
  • Regarding JMA, I have known Emir Al Shishani for a while, who we named as Emir right from the start, from when we were 30 guys, then 50, then 60. (He is talking about Kataib al-Muhajireen — JP)
  • This jamaat gave its oath to al Baghdadi. Jaish went over to ISIS. So you cannot say that Umar left his jamaat. That’s just rumor. Why? Because it has no relation to the truth.
  • There was another group who joined us after Jaish was already formed and when it came time to make the oath, because they had already made an oath to Dokku, they left us.
  • Abu Jihad says that most of the other members of JMA made the oath, “A Caucasian group, after that a European group, after that an Arab group i.e,. all the jamaat with all its structure and members, went over to ISIS.”
  • “We are all part of the ISIS already” — there are no small groups who wanted to keep their own name or anything like that.
  • So the group that is calling itself Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar is not the same one as before.
  • So please don’t tell lies, that Umar left his jamaat, that is a lie.
  • The reason for the unification was so that everyone would be fighting under the same banner.)
  • Abu Jihad goes on to praise al Baghdadi, saying that he created a strong jamaat in Iraq that helped to kick out the American puppets and will do the same in Syria.

Is Damascus’ Claim Of “1,700 Chechens” Fighting in Syria Correct?

The Syrian Government claimed this week that around 1,700 people of Chechen origin are fighting in Syria, and that those Russian citizens found to be fighting in Syria will be tried and punished under Syrian law, RIA Novosti reports.

The announcement, by Syria’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Riad Haddad, is another reinforcement of Damascus’s line that the insurgency is dominated by foreign fighters: a stance that allows the Assad regime to claim that the civil war is not based on domestic grievances, but is supported by external interests and groups, including extremists.

In this same context, Haddad, who said that fighters from 83 countries were active in Syria, warned that Damascus would only hand over Russian nationals to Moscow if they were proven innocent of participating in armed activities. Otherwise, those found fighting in Syria would be prosecuted under Syrian law.

SO HOW MANY CHECHENS ARE FIGHTING IN SYRIA?
The Russian Security Forces Estimate

Although is impossible to calculate the exact number of fighters from Chechnya and the North Caucasus in Syria, Damascus’s claims of 1,700 does not accord with figures given by the Russian security services, who have a vested interest in quoting a higher estimate, given Russia’s support of Damascus’s line that the insurgency is “dominated” by foreign fighters, and given its own need to justify its security efforts in the North Caucasus.

On September 20, Sergei Smirnov, the deputy director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosi or FSB) said that there were around 300-400 Russian nationals fighting in Syria.

Smirnov also expressed Moscow’s main fear about Russian nationals fighting in Syria:

“They will come back, and that poses a huge threat,” he warned.

That figure is greater than an earlier estimate given in June by FSB director Aleksander Bortnikov, who told an international security conference that, “There is great concern in Russia that there are about 200 militants from the Russian Federation fighting (in North Africa and Syria) on the side of the Caucasus Emirate (militant Islamic organization considered a terrorist group by Moscow) under the flag of Al Qaeda and other affiliated structures.”

The Russian Media Estimate

Russian journalist Orhan Jemal told Russian-language news outlet Kavkazskii Uzel in November that in his estimate there are between 200-400 Russian citizens fighting in Syria, including those from Georgia and Bashkiria as well as Chechnya and Dagestan.

A figure of several hundred Russian nationals accords with estimates given by other groups in the region.

In November, Kavkazskii Uzel cited a member of the Integration Fund of the Caucasus People, Umar Idigov, as saying that around 200 Chechen-Kists from the Pankissi Gorge region of Georgia are fighting in Syria. (The Kist people are a Chechen subethnos in Georgia, mostly in the Pankissi Gorge.)

Idigov said that Kist fighters went to Syria in 2011 to support the insurgency against Assad. An imam from a mosque in the Pankissi Gorge, Ayub Borchashvili, explained that the fighters believed they had gone to “support the oppressed people” of Syria. All of those who went to Syria were connected to the insurgent group the Caucasus Emirate, considered a terror organization by Russia, according to Kavkazskii Uzel.

Although an investigation by Russian outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda found that Russian nationals were still able to travel — albeit illegally — to Syria from the North Caucasus, it is unlikely that the numbers of Russian nationals fighting in Syria has more than tripled since November.

The North Caucasus Pro-Jihad Media Estimate

Kavkaz Center, a Chechnya-based, pro-jihad outlet that reports on developments related to fighters from the North Caucasus in Syria, has said in a report in November that there are around 600 Chechens fighting in Syria, but notes that these are mostly the offspring of Chechen refugees rather than nationals of the Russian Federation:

“We recall that according to various estimates there are around 600 Chechens fighting in Syria. They have gone into various units and jamaats around the country. These are mostly the children of Chechen refugees from Europe, as well as representatives of the diaspora in Turkey, Jordan, Georgia and other countries. There are also several dozen people who came to Syria from Chechnya.”

Estimates from Analysts

Dr. Mairbek Vatchagaev, a Chechen historian and political analyst on the North Caucasus and a former senior ranking official in the Chechen government of Aslan Maskhadov, estimates that most of the Chechens fighting in Syria come from refugee populations in Europe rather than from Chechnya itself.

“The number of Chechens leaving Chechnya for Syria is not as substantial as the influx of Chechens from Europe. Probably several dozen people, up to a hundred at most, traveled to Syria from Chechnya.”

WHERE ARE INSURGENTS FROM THE NORTH CAUCASUS FIGHTING?

According to evidence from the field — video footage and statements, interviews, and reports in Russian-language, North Caucasus-based pro-jihad outlets — the bulk of the Russian-speaking, ethnic Chechen fighters and those from elsewhere in the Caucasus fought with the group Kataib al-Muhajireen, which in March merged with two other groups, Jaish Muhammad and Kataeb Khattab, to become Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Helpers).

Although mainstream media sources have tended to describe Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar as a Chechen brigade, in reality there are fighters from various parts of the North Caucasus, including Dagestan and Azerbaijan, with the faction.

There have been wide-ranging estimates on the number of fighters in Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, from several hundred to 1,700, though not all of the group’s fighters are from the North Caucasus: some are fighters who left other Islamist groups but who do not want to join the Free Syrian Army because of differing ideologies.

NOT ALL “CHECHEN FIGHTERS” ARE FROM CHECHNYA

The number of ethnic Chechen fighters and those from the North Caucasus may be greater than the figure of 400 Russian nationals quoted by the FSB, because not all ethnic Chechen fighters in Syria Russian nationals.

Apart from ethnic Chechens from the North Caucasus, some fighters are likely from Chechen Diaspora families already in Syria or neighboring Jordan.

It is known that Jaish al-Muhajareen wal Ansar also contains a battalion of fighters from Azerbaijan, which up until his death in September was led by Abu Yahya al-Azeri. (Al-Azeri is noted for expressing his jihadist ideology in an address he made to his followers in May, when he noted “we are not fighting America or Russia. Our battle on the path of Allah consists only of establishing His laws on these lands.)

RUSSIAN MEDIA REPORTS OF “1000s” OF FIGHTERS |

Even though the Russian security services have been cautious about the number of ethnic Chechens fighting in Syria, there have been some reports in the Russian media of larger numbers. These reports have not provided any sort of evidence to back up their assertions, however, and are usually based on rumor. The most prominent of these was a RIA Novosti report in September, which sourced its material from the London-based Al Quds newspaper.

(It is interesting to note that the Chechnya-based pro-jihad website Kavkaz Center reported in April that Chechen Emir Abu Abdurahman had been killed in Syria.)

According to the report, a new Chechen-led faction numbering 1,000 fighters and named Al Muhajireen had been founded in Aleppo city by Chechen fighter Abu Adurahman. Al Quds cited Abdurahman as saying that the group had established a training camp in Aleppo. There have been no other reports of the faction, however.

DISPUTES AMONG NORTH CAUCASUS INSURGENTS INDICATE 100s, NOT 1000s OF FIGHTERS

There have been two recent splits within the Chechen/ North Caucasus fighters in Syria, both of which are, at root, about ideology.

The earliest of these splits took place in August, before Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar’s involvement in the insurgent offensive and capture of Mennagh Airbase in Aleppo Province, when Jaish leader Abu Umar al-Shishani announced that he had expelled his second-in-command, Seyfullakh the Chechen, accusing him of creating a new faction within Jaish, embezzlement, and being a takfiri. Seyfullakh was expelled with his entire faction, consisting of just 27 men — hardly a sign of a large group of Chechen fighters.

In response, Seyfullakh made a video statement, in which he denied stirring up trouble. Seyfullakh said that he had more supporters than just 27 men (the video does not really back this up, however — only around 30 men are seen).

In November, Seyfullakh’s supporters issued a statement saying that the split between Abu Umar and Seyfullakh was not because of any embezzlement or fitna, but was ideological — Seyfullakh wanted Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar to distance itself from the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham, while Abu Umar was moving toward swearing allegiance to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi.

The second split occurred in November, after Abu Umar al-Shishani and several Jaish fighters did pledge an oath to Baghdadi, moving to fight with ISIS and leaving those remaining fighters who had pledged to Caucasus Emirate leader Dokka Umarov, with Jaish, now led by a Chechen named Salahuddin. Reports of the split in Russian-language pro-jihad sites did not mention “thousands” or even hundreds of fighters had pledged allegiance to Baghdadi.

Umar Shishani Claims: “Dokka Umarov Financed Us”

Russian-language pro-jihad site Beladusham published an interview with Abu Umar al-Shishani, the ethnic Chechen Emir of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS).

CLAIMS THAT DOKKA UMAROV FINANCED CHECHEN FIGHTERS IN SYRIA

The interview was conducted just after Abu Umar swore an oath of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Abu Umar explains that initially, the leader of the Caucasian Emirate, the ethnic Chechen militant Dokka Umarov, had supported the Chechen Mujahideen financially for a specific period of time.

Abu Umar claims that Umarov had agreed to the North Caucasian fighters in Syria swearing allegiance to Baghdadi, though this does not explain why some fighters who previously swore oaths to Umarov have refused to pledge allegiance to the ISIS leader.

Dokka Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, a self-proclaimed virtual state which includes Chechnya and Dagestan, has been declared a terrorist organization by Russia and the US.

Abu Umar’s assertion that Dokka Umarov approves of and has even supported Chechen fighters in Syria has been supported by a recent investigation by Murad Shishani of the BBC’s Arabic Service. That report notes that initially, Umarov was opposed to Chechen fighters leaving to join the Syrian insurgency, saying that they should support the Caucasus Emirate. However, Umarov later changed his mind, saying that the flood of volunteers to fight in Syria was because the Caucasus Emirate refused to allow young people to join its ranks.

The BBC cite a source “close to the Syrian insurgents” who said that “in the North Caucasus there aren’t training camps like there are in Syria, and there aren’t enough resources.

