Georgian Chechens Increasingly Play Key Roles in Both Islamic State and Its Rivals

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 22

After the followers of Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) organization (, June 30), some of the rebel forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad became polarized. That polarization also affected the Chechen militant groups fighting in Syria, with some of the Chechen fighters siding with the IS, such as those from Umar Shishani’s (Tarkhan Batirashvili) group (YouTube, July 1). Others did not recognize the IS, including Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Supporters), which is under the command of Salautdin Shishani (Feizula Margoshvili), and Junud al-Sham (Soldiers of the Levant), which is under the command of Muslim Shishani (Murad Margoshvili).

The IS, which is an offshoot of al-Qaeda, now seeks allegiance from the leadership of al-Qaeda itself. The IS’s primary goal is to unite all Muslims into a single state and its second goal is to target Westerners and allies of the United States. While al-Qaeda has not demanded allegiance from the Muslims of the Caucasus, Crimea or Russia’s Volga region, or the Muslims residing in the United States or Europe (, November 19), the IS leaders are demanding that all the world’s Muslims submit to the authority of the newly founded Caliphate. This evidently threatens other Muslim commanders fighting in Syria and in Iraq because it undermines their ability to recruit fighters to their ranks. Groups like Jabhat al-Nusra are threatened by the calls for a Caliphate and its impact on their own recruitment efforts. 

Having shifted the majority of its attacks to Iraq, the IS organization has found its position in Syria somewhat weakened in the past year and may account for their assault on Kobane. The perceived weakening of IS prompted rebels not affiliated with the IS to start negotiations with them. Few people wanted to have talks with IS, knowing that they are in the habit of murdering negotiators (see for example: Nick Heras, Militant Leadership Monitor, April 30). To pursue this goal, one brave soul was found—a Chechen who goes by the name of Emir Salautdin Shishani, the leader of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, who met with the leadership of IS in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa as part of a “conciliatory mission” (, November 12). 

The meeting took place on November 6, and Emir Umar Shishani, who has become one of the closest associates of the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, represented the IS. Emir Salautdin tried to convince Umar Shishani to join forces against the al-Assad regime as the armed opposition in Syria had weakened as a result of air strikes by the United States and its allies. However, the talks reportedly did not progress well, since the leadership of the IS announced that all those who do not recognize the leadership of al-Baghdadi are apostates and misguided individuals. In response to the proposal by Salautdin Shishani to stop fighting the al-Nusra Front, Ahrar ash-Sham and other groups, the IS leadership stated that they would not stop the fight since “the emirs of all these jamaats are murtads and kafirs.” After these words, the emir of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, Salautdin Shishani, broke off the talks and left Raqqa.

Upon returning to his group’s base near Aleppo, Salautdin Shishani explained that it had not been his initiative to meet the IS representatives, but that in a meeting with militants of the al-Nusra Front, Jabhat al-Islamiyya and other Islamic insurgent groups, they entrusted him with this mission. Shishani said that his meeting with the leadership of the IS left an unpleasant aftertaste. His proposal to stop fighting the groups that are opposed to Bashar al-Assad was rejected by IS, who accused the al-Nusra Front and Jabhat al-Islamiyya of takfir (apostasy) (YouTube, November 13). 

It should be noted that such a meeting was possible only because of the mutual trust that exists between Salautdin Shishani and Umar Shishani, who are relatives and both come from Georgia’s Pankisi region. It was clear from Salautdin Shishani’s explanations that his counterparts in Islamic State called on him to pledge allegiance to IS, but that he rejected this and confirmed his loyalty to the emir of the Caucasus Emirate, saying he had taken an oath of allegiance to him and was not going to pledge allegiance to anyone else.

Yet, the talks in Raqqa caused a major stir in the forces affiliated with IS. In a video released on YouTube, Musa Abu Yusuf ash Shishani rejected the sincerity of Emir Salautdin’s intentions to stop the internal fighting of the militants in Syria, and did so in an insulting manner (YouTube, November 13). Musa Abu Yusuf ash Shishani, who is a subordinate to Umar Shishani and serves as an unofficial press secretary for the Georgian Chechen and is from Kazakhstan, lately has become quite popular among North Caucasian youth as an IS ideologue. He claimed that Emir Salautdin’s trip to Raqqa was motivated not by the lofty intentions of peace and cooperation, but by fear of al-Assad’s forces, which are several hundred meters from the positions of the forces under Emir Salautdin’s command. Musa Abu Yusuf ash Shishani was probably referring to the heavy fighting between Salautdin Shishani’s forces and the forces of Bashar al-Assad in the administrative district of Handarat in the suburbs of Aleppo, which has been going on since the end of October (, November 20). 

However, Emir Salautdin’s group is not in as precarious a state as portrayed by the IS. Small militant detachments continue to merge with the group led by Salautdin Shishani, and in the summer of 2014, the group joined forces with three other local organizations, forming a new alliance called Jabhat Ansar ud-Din. The new alliance is made up of Harakat Sham Islam, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansa, Harakat Fajr Sham and Katiba Khadraa. 

The Islamic State increasingly is distancing itself from the other armed opposition groups, which isolates it from the rest of the rebel forces fighting against the al-Assad regime in Syria. The fact that such sizable organizations as the al-Nusra Front, Ahrar ash-Sham and others dispatched a Chechen, Salautdin Shishani, to talk to another Chechen, Umar Shishani, strongly indicates how important the few Chechen commanders in this region have become in the regional insurgencies engulfing Syria and Iraq.