Salafi-Jihadis and the North Caucasus: Is There a New Phase of the War in the Making?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 27

Jordanian jihadi ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi

Several Jordanian newspapers and websites published details in early June about 24-year-old Jordanian Anas Khalil Khadir, stating that he was killed in Chechnya after joining the jihad there. Khadir’s family members, who live in Zarqa (a city located east of Jordan’s capital city of Amman), told journalists that Khadir was very attached to the Chechen cause, leading him to abandon his medical engineering studies at Zarqa’s Hashemite University and depart for Chechnya a week before his final exams (Khaberni [Amman], June 7; al-Sabeel [Amman], June 3; Bab al-Arab, June 7).

A few days after the news of Khadir was reported, newspapers announced the death of another Jordanian in Chechnya, Yasser Ammara. Described as “a prominent Jordanian-born warlord,” Ammara was one of nine militants killed during a battle in the mountainous forests of the Vedeno region during the government’s “Operation Vengeance” (Interfax, June 11). The author’s sources confirmed that unlike Khadir, Ammara had been in Chechnya since early 2000.

The story of Khadir was more alarming than that of Ammara in terms of developments in the North Caucasus because Khadir first travelled to Chechnya on December 21, 2008, long after the 2003 to 2004 decline of the Arab fighters in Chechnya phenomenon. The timing was also significant because it coincided with increasing interest in the North Caucasus and Chechnya on Salafi-Jihadis websites and internet forums and a period of rare postings on the topic.

The revival of Salafi-Jihadi interest in the North Caucasus comes in the context of two strategies that al-Qaeda and affiliated Salafi-Jihadist groups are implementing: seeking safe havens and creating a local, grass-roots jihad that will sustain such safe havens.

Background: Arab fighters in Chechnya

The presence of Arab Salafi-Jihadis in the North Caucasus goes back to the mid-1990s. Since then, Arab fighters have passed through three phases:

• The first phase coincided with the beginning of the First Chechen War in 1995, as Arab fighters began to move to Chechnya from Afghanistan and Tajikistan. At the time, many of these fighters were seeking a new jihadi battlefield after the Afghanistan campaign had come to an end with the Soviet withdrawal, while others had been in Tajikistan assisting Islamists in the 1992-1994 civil war. During Chechnya’s first war, Arab fighters did not create a separate movement but instead acted under the nationalist banner of President Dzhokar Dudayev.

• The second stage of the Arab fighters’ presence in Chechnya started after the assassination of Dudayev, as they created alliances with the temporary president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who, in common with other hard-line nationalists, was showing a new inclination towards political Islam. Well-funded jihadis helped local Islamists to develop their presence in Chechnya by attracting youngsters to the movement from both Chechnya and the neighboring republics, building Shari’a courts, Islamizing the society and, more significantly, opening training camps which attracted new Arab fighters from various countries.

The number of Arab fighters increased between 1997 and 1999 with 45% of Arab fighters going to Chechnya during that period. Their composition break down was as follows: 59% Saudis, 14% Yemenis, 10% Egyptians, 6% Kuwaitis and the remaining percentage from various Arab countries. [1]

The alliance between Arab fighters under Saudi Arabia’s Ibn al-Khattab (a.k.a. Samir Saleh Abdullah Al-Suwailem) and the Chechen hard-line nationalists led by Shamil Basayev was based on a mutually beneficial exchange, but proved a catalyst for the re-invasion of Chechnya in 1999 after this alliance tried to assist Islamists in the neighboring republic of Dagestan when Russian forces tried to prevent their establishment of an Islamic state. Chechnya’s second war erupted as federal forces invaded Chechnya in response.

• The Second Chechen War marked the last major phase of jihadi activity in the North Caucasus region, being the fall of the Salafi-Jihadis presence. Five factors contributed to this decline and played a major role in alienating jihadis inside Chechnya; 1) the increase of opposition to the Islamization policies they implemented among Chechen society, which people considered a distortion of their national culture; 2) the tightened grip on fundraising for armed groups that followed the September 2001 attacks; 3) the assassinations of many prominent jihadi leaders (it was the policy of the Russians to target both jihadi and nationalist leaders); 4) closing the borders of Chechnya; and 5) the growing differences in the agendas of the Arab fighters and the independence movement in Chechnya.

The Arab fighters started to leave Chechnya, some heading to Iraq, where a new jihadi battlefield was in the making. However, the ideology based on a unification of the North Caucasus remained and later played a significant role in the creation of the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, which serves as an umbrella group for all emerging North Caucasus armed Islamist groups.