“We are ashamed that we are going to Syria at a time when the Caucasus is still occupied, but young people are returning here once they’ve undergone a training course. One of my mates returned straight back to the mountains after he went through a training course in explosives (in Syria). In this sense it’s useful to (the Caucasus Emirate) that we’re spending time there. As a result it gets well-trained fighters,” the source said.

OATH TO Al-BAGHDADI AND SPLIT IN JAISH AL MUHAJIREEN WAL ANSAR

Before swearing the oath to Baghdadi, Abu Umar was the leader of the predominantly North Caucasian faction Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar as well as the Emir of ISIS’s northern branch. The move led to a split between fighters from the North Caucasus: those who swore allegiance to Baghdadi followed Abu Umar, while those who had pledged an oath to the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Dokku Umarov, remained with Jaish al-Muhajireen, which is now led by Salahuddin al-Shishani.

TRANSLATION OF THE INTERVIEW WITH UMAR

Beladusham’s interview with Abu Umar sheds some light on his ideologies and views toward the insurgency, the role of ISIS factions and his opinions on the overall “jihad” in Syria and Iraq.


ABDUL KADIR:
What have you to say about the past situation in Syria?

ABU UMAR:
In Syria, everything began with popular uprisings and protest demonstrations. With time, things morphed into jihad. The Prophet of Allah said, “Islam began as something strange and will return to being something strange”. We have seen an attestation of these words here in Syria, when as soon as we arrived here we saw a people who did not know Islam, but over the past 7-8 months we have seen how the nation has strived hard for religion.

When we got here, all the checkpoints were in the hands of the Free Syrian Army, they went around smoking, listening to music, but now all the checkpoints are under the control of ISIS, that has strongly raised the morale of the people.

The situation here is changing fast, of course these changes will lead to the people knowing the one God, Allah. In principle, the Prophet in his Hadiths spoke about the blessedness of these lands, we hope that Allah will turn these actions into good.

ABDUL KADIR:
We have heard about your conflict with the FSA.Is this conflict with just those who fight against you, or with the entire FSA?

ABU UMAR:
We aren’t in a position of conflict with the whole FSA right now, but just against those groups who oppose our aims of an Islamic State.

Like we previously reported, we are fighting with the pro-democracy gangs, at first this was in ad-Dana, after that in Azzaz and now in Kfar Hamra. For example, one of the latest groups we fought with, the leader of which was well known (he is talking about the commander of the group Shuhada al-Badr led by Khalid Hayani — Beladusham). People were really grateful to us after we defeated him, they said that they were praying for us. During our battles with him, 40 hostages wound up falling into our hands, they were all recently freed. Among them were local girls that they’d liked, even Mujahideen, these criminal groups collected ransoms from the people, that Hayani was known among the local people as a thief and a smuggler…

That group had previously attacked three ISIS mujahideen. We are at war with the tyrant before us, and if the same tyrant is behind us, we don’t see any difference with whom we fight.

ABDUL KADIR:
Tell me, what are your future plans, do you plan to create a monopoly of power, i.e. will there be only the ISIS movement or will you give permission for other groups of Mujahideen to exist? In short, will you represent their power?

ABU UMAR:
First of all, like we already said, we are planning to found a State. After the creation of a full state, we will ask everyone, “why don’t you join us?”. That problem isn’t exclusive to Syria or Iraq, that’s a problem for the whole Ummah. There will be a huge blessing in the declaration of a State. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made this declaration. I want to put the question to the whole Ummah, is not our goal of an Islamic State a common aim? Why do you not join with us? That is my frankness to everyone.

ABDUL KADIR:
In certain circles, supporters of ISIS are perceived as misguided sects, Kharijites (Muslims who rejected the authority of the final Rashidun Caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib), and takfiris, and are also perceived in certain circles as Murjites (a sect opposed to the Kharijites). Would you cooperate with them?

ABU UMAR:
(Laughing) I don’t even know how to reply. These people existed even in Omar’s time and in the time of Salahuddin al-Ayubi, their only work is chatter. We need to look at ourselves. If we establish Sharia Law, then there won’t be a problem, that’s why we need to look at ourselves.

ABDUL KADIR:
In the future, inshallah, the Islamic State will have a need for schools, will there be job opportunities for people, caring for kids and the public, sorting out issues of refugees and suchlike?

ABU UMAR:
At this stage, we are striving with all our strength for jihad. At this moment, ISIS has taken upon itself the main burden of being an army. For that reason, we have not yet had the chance to work in other areas. But despite this we are trying to open schools. Right now, we know of 125 people who trained in Madrassas in order to give sermons. They will explain the Tawhid and Islam. Inshallah, in the future we will do all that.

ABU KADIR:
Kadyrov (Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya — JP) said regarding the Mujahideen in Syria that “we kicked them out of Chechnya, they don’t even want their families, these are terrorist mercenaries. Do you want to say anything to Kadyrov?

ABU UMAR:
(Laughing) People shouldn’t think what Kadyrov thinks. We came here on the orders of the Emir Abu Osman (Dokku Umarov) and for a certain time he supported us financially. But now we swore an oath to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and we are fighting under his authority. This is what he wanted, that we swear an oath to al-Baghdadi. Dokku is also fighting to establish an Islamic State and we are fighting for the same thing.

Praise Allah, in the Caucasian Emirate, there are enough Mujahideen for Kadyrov. Mujahideen from Chechnya also went there, but most of them are here. To Kadyrov, I wanted to say this: There are enough Mujahideen for you there, but when everything finishes here, we will be even stronger and will be ready to come to you.

ABU KADIR:
Would your politics toward Assad or the FSA change if America carries out an invasion of Syria?

ABU UMAR:
No it won’t change. We will continue to fight with America and other enemies who continue to shed the blood of Muslims.

ABU KADIR:
What is the situation right now in Iraq?

ABU UMAR:
In Iraq it’s the same as in Syria. The Iraqi Government is also like that in Syria, the system in Iraq and Syria is a a Rafidite (“deserter”) system. Until America gets out of Iraq, nothing will change there, except that the morale of the Mujahideen has been raised, from that point of view of course a lot has changed.

Umar Shishani Reports Advance For ISIS In South-West Aleppo

Russian-language, pro-jihad sources report that the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham, led by ethnic Chechen Umar Shishani, have made advances in the south-western part of Aleppo Province over the past week, in an operation named Operation Fatih.

FiSyria, which reports on events in Syria involving ISIS and related groups, particularly where Russian-speaking fighters from the North Caucasus are involved, said that during the night of December 3-4, ISIS took seven hilltops from pro-Assad fighters, plus two villages.

FiSyria did not name the villages or give any details of the location of the captured bases, but said that the fighters had managed to advance their position closer to the road linking Aleppo city to the south-western part of the province.

According to FiSyria, Umar’s fighters managed to capture a T-72 tank, and anti-aircraft gun and a cache of small arms during the offensive.

It is notable that FiSyria names Abu Umar as the military Emir of ISIS. Previously, Umar has been described as the commander of ISIS’s northern branch, as well as the Emir of the predominantly North Caucasian group, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar.

Those members of JMA who had already sworn allegiance to the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Dokku Umarov, refused to swear an oath to Baghdadi.

There is a third faction, led by Abu Umar’s former second-in-command, Seyfullakh, who have stated that fighters from the North Caucasus must be independent in Syria, even though Dokku Umarov does not hold sway over Syrian land.

” Jihad For Export”, Part II

On Tuesday, I posted a translation of the first part of a special report by Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP), who sent two reporters on what it dubbed the “Jihad trail”, following the paths of Russian-speaking jihadists seeking to fight in Syria.

The piece is interesting not just for the information it brings about how Russian-speakers, mostly from the North Caucasus, are making their way to Syria, but also for what it reveals about Russian attitudes to the Syrian conflict in general, the participation of Russian nationals, and Russia’s own fears over the ongoing insurgency in the North Caucasus.

It is notable, for example, how KP conflates the “armed opposition” with extremist groups, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham and with affiliated groups comprising fighters from the North Caucasus. KP’s entry point into the refugee situation in Turkey is by highlighting concerns that Turkey is “losing sovereignty” over part of its territory along the border, but does not mention the battles between ISIS fighters (including from the North Caucasus) and the PKK along the border. The piece also confronts Russia’s own part in the Syrian Civil War, via Moscow’s ongoing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A major concern for KP is what will happen when the Russian-speaking jihadists return to the Russian Federation.

Below is the second part of KP’s special report.


It turned out not to be easy to find a legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. There was a whole chain of negotiations: Skype, phone calls, recommendations, guarantees… For starters, they dispatched a political director of one of the battalions of the Free Syrian Army to meet with the Russian reporters. Abu Khaldun smoked a lot, looked at us with curiosity, and started off by giving us a whole thesis about the history of the three-year conflict in Syria. A bloody regime wanted to put down the people’s social protests, the people took up arms…

“We’ve been your friends for 60 years,” continued the zampolit (political commissar) continued to shoot off cliches. “But now Syrians are very badly disposed toward the Russians, because you’re killing us with Russian weapons. I would advise you not to flaunt your nationality here.”

“Aren’t they badly disposed toward the terrorist groups?”

“The Islamist groups,” Abu Khaldun corrects. “They act in the interests of the regime, who is happy to dub them the opposition. Half the victims of this war are the “servants” of the Assad regime, the other half, are on the conscience of Russia.”

Our conversation is joined by an FSA general named Adib Aleui. At some point, he, a Sunni, was a pilot in the Government airforce. But he felt, as he put it, a second-class citizen among the Alawites. At the start of the war, he didn’t think twice about joining the opposition. “I couldn’t bomb my parent’s house.”

“During the time of Brezhnev and Andropov, we were very friendly,” he puts on the same old record. “I had a
Russian teacher, we all studied together for the progress of Syria, but this knowledge is now being used against the people.”

“Is Russia guilty because of what it taught you?”

“All the weapons were bought from Russia, and now these weapons are being used against the people,” the general stuck to his guns. Let his army fight with some other weapons…

WE CAN’T GUARANTEE YOUR SAFETY

According to the general, the revolutionary army controls 70% of the country. And
the opposition-held territory, there is a poor, but democratic rule with religious pluralism and tolerance. We ask for a permit to take a look at these new sprouts. And to go into the nearby Syrian countryside, which is controled by the FSA.

But our innocuous request is met with a stupor by our acquaintances. The opposition leaders talk amongst themselves for a long time, then ask advice from someone on Skype, and in the end they tell us that they cannot guarantee our safety and people there are very, very badly disposed toward Russians.

But do they worry so very much about our safety?

“Islamist groups often set up posts on the roads,” explains Professor Mukhiadin Bananekh to us in Russian. He is the man responsible for helping refugees. “They could take you for spies, and our guys could be accused of conspiring. That’s no good for anyone.”

The FSA general cannot guarantee the safety of his guests on his own territory! Because on that territory hold sway multinational gangs of Islamist-fanatics.

