Foreshadowing The JMA-ISIS Split: “Chechen Militants Want To Break Away From ISIS”

This post, from September 2013, foreshadows the split in Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar after Umar Shishani decided to swear allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in December 2013.

Fehim Taştekin, an analyst specializing in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs and founding editor of Agency Caucasus, explores why Chechen militants are fighting in Syria.

The original piece is in Turkish, but was translated into Russian for Kavkaz Press. This English translation is taken from the Russian version.

He claims that while the largest group of Chechen militants, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), led by Umar Shishani, has cooperated with the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham, it has not sworn allegiance to ISIS and has been trying to find a way to break with ISIS for some time.

The piece goes some way to explain a recent video statement by the second-in-command of JMA, the Caucasian militant Seyfullakh, who announces that he has formed a new brigade independent of ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra.

The report also explains one reason why Moscow is concerned about “foreign fighters” in Syria, and their connection to “Al Qaeda-linked groups”.

Tastekin begins by asking why Chechens — who for centuries have fought a single enemy, the Russians — are joining the “global jihad” and turning up on the battlefield in Syria, when it has been generally accepted that unlike groups such as ISIS, Chechen fighters are not motivated by a Salafist Jihadist ideology, but a Sufist ideology specific to the Caucasus [actually, this is a mistake on Tastevin’s part — Chechen militants with the Caucasus Emirate in the North Caucasus have long adopted a Salafist ideology and despise traditional Chechen Sufism].

So Tastekin asks why have some Chechen militants turned to global jihad and why are they fighting in Chechnya? There have also been reports of some Chechen militants among those killed in Afghanistan.

According to Tastekin, the new phenomenon of Chechen militants joining the jihad in Syria is related to changes in the Chechen resistance that occurred during the Second Chechen War in 1999.

The Caucasus Emirate, proclaimed in 2006 by Doku Umarov, initially transferred the war in Chechnya to other Caucasian republics. The struggle of Chechens turned into a multinational design, involving the participation of militants from different ethnic groups such as the Circassians, Karachays, Balkars, Ossetians, Nogais, Dargins, Lezgins, and Avars.

Eventually, the struggle left the borders of the Caucasus. Now this diversity is reflected on the Syrian front. Syria emerges as an important step in the integration of Caucasian militants into the global jihad.

Caucasian fighters in Syria soon found themselves at the forefront of the insurgency, with the Khattab Brigade formed by Umar Shishani [the brigade eventually formed into the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, or Army of Emigrants and Helpers].

According to Taştekin, Shishani is a Kist [an ethnic Chechen from the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia] and speaks a Vainakh language. The name of the Khattab Brigade comes from the Jordanian militant Emir Khattab — also known as Habib Abdul Rahman — who worked with Chechen mujahideen in the First and Second Chechen Wars after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Khattab’s Salafist ideology had some influence on Caucasian militants fighting in Chechnya.

The Khattab Brigade, which later formed the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, fought in and around Aleppo with both the Free Syrian Army and ISIS but according to Taştekin avoided swearing any oath to ISIS leaders.

Most of the group’s fighters have origins in the Caucasus, though it is not known how many are Chechen diaspora who settled in Syria in the 19th century.

What attracts Caucasian militants to Syria? Tastekin says the main reason is a sense of solidarity with global jihad, including the idea of creating an Islamic State. However, there are some unique reasons why Chechen militants are coming to Syria to wage jihad:

One main factor attracting Caucasians to fight in Syria is Moscow’s support for Syria and the Assad regime.

For many Caucasians, therefore, the war in Syria is a continuation of the war in Chechnya.

Some of the fighters are wanted by Russian security forces back home in the Caucasus, and see Syria as an escape route from the police and the security services.

Yet others are Caucasian refugees who had a hard time in Turkey, and came to Syria, some of them with their families.

