Statement by New Leader of Caucasus Emirate Creates Rift Among Chechen Groups Operating in Syria

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 13

From the start of the second Russian-Chechen war in 1999, everybody has been trying to find connections between the Chechens and al-Qaeda (, May 24, 2000). That effort suited Moscow, since the Russian authorities wanted to prove to the world that they were fighting not Chechen militants, but international terrorism. This also helped Russia explain to the West why several thousand militants were able to resist an army that scares the entire world. As a result of this propaganda warfare, the Chechens ended up in the middle of an argument that they could not grasp for a long time.

After the creation of the Caucasus Emirate in September 2007 (, March 14), the North Caucasus militants garnered all of their propaganda strength to prove to the Muslim world that they were fighting on behalf of the entire community of Islamic co-religionists. However, it was only after the death of Osama bin Laden (, May 2, 2011) that they received the chance to acquire membership in one of the world’s most egregious terrorist organizations, al-Qaeda (, May 14, 2011).

Unlike his predecessor, the new leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, knows about the Caucasus Emirate not through third parties, but through personal experience. Al-Zawahiri visited the North Caucasus, was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and deported from Russia (, April 29, 2003). He even wrote a memoir about that period of his life (, January 20, 2011). So, it was not entirely unexpected that he spoke about the strength and courage of Chechen fighters, who set an example for the entire Arab world (, April 20). This statement was a step toward certain reconciliation and an invitation by al-Qaeda to the Caucasus Emirate to become part of the terrorist organization 

First, the Chechens who were fighting in Syria chose to affiliate with al-Qaeda in 2012. The then little-known Chechen commander, Umar Shishani, pledged allegiance to the leader of the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (, 2013). Later, another group of Chechens pledged allegiance to the other leader of al-Qaeda in Syria, Abu Mohammed Al Jolani (, January 2014). Finally, a third group of Chechen commanders, including the largest group of North Caucasus militants in Syria—Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, led by Emir Salautdin—opted to remain independent of the two al-Qaeda groups mentioned above (, December 25, 2013).

The different orientations of the Chechen groups in the Middle East resulted in heated exchanges between them in the media at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014. In the North Caucasus itself, this issue was not widely discussed at the time, because the insurgents were preoccupied with the question whether then Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov was still alive or not.

The new leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Sheikh Abu Muhammad, recently broke his silence on the developments in Syria and Iraq. For the first time, he spoke about the North Caucasus insurgents’ view of the Middle Eastern brawls (, June 23). Emir Abu Muhammad took Ayman al-Zawahiri’s side, saying he should be accepted as leader. According to Abu Muhammad, the North Caucasus fighters in Syria would do the right thing if they backed Jabhat al-Nusra, since the leader of al-Zawahiri supports that particular group in Syria. Moreover, in another video address, the emir of the Caucasus Emirate referred to al-Zawahiri as “our sheikh” (, posted on June 28).

It appears that the Caucasus Emirate has thrown in its lot with al-Zawahiri. However, Abu Muhammad advised the emirs under his command to select neither al-Nusra nor ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), but rather to remain independent of both groups. In addition, Abu Muhammad also proposed to his emirs that they should not hand over the territories they control to any of the al-Qaeda groups (, June 23). This would allow the emir of the Caucasus Emirate to have a group of his own in faraway Syria and be a player in that country.

The only mistake Emir Abu Muhammad made in his video address was that he became overly personal and ordered Umar Shishani to refrain from making statements, since he has no Islamic education and possesses a “poor command of the Russian and Arabic languages.” It should be noted that the North Caucasus emir is also not highly proficient in Russian, and his Arabic—despite the years he spent in Tunisia and Syria according to his own testimony— lacks sophistication (Abu Muhammad’s biography,, June 24). This pointed attack against the leader of numerous jihadists in Syria was perceived as an insult by many followers of Umar Shishani, who then quickly retaliated. In an audio address, an unknown person spoke offensively about all militants, who were not part of ISIS. The narrator accused all the other rebels from the North Caucasus in Syria, who were not part of ISIS, of being Islamic apostates (murtads). He further advised the Caucasus Emirate emir “to stay there in the Caucasus and eat leaves,” implying that the Caucasus Emirate’s activities were not comparable to what the militants in Syria have managed to do.

Thus, the initiative of the new Caucasus Emirate’s emir, which could have resulted in achieving some form of reconciliation between the different factions of the North Caucasus militants, ended up having the opposite effect and only heightened tensions among the groups. As a result of this development, the ISIS accusation that other militants are apostates will only make reconciliation between ISIS and the other North Caucasus rebel groups nearly impossible. This is the first—and a very important strategic blunder—by the emir of the Caucasus Emirate since he was elected to his new position this past spring.