“Of course, those who come to us, to the war, only prolong it,” opposition Sheikh Yasim Aubad surprisingly agrees (as you guessed, he started out by talking about the Soviet-Syrian friendship). “If Russia wants the war to finish now, it has to say firmly, ‘Bashar, please, goodbye’. One man — and it’s all because of him!”

“And the two armies, who are shooting each other, will make peace?”

“Bashar hasn’t got an army. Saddam in Iraq had an army of a million people. When the US took Baghdad, where did that army go? They changed to civvies and fled.”

HOW BOZIGIT DIED

Our interlocutors are not the highest links in the opposition hierarchy, they’re more like mid-ranking. But they are valuable in understanding the situation — they at least spend time in Syria. And they live very close by its border, and even travel in cars with Syrian plates. Our translator apologizes that her mother forbade her to have anything to do with Russians. And she tells us a long story about the crimes of the regime army, about the victims of airstrikes, about arrests and people being disappeared. And we have no reason not to believe her. But on the other hand, how can you not believe the residents of the Christian regions of Homs, who hug us like we are their relatives? Or refugees from the Christian holy town of Maaloula, who attest to the atrocities of the FSA? Or the video footage with the decapitation of Christian priests?

The war does not have a single truth, which would suit everyone. But death does not choose between the righteous and the sinners. We see the next in the line of the “jihad-hit”: 18-year-old Dagestani Bozigit Abullaev, wounded in the kidney, does slowly and painfully. He tries to mouth a prayer, but pain screws up his face with convulsions. His associates sit nearby, someone shouts in accented Russian, “What the heck, can’t you find a car?” Bozigit’s eyes roll back, he’s not breathing anymore.

He was less lucky than his fellow countryman who escaped the war.

From the interrogation of S.S.Ahmedov (a fighter who returned to Russia from Syria):

“I returned to the base, where I asked the Emir if I could quit the armed opposition and go home because of serious family circumstances. He gave his agreement and said that he was no longer responsible for my life.”

The international jihadi brigades are spread out practically across the entire north and northwest of Syria. Some bands are trying to unite, others are trying to do the opposite and split from the influential groups and set up their Islamic State in some separate, captured village. For 50 kilometers of track from the border to Aleppo, you can meet both staunch adherents of Sharia Law and mercenaries chasing after petrodollars, and professional kidnappers, and – naturally – fighters for Al Qaeda from the Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS, predominantly Arabs.

The problem is that even when you are in Syria, it’s impossible to get a real estimate of the forces. Even more fantastic are the shouts in Geneva offices by the representatives of the opposition about a mythical unified command.

But the FSA with its verbose political officers and generals, who don’t even control the nearest roads, are hardly suitable for this role…

THREE TOURISTS, THREE SAD GUYS

From the Turkey-Syria border, we return to Dagestan. Awaiting us there is a meeting with those for whom the jihad excursion ended in arrest. And with the harsh indictment: “participation in illegal armed formations”.

This journey — there and back again — has been undertaken by hundreds, if not thousands, of Russian citizens from the North Caucasian republics. These lads, born in the mid-1990s, are of various psychological types, but share a common faith. According to “jihad tourist” Shamil Ahmednabayev, he didn’t get to fight. He worked in refugee camps. And in general, he said he “came to Syria to help other Muslims”.

“I saw on the internet how kids and adults were dying and being killed.”

The conversation with the second “fighter” is rich with quotations from the Quran. He was enchanted with the Syrian jihad.

“That wasn’t what I wanted to see there,” said Zhabrail Saligulayev sullenly, glancing at his laceless sneakers. “They called everyone ‘brother’ but in reality it was those who paid who got to climb into politics. Fame at any cost. Did you hear how Banat chopped off the heads of three priests? They told him that day, don’t do that! And they told the priests, don’t be afraid. Abu Banat was like, yeah, yeah. He waited til the evening, when the elders had left, and he chopped off the heads. Fame.”

“He who promises to defend the faithless and kills him, will carry the banner of perfidy on the Day of Judgement,” we remind our interlocutor. “That’s what it says in the Quran?”

Our interlocutor nods sadly. He’s surprised that we know quotations from the Holy Book. But it will be our turn to be amazed when we meet with Omar Ibragimov.

He got to Syria via the standard route: Makhachkala – Istanbul – Hatay – Reyhanli. He wound up in a suburb of Aleppo, where he fell into an “international” brigade of fighters.

“There were lots of people from Europe, from Turkey, the Near East. I wound up in an Uzbek jamaat.”

“A large one?”

“120 people. Various ages. The older ones had all lived in Moscow. They got to Syria on Uzbeki passports. And if they wanted to go to Russia, they traveled about using internal passports. So nobody counted them as tourists.”

At some point in the conversation, Omar got carried away. He proudly related how there was mutual assistance between the jamaats. He bragged about a new order in the territories liberated by the opposition.

“All life there goes on according to the Quran. It’s forbidden to sell cigarettes, women go around completely covered up. If they uncover themselves, they are punished with beatings. Most people are happy with the Sharia Law. They say, “Allah help us.” They ask, where are you from. You say, from Dagestan! They don’t get it, so you explain that it’s next to Chechnya. They hug you, they say, you’re our guests.”

“How do they deal with captives? Do they execute them immediately?”

“Nah, it’s OK, they give them food. If a guy accepts Islam, then they let him go straight away. If he doesn’t, then of course he’s executed.”

P.S. Omar, of course, did not take into account that he would run into such serious problems when he returned home. He thought that it would be quite the opposite. Like the three Davudbegov brothers who returned home from Syria to Khasavyurt (in Dagestan) in October, and immediately started to wage jihad in their motherland. Within weeks, the brothers were eliminated by special forces — in Syria, they simply were not taught conspiracy. But in the domestic Wahhabist underground, there are specialists in that area too, who are prepared to coach any young ‘brothers’ with invaluable fighting experience.

Np one knows how many “tourists” have returned or will return from Syria and join the North Caucasus jamaats. Only those who enter the country via passport control can be counted. But after all, there is an indirect, contraband route between Azerbaijan and Georgia. According to the most modest calculations, there are about 1,000 fighters from the North Caucasus, Tatarstan and Bashkiria in Syria. The jihadists themselves say the “Russian presence” is around 4,000 fighters.

It’s hardly reassuring that this is not just our headache. According to the Western press, there are around 200 Australians, hundreds of Belgians, 50 Germans, 150 French citizens, 80 Dutch, and 40 Norwegians fighting in the Syrian opposition.

Jihad-tourism has hot tour packages all year round.

(Featured image: Omar Ibragimov, who allegedly fought in Syria. Credit Aleksander Kots, Dmitri Steshin, Komsomolskaya Pravda.)

A Split In Loyalties & Ideology For Syria’s Chechen Fighters

Last month, I noted that some members of the Chechen-led faction Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Helpers) had sworn allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), Abu Bakr al–Baghdadi.

The move led to a further ideological split in the ranks of the faction, which is dominated by fighters from the North Caucasus region.

Those fighters who had previously sworn allegiance to Dokka Umarov, the leader of the North Caucasian Islamist militant group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), did not take the oath to Baghdadi.

Prior to the decision of some fighters to swear the oath to Baghdadi, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar or Army of Emigrants and Helpers, led by Abu Umar Al Shishani, had been the largest group of Chechen militants fighting in Syria, and had cooperated with ISIS. Indeed, Abu Umar, Jaish’s Emir, acted as the leader of ISIS’s northern branch as well as leading Jaish.

According to Kavkaz Center, a Chechnya-based, pro-jihad website that supports Dokka Umarov and the Caucasus Emirate, Abu Umar al-Shishani has also sworn allegiance to Baghdadi.

As a result, those members of Jaish who pledged the oath to Baghdadi have left Jaish and have joined the ranks of ISIS, Kavkaz Center asserts.

Meanwhile, those fighters (all from the North Caucasus) who previously swore allegiance to Dokka Umarov have remained within Jaish.

The new leader of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar is Salahuddin al-Shishani, another ethnic Chechen. Some Chechen sources have named Salahuddin as the Emir of the Caucasus Emirate jamaat in Syria.

New recruits from the North Caucasus who previously swore allegiance to Dokka Umarov join Jaish, while others join ISIS or other factions.

The ideological split among jihadis from the North Caucasus began before the decision by some members of Jaish to pledge an oath to Baghdadi, with some of the fighters splitting off from the group, then led by Abu Umar al-Shishani, in September because they disagreed with the group’s affiliation to ISIS.

The leader of the splinter group was Abu Umar’s then-deputy, a Chechen fighter named Seyfullakh, who said he wanted to keep Jaish independent from ISIS. Seyfullakh explained in a video statement last month that he wanted to create unity among North Caucasus fighters in Syria, and that the fighters must remain independent rather than swearing allegiance to any local Emir, provided that Emir did not hold sway over an entire area.

WHO IS SALAHUDDIN AL-SHISHANI?

The new leader of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, Salahuddin al-Shishani, was previously emir of one of the factions smaller brigades, the Sariyat az-Zubeir. Sariyat az-Zubeir was the largest of the brigades within Jaish.

Salahuddin gave an interview to the Russian-language pro-jihad site, FiSyria, in August, when he was still leading Sariyat az-Zubeir, which we translated at the time.

See the full translation here:

Salahuddin Shishani Explains Living Conditions For New Jihadi Recruits

“Jihad for Export” Part I

Amid ongoing reports that fighters from the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya, are involved in the Syria conflict, Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP) is writing a several-part series, “Jihad for Export”, examining how Russian-speakers are traveling to Syria and how they are getting involved with fighting there.

KP sent two of its reporters, Aleksandr Kots and Dmitry Steshin, on a “jihad trail” to Syria.

The reports, while providing information about Russian-speaking fighters heading to Syria, also offers insights into some Russian attitudes and viewpoints regarding these issues, and in particular how Russia projects the concept of the “jihadist threat”, in the light of its own struggle with radical Islam and insurgency in the North Caucasus.

Part 1 is translated below; we will post Part 2 later this week.

Jihad for Export

The northern part of Syria, at one time the country’s industrial center, is rapidly emerging as the capital of world terrorism. An endless flood here from neighboring Turkey is supplying cannon fodder obsessed with jihadi ideas. Islamic recruits from all over the world are not interested in the political dissent in Syria. For them, the situation is incredibly simple — they are coming for dar al-harb (“the house of war”) — the land of war, to turn it into dar al-islam — the land of Islam.

Having gone through a practical course of this sort of “Islamism”, many of them go home. And the civilized world really doesn’t like that. In Belgium and Germany, they are tightening legislation on mercenaries, France has warned that it will not allow those who wish to fight in the Middle East to have a peaceful life, and in Australia, they just don’t allow their citizen jihadists to return home.

Russia, too, has also reacted to this disturbing trend. In November, Article 208 of the Penal Code added a phrase, “in foreign countries”. But the possibility of a six year prison term is not deterring homegrown Islamists.

From the interrogation of S.S. Ahmedov, upon his return from Syria to Russia:

“I discussed the events in Syria with brother Tamerlan. We gathered at the brothers house, in the meetings, Khalikov Timur, Muslim name Khalid, also took part. In May 2013, we got interested in the possibility of waging “military” jihad in Syria.

The story of Ahmedov, who was detained on his return from Syria, is typical of all those Russian citizens who travel to the war. In video footage from Syria, field commanders from Chechnya or Dagestan talk about the wonders of jihad and agitate for traveling to the “Land of Sham” (as the Arabs call Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan). In Russia, those recruiting people to go to the hotspot speak carefully — it’s not to fight but to provide humanitarian aid. Money and macaroni and meal for co-religionists, for example, is what the Dagestani Salafist preacher Israil Ahmednabayev, or Abu Umar Sasitlinsky, calls it. And in passing he gives a lecture about the usefulness of “spilling the blood of the martyrs”.

Young recruits understand: it is these calls from Sasitlinsky that played a major role in their decision to leave (for Syria). To apply for the position of “martyr”, they only have to fly to Istanbul. Luckily there are direct flights from Makhachkala to the Bosphorous.

KP’s special correspondents got tickets for a “jihad trip” from one of these guys.

THE WAR ARRIVES IN TURKEY WITHOUT DEMAND

We fly on a half-empty airplane from the Caspian to the Marmara. Istanbul. Here the epic congress of the National Coalition of Syrian revolutionaries and opposition forces has just ended. Serious men in expensive suits spent several days in a luxury hotel deciding the fate of Syria and perspectives for participation in Geneva-II. But, without having decided neither one thing or the other, they left for Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

We asked opposition leaders about their further plans, but they did not have time for Russian journalists. But the Turkish politicians were very talkative. They were, to put it mildly, frustrated that almost-European Turkey had suddenly turned into the rear-guard of jihad.

Or if you prefer, the front lines of the undeclared Islamic war.

Local journalist Aydemir Gulesh compares the invasion of Syrians to a natural disaster. The refugees did not bring capital – only working hands, which Turkey already has enough of. But there are other issues that officials tend not to talk about. This is the partial loss of sovereignty.

” Right now Turkey cannot control its territory near the border with Syria, in fact, we have lost this territory, having placed hundreds of thousands of Syrians in refugee camps,” said plain-talking Aydemir. “The de facto border of Turkey has moved.”

Those refugees who are richer rushed to buy property in Turkey. And not near the border. In the same Istanbul there are whole neighborhoods that are 95 percent Syrian. However, our source did not make far-reaching conclusions from the above. Perhaps out of a sense of patriotism. But all the same, we understood. Turkey, floating in the wake of Western policy, has been forced to sacrifice part of its sovereignty to become a springboard for a full-fledged “anti-Assad” opposition. Of the consequences of this, Turkey ‘s Western partners did not warn…

How can Russia put up with us?

In recent months, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to make up for the electoral failure caused by the effects of support for the Syrian opposition, began handing out citizenship to Syrian refugees. Next year, there will be a presidential election here.

“Erdogan’s policy change came too late,” said the author of “The Syrian equation ” Mustafa Erzhemol. “I’m amazed at how Russia still puts up with us. You can simply shut off gas to Erdogan. Now global terrorist routes are passing through Turkey. Once I was riding the bus to Hatay, a town near the border with Syria. Nearby sat a Chechen, we got to talking. He said he was going for religious studies. Hatay is actually not the best place for this. In the end, he confessed: “I came to become a martyr.” There are loads of these from Dagestan, Azerbaijan, Chechnya. These are the people that blew up the subway in Moscow. And they are ready to blow up and kill all over the world.”

From the testimony of S. S. Ahmedov

In Istanbul, a member of the armed Syrian opposition came to stay with us. He asked whether we had money for weapons. We said that we hadn’t got any money, and he said that, you know, they give you weapons in Syria. He gave instructions, and talked about the ban on mobility in places where opposition forces were permanently deployed. He put us on a bus that was going to Hatay, and gave the number of a taxi driver who we should definitely call when when arrived.”

Hatay is a little town in the southeast of Turkey. At one time it was a small tourist center. The narrow little streets wind around the modern, lit avenues, Christian churches stand alongside mosques. Hatay is very reminiscent of Beirut. Or Damascus. Recently, the town has been in the news for reasons far from tourism. A trailer with smuggled weapons to Syrian rebels is detained, there are suspicious types with components of chemical weapons in their trunk…

It was here that the best known in narrow circles, the Russian terrorist Abu Banat, was arrested (his secular name is Magomed Abdurakhmanov).

….

There, where you shouldn’t talk in Russian

The Turkish province of Hatay is geographically recessed into Syrian territory. The distances by Russian standards are tiny. A few hundred meters from the highway, and there is Syria . Signposts say that it’s only 65 kilometers to Aleppo. In reality there is no border. What we took for barbed wire fences were actually olive plantations. There are a few borderguards on watchtowers, and a bit further away is the battle. Pillars of gray and black smoke rising to the sky, they crawl, enveloping the horizon.

That’s the front-line city of Aleppo. And we’re going to the village of Reyhanlı — a transit town before future martyrs are sent for an internship.

From the interrogation of S.S. Akhmedov:

“Arriving in a small village Reyhanlı we boarded the bus. Two uniformed officers came and demanded that we show documents and hand luggage. Then there were two other men in civilian clothes, and after collecting our passports, went into the police station. After 20 minutes, they came back and gave the passports, wishing us a pleasant journey.”