One Caucasian, “Mohammad”, who is close to Chechen militants in Syria said:

“There were those who lived illegally in Istanbul for around five years, and for them Syria was the best way out. Chechen refugees, and about 50 or 60 people of Circassian origin, all members of the Caucasus Emirate, went to Syria. They settled in the liberated areas of Syria with their families since they couldn’t go back to Istanbul. They also couldn’t return to the Caucasus. In Syria, they have no need of a passport or to pay any rent. Security officials also don’t pursue them.”

“Mohammad” said that while Umar Shishani does operate with ISIS, he is trying to move away from its leader, Baghdadi.

Why? “Mohammad” said that Umar Shishani believes that ISIS:

“have no respect for the language and culture. They enforce stringent rules for everything. In addition, they’ve looted factories. For example, they took a huge flour plant, delivered its equipment to Turkey and sold it…** The issue of declaring an Emirate has also led to protests in the ranks of the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. All those who are fed up with the actions of ISIS join Umar Shishani . The number of militants in the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar is 1.5 – 1.7 thousand people. Those who leave Baghdadi don’t go over to the Free Syrian Army, as it is secular in nature and it has no ideology. And there are only a few Caucasians in Jabhat Al Nusra.”

** Taştekin claims that, in fact, it was Umar Shishani who sold the flour plant’s equipment.

Chechen Militant Shows Off Missile Factory, Asks For Funds

This video, posted on August 25, 2013, shows a Russian-speaking Chechen fighter in Syria, identified as Abu Ibrahim Shishani of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar.

Abu Ibrahim explains that the Mujahideen have set up a “mini factory” for manufacturing home-made rockets.

He does not say where in Syria the factory is (so that its whereabouts is not discovered by the Assad regime or rival insurgent groups).

Abu Ibrahim explains that almost the entire process of making the rockets is carried out right here in the mini-factory by the Mujahideen.

“This work allows us to operate against the “Kafirs” [infidels],” he explains.

Abu Ibrahim then shows the viewer different types of rockets at various stages of completion and points out the machinery used to create the various types of rocket casings.

One of the rockets shown at 0:52 has range of 6-8 kilometers, according to Abu Ibrahim.

At 1:52, Abu Ibrahim shows us some finished munitions, missing only a small component on the head of the rocket.

“This is the sort of work that our immigrants, what our jamaat, are doing,” he explains, referring to foreign fighters who have come to Syria to wage Jihad.

After showing the machinery for making the rocket casings, Abu Ibrahim segues into a fundraising proposition: right now, there are not enough rockets being made, he says, but adds:

“Inshallah [God willing], if help is given, if there is the possibility for these people to help, this factory could produce more, and we can make more and more rockets, enshallah. The thing is that if there is any way to help, here in Syria, the Mujahideen…if there is a way to give the means… I can show you what use we can make of it…. If we have more funds we can make more types [of rocket]… with few funds we can only produce these types….”

Abu Ibrahim goes on to say that by donating so that more rockets can be produced, donors can have a big effect, and notes that the Mujahideen are not working for a wage.

“We will be be able to make more weapons to fight the infidels, Enshallah,” he emphasizes. “I’m making this proposition to anyone who knows me, who sees this situation and who wants to help,” Abu Ibrahim concludes.

Syria Video: Chechen Fighter – Wage Jihad Against Sochi Olympics, Not Here

This six-minute video in Russian, posted on July 31, is a message to Russian-speaking Jihadists and Muslims in the Caucasus. The statement is delivered by a man named as Salakhuddin, who is named as the commander of a battalion called Az Zubair — likely from the predominantly Russian-speaking Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (Army of Immigrants and Helpers), although this is not specified.

Salakhuddin, who speaks Russian with an accent, comments on the influx of Russian-speaking Jihadists to Syria, criticizing them fighters for not staying in the Caucasus and waging Jihad at home.

Addressing the Chechen Jihadi leader Dokka Abu Usman, Salakhuddin frames Jihad as a global fight against the “infidels”, but declares that it is more important for Chechen and Russian-speaking fighters fight the “Russian infidels” at home before traveling abroad.

In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate!

Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds. Peace and blessings be upon His Messenger, his family, his companions and all those who follow him until the Day of Judgment, and after …

Assalamu Alaikum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh [May the peace, mercy and blessings of Allah be upon you].

First of all, we congratulate our fellow Muslims of the Caucasus, the Crimea, Idel-Ural, Siberia and other Muslim lands occupied by Russian invaders [on the occasion of ]the holy month of Ramadan.

Congratulations on this blessed month to our Emir Dokka Abu Usman and his associates, who have labored on the path of jihad for many years.

We pray that Allah not give us trials that are beyond our strength, and to strengthen our spirit in the fight against unbelief and unbelievers.

Recently, the youth spread rumors that they must to go to Syria to wage Jihad, and here today, there is a large influx of volunteers.

It’s understandable when Muslims come from places where there is no Jihad and no way to wage it. But it is not completely understandable, and in our view is not entirely right, when people come to Syria from places where there is Jihad that has been waged for years. Whether it’s Libya, Jammu and Kashmir, or our Caucasus.

Yes, here in Syria it’s easier right now to wage Jihad than in the Caucasus. There territory to be reclaimed from the infidels, there is a rear, there is a front and we’ve got captured weapons, including guns, mortars, anti-aircraft guns, BMPs, and so on.

Living conditions here are also much easier than in the Caucasus Mountains.

But, the truth is that even with all that, there are more victims in the ranks of the Mujahideen here.

I do not want to talk a lot on this matter, but I will say one thing to the brothers — you can’t leave somewhere where there is Jihad and choose other places without good reason. It is said in the Quran:

O you who have believed, fight those adjacent to you of the disbelievers and let them find in you harshness. And know that Allah is with the righteous. [Surat At-Tawbah]

What can be more respectful than Jihad in the Caucasus? Moscow and the Russian infidels have fought against Islam and Muslims for centuries. And before you change the field of Jihad, dear brothers, let everyone have an justification before Allah.

If you can’t climb the mountains, wage Jihad on the plains. If for some reason you can’t wage jihad on the plains, go to Moscow, in this hornet’s nest of the infidels and wage jihad there. Apart from Moscow, choose any city in Rus’ on your own.

And at the end of the day, prepare for the so-called “Olympic Games in Sochi.” This is a concrete order from our Emir Dokka Abu Usman.

Here I have to say, to make such a Jihad, do not form into larger units and battalions. It’s enough to have one to three people who prepare a task for themselves, select a goal and work hard and patiently to go to achieve it.

As our dear brother the Martyr Shamil Basayev [ ] said: “… modern technology allows one person to cause irreparable damage to the infrastructure of an enemy state.”

And in the final analysis, we would like to give advice to ourselves first of all, and then to our brothers.

Before embarking on any business, perform the Namaz [prayer] . Do nightly prayers, do a lot of dhikr [“remembrance of God] and then go to work, trusting in Allah.

From bitter experience we know here as soon as we have faltered in ibadah [worship, obedience with submission], we suffered failures. And no matter how many weapons and people we have, it is not conducive to success.

On the contrary, when we were doing a lot of dhikr, night prayers, when we ask Allah for help night and day, then in just a few hours with the help of Allah we conquered territory and objectives that had stood against us for months.

Keep a clean, clear, well-thought-out and detailed plan. Do not share your plans with each “good friend.” Otherwise the whole thing will be ruined, you won’t even be able to start it. Let your words and conversations are not get in the way of action.

So by mercy from Allah , [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. [Surat ‘Āli `Imrān 3 159]

Those to whom hypocrites said, “Indeed, the people have gathered against you, so fear them.” But it [merely] increased them in faith, and they said, “Sufficient for us is Allah , and [He is] the best Disposer of affairs.” [Surat ‘Āli `Imrān 3 173]

Who Are Jaish al-Muhajireen wa Ansar?

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.

Umar Shishani

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:

Jabhat Al Nusrah and Jaish Muhajirin Wa Anshar… by AbuSalima

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.

Menagh Airbase

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:

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: