Status of Chechens Rises in the Ranks of Middle East Jihadists

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 86

Yemeni military inspects vehicles destroyed in clashes with al-Qaeda fighters, May 2014 (Source: Reuters)

The Russian media, citing Agence France-Presse (AFP), recently reported that Yemeni authorities killed a militant named Abu Islam al-Shizani in the south of the country. His name was probably a distortion of Shishani, which usually means Chechen in Arabic. The slain militant had allegedly earlier fought in Chechnya and was killed along with four accomplices in a counter-terrorist operation against members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The United States considers this branch of the global jihadi network particularly dangerous (http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/news/2014/05/03/n_6127297.shtml). Following tradition, the Russian media turned the militant into “a leader of al-Qaeda” even though the French news agency called him simply a militant.

For quite some time the Russian media has tried to convince the world that hundreds of Chechens participated in the war in Afghanistan (http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php?st=1027459860). However, no hard evidence has ever been presented to support those propagandistic claims. For example, all the claims made about Chechen militants being captured and held in Guantanamo were eventually proven to be false—while eight Russian citizens ended up in that detention center, not a single Chechen was among them. Among the Russian citizens sent to Guantanamo were Rasul Kudaev and Ruslan Odizhev from Kabardino-Balkaria, Shamil Khajiev and Ravil Gumarov from Bashkiria, Airat Vakhitov and Ravil Mingazov from Tatarstan, Timur Ishmuradov from Tyumen region and Rustam Akmerov from Chelyabinsk. All of them were detained in the fall of 2001 during the combat operations against the Taliban. In February 2004, seven Russian citizens were extradited to Russia from Guantanamo. Six of them were subsequently sentenced to prison terms for various crimes in Russia (http://itar-tass.com/info/890849).

The absence of Chechens in various foreign conflicts was rooted in the fact that Chechens prioritized fighting at home rather than fighting thousands of miles away. As time went by, however, the stance of Chechens on fighting far from home changed, because the Chechens in the Middle East were targeted. Since many Chechens who live outside Russia are deprived of the opportunity to travel back home, they decided to carry on the war against Russia abroad. After having been cornered, the Chechens had no other choice but to attempt to harm Russian interests in other parts of the world. Syria was the first such arena where Chechens fought a regime supported by Moscow.

The personality of the Chechen killed in Yemen is not as interesting as his nationality. It is plausible to suggest that a number of Chechen jihadists are already in Yemen. It appears—and some circumstantial evidence indicates—that Chechens are starting to move from Syria to Yemen (http://www.yemenonline.ru/forum/topic1432.html). Therefore, it is plausible that a Chechen rebel group may also be established in that country in the near future.

Chechen groups quickly find their way to other parts of the world where jihad is being waged. The emir of AQAP, Sheikh Nasir Al Wahayshi, took an oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt2l4rc32iE), which probably means that the jihadists are regrouping in this region. Chechens from Syria might migrate to Yemen because they disapprove of the confrontation between the jihadists of the Al-Nusra Front and those of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). According to this author’s sources, Chechens from Syria have moved to other areas of the world. In addition, Chechens are now rethinking what has been going on in Syria. This is only the start of the process, but some Chechen commanders reportedly have already left the country, so the trend may strengthen. Syria will not remain without Chechens, of course. Such personalities as Umar Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili), who is the military leader of ISIS in Syria and a close associate of Bakru al-Bagdadi, the head of the Iraqi unit of al-Qaeda, is unlikely to leave Syria anytime soon because of the operational network established there (http://argumenti.ru/politics/n422/313808).

However, those well-known Chechen commanders who did not subscribe to ISIS’s goals and oppose it may eventually leave Syria for other parts of the world. These individuals include Salahudin Shishani, the commander of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (http://shamnews.tv/archives/227); Emir Muslim Shishani (Muslim Margoshvili), the commander of Jundu Sham (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=141ZhmNnIkg); Emir Abu Musa Shishani, one of the military commanders in the Ansar al-Sham; as well as others who criticize ISIS.

There have also been cases of militants deciding to leave Syria because they were disappointed in what they observed in that country (http://kavkasia.net/Russia/2014/1397595947.php). For example, cases exist of Chechens who were living in Europe returning home from Syria after they experienced the harsh realities of the civil war. Little certainty exists about the number of Chechens killed in Syria, but it is presumably in the hundreds. The figures provided by European governments usually reflect only the tip of the iceberg (http://www.kleinezeitung.at/steiermark/3618573/kaempfer-graz-vier-sind-bereits-tot.story). Because the relatives of Chechens who left Europe to fight in Syria and were killed there do not want to be monitored by the security services, they often assert that their children are studying abroad or claim they went back to Chechnya.

With the recent report of a Chechen fighter in Yemen and the ongoing presence of Chechens in Syria, one can begin to see the formation of a new area of the Chechen presence in Middle Eastern jihadist circles. For the first time, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has publicly recognized the role of the Chechens as jihadists (http://www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2014/04/20/104168.shtml), which suggests that Chechens have a new status among the world’s jihadists. Yemeni jihadists may also be interested in bringing in Chechens to raise the status of the conflict in Yemen to that of Syria. Chechen jihadists have become promoters of global jihad in Syria, and their appearance in Yemen may have the same impact on that country.