Although the pro-Russian government led by Ramzan Kadyrov has announced the normalization of the situation in Chechnya, the neighboring republics (Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria in particular) have witnessed an increase in armed activities.

The Re-Emergence of Salafist Interest in the North Caucasus

Salafi-Jihadis consider the North Caucasus region to be an important strategic spot. Since the late days of 2007, they have shown a renewed interest in the region after their earlier role in the area diminished several years ago. This re-emergence in interest has various forms, most notably the remarkable cyber re-activation, after a lengthy period without such postings on jihadi websites. Jihadist web-forums have circulated numerous items on Chechnya since early 2008, criticizing Muslims for “forgetting” Chechnya and dedicating pages to the jihad in Chechnya, including fatwas, videos and articles praising the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus and its leader Doku Umarov. These items have appeared on significant websites and forums such as the Minbar al-Jihad wa’l-Tawhid website of the well known Jordanian jihadi ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (a website that was personally recommended by Osama Bin Laden) and the influential al-Faloja web-forum (, January 14).  An integral part of this cyber re-activation is the emphasis given to translating jihadi materials into Russian, specifically on the aforementioned websites. This activity is significant, as many local North Caucasus jihadis cannot read Arabic.

Another manifestation of the re-emerging interest in the North Caucasus is seen in attempts of jihadis in other theaters to link the Islamic Emirates of the Caucasus to the global jihad movement. For instance, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the late Amir of the Islamic State of Iraq (i.e. al-Qaeda in Iraq), directed a November 2008 open letter to Barack Obama immediately after he was elected President of the United States on behalf of Salafi-Jihadis in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and the Caucasus, urging him to withdraw American troops from Iraq (, November 9, 2008).

Another indication of the ongoing effort to link the Caucasian armed groups to the global jihad movement was seen in the exchange of letters between Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Anzor Astemirov (a.k.a. Amir Sayfullah), the late leader of Yarmuk Jama’at in Kabardino-Balkaria and an ideologue of the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, who was killed by security forces in March. The letters concerned Astemirov’s translation of al-Maqdisi’s books into Russian. Astemirov also sent al-Maqdisi the Emirates’ ruling against the London-based Prime Minister of the nationalist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI), Ahmed Zakayev, declaring him an apostate. The ruling was approved by al-Maqdisi (, March 26). Astemirov also asked al-Maqdisi about the Shari’a ruling on participating in the Olympics (, March 26). The 2014 Winter Olympics are scheduled to be held in Sochi, a city in present day Krasnodar Krai that was formerly home to the Muslim Circassians, driven out of the region with enormous losses by Russian imperial troops in the 19th century. Al-Maqdisi ruled that participation is prohibited. Seeking direct advice from jihad ideologues such as al-Maqdisi demonstrates the increasing attempts to tie the Caucasian armed groups, which are still driven by local grievances, to the global jihad.  

These developments in the evolution of the Salafist jihad in the Caucasus coincide with new strategies that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are currently implementing: seeking the creation of safe havens in various geographical areas, and building a localized jihad by convincing local elements to absorb the Salafi-Jihadi ideology rather than just allying the movement with local militant groups. This strategy has shown degrees of success in areas such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. The adaptation of such a strategy by al-Qaeda and affiliated groups comes in the context of the lessons learned from their experiences in Iraq and Chechnya, the most important lesson that when they lost the support of the local people, they also lost their local bases.

In this context, the North Caucasus has recently generated its own local jihadis, such as Astemirov and the two Daghestani female suicide bombers who attacked the Moscow Metro on March 28. Maryam Sharipova and Dzhanet Abdurakhmanova, unlike most of the female suicide bombers from the region, were not directly linked to the war-torn situation in Chechnya, but acted instead for ideological reasons. This would appear to demonstrate the attraction of jihadi ideology in some quarters. Some observers think that the pressure applied by local and federal authorities against the people in Dagestan make jihadi ideologies more attractive.

Although it remains unconfirmed whether the young Jordanian Anas Khalil Khadir was linked directly to al-Qaeda and affiliated Salafi-Jihadis, his departure to Chechnya at a time when the interest of jihadis in the region was re-emerging raises questions about whether the North Caucasus will become a new hotbed of jihadis from various countries as the Salafi-Jihadi ideology renews its efforts to take root there.


1. Author’s paper presented at the Jamestown Foundation conference September 14, 2006 entitled “The Rise and Fall of Arab Fighters in Chechnya.” The figures were compiled by the author.