One of the insurgent factions that suddenly grabbed the attention of mainstream media during the rebel capture of Menagh Airbase near Aleppo last week, was a previously little-discussed group called Jaish al-Muhajirin wal Ansar (JMA).
The rise of JMA is one of how the Syrian conflict has become linked to conflict in other parts of the world, in this case, Chechnya and the North Caucasus.
Syria is hardly the first conflict in to attract foreign Jihadi fighters. There were foreign fighters in Bosnia and Iraq, as well as Chechnya, and in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Formation of Jaish al-Muhajirin wa Ansar
A video posted on March 25, 2013 showed that JMA was formed earlier that month, when a unit of the Kataeb al-Muhajireen (Brigade of Emigrants) under the command of a man named Umar Shishani merged with several other brigades, including Kataeb Khattab and Jaish Muhammad.
In the ceremony, Umar Shishani is standing in the front row facing the camera as the group of fighters swear their allegiance to him. Next to Al Shishani is a man named as Emir Seyfullakh, Al Shishani’s second-in command and another Russian speaker.
The Kavkaz Center website, the mouthpiece of the Caucasus Emirate claims that says that JMA operates mostly in Aleppo and that it has volunteers from various areas, including the Caucasus.
There are several videos of Umar Shishani and Seyfullakh prior to the formation of JMA.
Umar Shishani says:
Dear brothers and sisters. We have not participated in this war, as we should have participated in it, and we have missed many opportunities. Now we have a real chance of establishing Sharia Law on this land. And from here we can spread out to other countries… We are doing as much as we can. With weapons in our hands…. First and foremost, we need money. Today, Jihad really depends on money. If we don’t get that sort of support, there won’t be the desired outcome.
A promotional video for the Brigade of Emigrants from early March features Seyfullakh and describes the brigade as consisting of fighters from the Caucasus, Crimea, Tatarstan and “other countries of the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States, the initial for former Soviet republics after the fall of the Soviet Union].
A more recent video shows Umar Shishani and Seyfullakh together:
March 2013 — Handarat Air Defense Base, Aleppo
JMA’s first major operation was the capture of Handarat Base in Aleppo Province, north of Aleppo city.
Footage of the capture was uploaded on March 25 to a Russian-language YouTube channel associated with Kataeb Mujahir, Jaish’s predecessor and shows Seyfullakh talking about the capture of the base, taken the previous week .
Seyfullakh explains that the aim of the group, which he says has fighters from Syria, Iraq, Chechnya, and Afghanistan, is to establish Sharia law in the region. Seyfullakh points to the groups of men standing around and says that these are “all our brothers and they are all going to help”.
In a tour of the base, Seyfullakh points out various landmarks and sites of the battle:
JMA, Umar Shishani, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham
JMA and its predecessor groups have collaborated with other factions on the battlefield.
This video shows Jaish training with Islamist faction Jabhat al Nusra:
Footage of the fighting for Menagh Airbase shows that JMA closely cooperated with ISIS.
ISIS leader in Iraq, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, appointed Al Shishani as ISIS’s commander in the northern region of Syria in May 2013. Al Baghdadi made the appointment after he traveled to Aleppo, following the rejection by Jabhat Al Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani of ISIS’s attempted merger.
The earliest video evidence showing JMA taking part in the fight for the Menagh Airbase was posted in April. This promotional footage shows fighters from the faction bombing the airbase with a 130mm cannon.
More footage from April shows the faction attacking Menagh with homemade mortars:
The Kavkaz Center website reported on April 23 that Jaish had managed to “take control of” high ground and fortified positions overlooking the airbase and capture regime weapons during a raid on a regime armored division.
Jaish seized 20 Russian-made APCs and tanks, as well as a large quantity of weapons and ammunition, according to Kavkaz.
Footage dated May shows a captured weapons cache:
Footage from early July showing a JMA fighter attacking a tank with an anti-tank missile:
the end of the battle for Menagh, this video, again in Russian, showed a Jaish fighter explaining that the group has prepared a BMP vehicle to use as a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) in a suicide bomb attack. The speaker says, “Enshallah, today we will liberate the airport.”
Umar Shishani gives a statement after the capture of the airbase:
Just before and following the capture of the airbase, another ISIS fighter, Abu Jandal Al Masri is prominent in videos.
Abu Jandal gives a message to Bashar al-Assad:
Abu Jandal in the airbase after its capture:
It is Abu Jandal who is present in the “victory video” shot immediately after the capture of the base, an informal conference led by Free Syrian Army Commander Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi:
Beyond the Menagh Airbase offensive, there is also some evidence that JMA and ISIS have cooperated to train fighters:
The Lattakia Offensive
Jaish have been involved in the August 2013 offensive in Lattakia Province. Kavkaz Center reported on August 14 that fighters from the group —mostly men from the Caucasus region — were transferred fromAleppo to Lattakia and Homs:
Сирия. Спецкор КЦ. Подразделения Джейш Мухаджирин ва Ансар переброшены из Алеппо в Латакию и Хомс. В частности моджахеды с Кавказа
— Kavkaz Center (@kavkazcenter) August 14, 2013
JMA Beyond The Battlefield
Like other factions JMA has made promotional videos that show its activities away from the battlefield as well as its fighters’ military prowess. This video from June shows the group providing aid and assistance to civilians — presumably in Aleppo, though no location is given — and also involving children in their activities.
This video from June shows Jaish running a public advocacy event involving children, again, presumably somewhere in Aleppo Province:
Promotional images co-branded to both JMA and ISIS posted on Islamist forums in July show militants providing food aid to civilians in Idlib: