Many Chechen supporters of the Islamic State have flocked to the Middle East. And as their numbers and fervency have grown, this has placed at a disadvantage other Chechen commanders in the Middle East who have refused to subordinate themselves to the self-styled new caliphate. All the Chechen amirs in the Middle East have fallen short of the Islamic State’s Umar al-Shishani in terms of recruiting young followers.
Amir Salautdin Shishani (Feyzulla Margoshvili) is the only Chechen amir in Syria who says that he represents the Caucasus Emirate in Syria and thus, unlike Umar al-Shishani, he did not pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Notably, the conflict has split the North Caucasus militants within the group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. Some of the Chechens joined amir Umar al-Shishani while others stayed with amir Salahutdin Shishani. The group loyal to Salahutdin retained the name Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, indicating that amir Umar al-Shishani led the splinter group. At the end of 2014, Salahutdin Shishani tried to initiate talks with Umar al-Shishani using their shared family ties. However, the negotiations yielded no results and the supporters of the Islamic State harshly criticized Salahutdin Shishani in a video published on YouTube late last year (see EDM, December 5, 2014).
An attempt on Salahutdin Shishani’s life was probably yet another manifestation of this criticism: On January 19, his car was destroyed in an explosion in the area of Aleppo. However, only the amir of the Dagestani group within Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, Ukasha ad-Dagestani, was in the car. He was killed by the blast (Akhbarsham.info, January 20). Meanwhile, after an unsuccessful attempt to strike a union between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, amir Salahutdin Shishani joined forces with the Arab jamaats Harakat Fajr ash-Sham al-Islamiya, Harakat Sham al Islam and Katibat al-Hadra. The latter group became an integral part of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar itself (Akhbarsham.info, March 20).
In an interview with the Turkish online news agency Ummet-i Islam, amir Salahutdin Shishani lashed out at those who switched allegiances from the Caucasus Emirate to the Islamic State. “It is hard to even call them men,” he said (Ummetislam.net, March 20). Salahutdin said that he had pledged allegiance to Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov and that, after Umarov’s death, he took an oath of allegiance to Umarov’s successor, Ali Abu Muhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov). Salahutdin said that if the leader of the Caucasus Emirate called him back to the Caucasus, he would follow the order immediately. The militant appeared to be sending a subtle recruitment message to Turks.
Another well-known Russian amir, Muslim Shishani (Murad Margoshvili), leader of the once-powerful Junud al-Sham (Soldiers of the Levant) group (Deutsche Welle–Russian service, December 12, 2014), scathingly criticized the supporters of the so-called Islamic State. The militant claimed that he was independent from both the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. At the same time, Muslim Shishani criticized those young Chechens who disrespect the Islamic scholars who are in favor of global jihad, who support al-Qaeda and Salafism (YouTube, March 6). Chechen critics of al-Qaeda are found mostly in Umar al-Shishani’s entourage in the Islamic State. They assert that contemporary Muslims scholars are not brave enough to recognize Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph of all Muslims. Muslim Shishani named practically all ideologues of al-Qaeda and of the world jihadi movement in his address. Muslim Shishani said that by hurling insults at al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, his critics display their ignorance, given that al-Zawahiri dedicated four decades of his life to jihad.
Muslim Shishani’s comments indicate that he is close to al-Qaeda, even though he frequently emphasizes that he is not subordinate to anyone. His audio address was also meant to entice more recruits into his group. It was virtually a cry from the heart, an attempt to defend jihadi veterans. The video might help him recover his militant leader credentials, which he enjoyed prior to the emergence of the Islamic State. It should be noted that he is popular among Muslims in Germany, who have provided him with ideologues who help him in the area of propaganda.
The emergence of the Islamic State in 2014 caused a massive outflow of young people from existing militant groups of militants to the ranks of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group. This weakened other Chechen amirs, who have been forced to try to counter the Islamic State and recruit more militants into their own ranks.
The number of Russians fighting on the side of the insurgents in Syria and Iraq is rapidly increasingly every year, but it is difficult to reliably estimate their number. Speaking at a meeting with the editors of several mainstream media outlets in the North Caucasian Federal District on March 26, Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Sergei Melikov, said 1,500 North Caucasians were fighting in the Middle East (Regnum.ru, March 27). However, the head of the Chechen government’s administration, Magomed Daudov, said in Grozny on February 19, more than a month earlier, that 3,000 “of our guys” are fighting in the Middle East (YouTube, February 19, from 9:55 to 10:06). It appears that thousands of Chechens and other North Caucasian militants may be in the Middle East, whose loyalty the Chechen amirs must vie for in Syria. This makes it likely that more conflicts and public appeals by the Chechen commanders fighting in Syria will follow, and the rupture between them and the Islamic State is likely to widen.