Reyhanlı is the usual faceless eastern city that without regret exchanged its old buildings for concrete boxes with shops on the ground floors.
We were warned many times: don’t talk in Russian. We presented ourselves as Poles and lisped as much as possible. The familiar Turks were replaced with angry Syrians fleeing the war, resting after the war, getting ready to go to war …

Local people treat the influx with pity mixed with disgust. But they give up their homes. However, at a price that is unnecessarily above the market rate. For such a small town there are too many hostels, guest houses, inns. But virtually no free rooms.

Without even knowing it, we settled in a guest house considered a major transit point for “soldiers of Allah” from the North Caucasus and the CIS. The GPS in our smartphone shows the geographical point of our location as a “Caucasian cultural center”. However, we found no signage on the building, or other signs of cultural expansion.

A young man who looked like a journalist asks the receptionist in English: “Where is Sergei the Dagestani?” There are lots of Dagestanis here. In the pension there are even working language courses where volunteers teach colloquial Arabic.

Next to us at a table there is a very young Caucasian boy in national dress — a tracksuit, FBI cap and slippers — reading a book, “What You Need to Know about the Hajj. A Russian-Arabic phrase book”.

We know where he bought it – in a newspaper kiosk at Makhachkala airport.

“An informative book?” we start the conversation.

“I can’t make head or tail of it!” Our conversation partner, it seems, found an excuse to stop his study of colloquial Arabic. “And who are you?”

Aslan (as was his name) suddenly looks stressed out, but we show him our international journalist cards and the green color fades out of his cheeks.

“I’m going to help my brothers in the Holy War. If you’re a believer then you can’t stand on the sidelines. They’ve got tanks and airplanes, but we’ve got faith and only those who believe will win.”

“You’re not scared?”

“Everything’s up to the will of Allah. Death in jihad is the highest service before the Almighty.”

The next morning, a cheap jeep with Syrian numberplates turns up at the hotel. Aslan throws his sports bag into the car and shakes our hand. Clearly he hasn’t slept all night, he’s got circles under his eyes, and the paleness is obvious even on his pasty skin. Whether he comes back or not is up to the will of Allah.


From the interrogation of SS Akhmedov:

“They put me in a car and drove me to the border with a group of about 50 people, where we got out. We crossed the border at night, under fire from the border patrol, and crawled about 600 meters.

In Atma, members of the Syrian armed opposition were already waiting for us with cars. They were mostly citizens of Kyrgyzstan. They took us into the town of Anadan, in which people were divided into Jamaats. All of us wound up in the Jamaat named the Caucasus Emirate, led by a Chechen, Umar Shishani. It includes about 7 groups of around 25 – 30 people. In this Jamaat there were Chechens, Azeris, Lezgins, Avars, two Germans, one Turk, and two Russian citizens of Kazakhstan … ”

Chechen Hajj Pilgrims Claim They Were Drafted In Saudi Arabia To Fight In Syria

The Russian-language news site Kavkazskii Uzel, which focuses on events and issues in the North Caucasus, has spoken with several Chechens in Syria’s insurgency. Continue reading Chechen Hajj Pilgrims Claim They Were Drafted In Saudi Arabia To Fight In Syria

The Dispute Between Umar Shishani & His Deputy, Seyfullakh Shishani

The pledge of allegiance by some members of the Chechen faction Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (JMA) to the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has highlighted a story which may be even more significant: the culmination of a months-long dispute between JMA’s then-leader, Umar Shishani, and his former second-in-command, the Chechen fighter known as Sayfullakh. Continue reading The Dispute Between Umar Shishani & His Deputy, Seyfullakh Shishani

Russia Spotlight: Chechen Leader Fires Civil Servant Whose Daughter Fights In Syria

The head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, has fired the director of Chechnya’s Federal Migration Service, Asu Dudurkaev, accusing him of having a daughter in Syria with connections to “Wahhabist” insurgents.

Kadyrov made the announcement on his Instagram page, which the Chechen leader uses to make communications about various policy and governmental matters.

The Chechen leader wrote:

Salam aleikum, my friends!

Tonight I met with the staff of the Federal Migration Service of the Russian Federation in the Chechen Republic.

Appeals about poor performance management have been received from residents of the Republic. Citizens argue that employees are often rude, tactlessness, procrastinate, and delay paperwork. Previously, we brought these questions to the attention of the head of the FMS, Asu Dudurkaev, and asked him to restore order. But an audit showed that nothing has changed for the better.

In private conversations, citizens said that all the red tape in the work of FMS staff is connected with a desire to force citizens to make payments.

Moreover, Dudurkaev, as the leader of one of the most important structures, has no moral right to speak with subordinates about morality and patriotism and religion. His own daughter is in the ranks of the Wahhabis and bandits, who are shedding the blood of civilians, and blowing up Islamic shrines in Syria.

We offered to help him in getting his daughter to return, but he stated that this issue will be resolved. And the daughter is still there with the bandits.

For these and other reasons, we have concluded that it is impossible to trust Dudurkaev further in this post.

He has been asked to write a letter of resignation to his superiors, which will be done. Order will be restored to the FMS!

ITAR TASS quotes the prominent political analyst Abdullah Istamulov as saying on the matter, “It’s a very sad event. Asu Dudurkaev left, admitting that he could not resolve the situation with his daughter. Woe for any father who raises a child who does not live up to his expectations. We knew the situation, knew that she should be resolved, and assumed that it would end this way.”