Recruits From Chechnya and Central Asia Bolster Ranks of Islamic State

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 16

The proclamation of the Islamic State on the territory under the control of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s armed groups in Syria and Iraq illuminates the degree of radicalization of young Muslims who live in Russia and European countries. Since the Islamic State was proclaimed (, July 1), several important developments have taken place in its Chechen component.

The Chechen commander Umar Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili) has become one of the key figures in the system organized by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Shishani’s role has changed from that of commander of a group of militants in Syria to the position of the military emir of the Islamic State. However, it is unclear when Emir Abu Waheeb was removed from this position. If Umar Shishani is indeed confirmed as Islamic State military emir, that means he has become deputy to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the second most important person in the Islamic State structures. Shishani will bear responsibility for the egregious crimes committed by the Islamic State’s army against the Shiites, the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Druze (, July 17). Thereby, Umar Shishani has become involved in multiple crimes that he will never be able to distance himself from.

The proclamation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS—hence renamed as just the “Islamic State”) was the result of a new rise of enthusiasm among Muslim youth that can be seen especially well in Istanbul, which is used as a transit city for travel to the Middle East. Previously, young Muslims from Europe, Russia and other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) primarily attempted to join Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, the group for foreign volunteers in Syria that was led by another well-known Chechen commander, Salautdin Shishani. However, the group of the radical Umar Shishani now appears to be attracting the majority of aspiring recruits. Moreover, there is a process of militants switching from Emir Salautdin to Umar Shishani that started long before the proclamation of the Islamic State and accelerated after it (YouTube, March 14). According to information from Istanbul, there are several groups that redirect young people arriving from all over the world to participate in jihad in the Middle East. As of today, the recruitment groups that supply Umar Shishani enjoy the greatest demand.

Partly because of the activities of Turkish security services, which deported thousands of those who wanted to enter Syria, the stream of young volunteers from European countries has dried up a little. France, Austria, Germany, Great Britain and Denmark try to coordinate with other countries to stop such travelers (, August 21). These countries are the major suppliers in the European Union for the Islamic extremist groups (, December 9, 2013). Little information is available on the numbers of participants of jihad from Kosovo and Bosnia, but it probably amounts to hundreds of individuals (, August 23). Moreover, the militants try to use Bosnia and Kosovo as transit points, for return from Syria to Europe and legalization. This can be seen in the case of a Dagestani who had participated in the conflict in Syria and was arrested upon arriving at Sarajevo airport (YouTube, August 14).

The Turkish security services, however, are managing to intercept only a small portion of young Muslim volunteers. Potential recruits learn from the experience of those who pass through Turkey as a transit zone. In 2012–2013, the majority of Chechen volunteers travelled to the Middle East from Europe, but that has now changed. Since Turkey hands the people it intercepts over to the corresponding authorities and the relatives and friends of such individuals face problems, European Chechens have become less enthusiastic about volunteering. At the same time, the majority of Chechen fighters among those who arrived in 2014 came directly from Chechnya. It is relatively easy to join the jihadists because it is easy to travel from Chechnya to Turkey thanks to the regular non-stop flights from Grozny to Istanbul (citizens of Russia do not require a visa to visit Turkey). In addition, there are also daily flights to Istanbul from other cities in the North Caucasus, such as Makhachkala, Vladikavkaz, Mineralnye Vody and Krasnodar. Ramzan Kadyrov’s brutal treatment of Chechen volunteers and their relatives remains the only obstacle for aspiring militants to fight for the Islamic State (, April 15). Consequently, in a major turnaround, Chechen groups in the Middle East are now replenished by Russian Chechens rather than European Chechens. Besides Chechens, Kazakhs are also quite visible (, November 20, 2013), along with other Central Asians (, May 14), South Caucasians (, May 1) and so on.

The problem is of far greater magnitude than was originally thought. Those imbued with the idea of worldwide jihad are by no means all ignorant individuals; on the contrary, these ideas take hold among people with higher education degrees. Unsettledness as well as the breakdown of personal plans and objectives push these people toward greater involvement with the Islamist cause. At the same time, their shallow knowledge of Islamic theology makes them easy prey for manipulation by militant Islamists.

European countries are at a loss, as they do not have a well-defined policy on how to deal with their own citizens becoming jihadists (, September 9, 2013). Threats and punishment are unlikely to decrease the radicalization of European Muslims, including the Chechens who live in European countries (, August 23). Radicalization trends among Muslims living in Europe have different roots and require a more in-depth study. Muslim involvement in the social and political life in European countries is obviously insufficient to resolve the issue (, July 3).

Chechen involvement in the Islamic radical movements in the Middle East is quite substantial and is potentially dangerous, as it may attract masses of young people and spread further in the Caucasus. Today, a struggle for the minds of young people from the Caucasus to the United States is unfolding, and the winner is yet to be known.