Syria isn’t the first conflict to attract foreign fighters, nor will it be the last; but it is the first time that Chechens have engaged in jihad outside of Russia en masse. Russian Muslims from Chechnya and beyond are increasingly gaining prominence fighting in northern Syria. A video this week in fact announced the formation of a new foreign brigade, the Mujahedin of the Caucasus and the Levant.Involvement also from Russia’s primary domestic insurgency group, Caucasus Emirate, demonstrates the dangers posed to the Russian authorities by returning fighters and the potential spread of jihadist ideology within Russian Muslim communities.
Rumours of Chechen participation in Syria emerged in July last year from Saudi intelligence sources but were emphatically denied by the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. In September, veteran jihadist Abu Omar al-Chechen, an ethnic Chechen from Georgia, allowed an Iraqi journalist to accompany his small unit. Then his men totalled only 30; today Abu Omar leads a 1,000-strong battalion, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, which in the last year has become a dominant force fighting alongside al-Qaeda affiliates in the contested Aleppo province in north-western Syria.
Abu Omar’s dominance is clear. After his group’s instrumental role in the successful capture of the Minnagh Air Base this month, radical media sites described him as the commander of the Northern Directorate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and in charge of “most forces of the Mujahideen in northern Syria”. The new brigade appears to be run by his former comrade Emir Seifullah, whom Abu Omar expelled from Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar last month for un-Islamic behaviour.
And it’s not only Chechens. Men from across the North Caucasus republics are believed to be fighting in Syria: veteran Ingushetian fighter, Daud Khalukhayev, led a Russian brigade in Aleppo before he was killed by regime forces in February 2013; and authorities now estimate 200 men from Dagestan are fighting in Syria. In fact, the attraction of Syrian jihad has spread even further; 1,000 miles north-east to Tatarstan, on the Volga river. In July, one mosque in Naberezhnye Chelny, Tatarstan’s second city,reportedly lost dozens of worshippers to Syria; and a former imam from Tatarstan, Salaman Bulgarsky (aka Airat Vakhitov, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee), claims that there are a thousand Russians providing (in his words) ‘humanitarian’ assistance in Syria.
The prominence of Russian Muslim fighters has not gone unnoticed by Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov, responsible for broadening the geography of North Caucasian insurgency away from the northwest Caucasus to include all of the North Caucasus republics and contiguous parts of southern Russia. Umarov was initially reluctant to support Russian fighters’ involvement in jihad in Syria, especially at the expense of local fighting. His stated target is currently the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. More recently, however, the Caucasus Emirate has acknowledged the Russian presence in Syria with pride andappointed an official representative to the country.
Umarov’s shift is likely pragmatic rather than theological. Returning fighters will impact the proliferation of not only jihadist ideas but also combat experience and funding contacts within the global jihad movement. Abu Omar’s global aspirations are clear in his propaganda videos: he fights against the regime in Syria, he says, because, “Today truly there is a chance to establish Sharia law in this land … and from here to spread to other states”. Even the pro-Putin Kadyrov now acknowledges the scale of the problem posed by returning fighters, and last month urged young Chechens not to leave for Syria. With theRussian fighters’ stature in Syria growing, Umarov cannot risk these battle-hardened jihadists threatening his dominance on their return.
The diversity of Russia’s militants in Syria also echoes the spread of insurgency in southern and central Russia. Four out of every five attacks claimed by Caucasus Emirate last year occurred in Dagestan or Ingushetia, rather than Chechnya; and a car bomb in Tatarstan in July targeted a senior Muslim leader known for his anti-extremism stance. The growing prominence of Russian Muslims in the Syrian conflict and the Caucasus Emirate’s attempts to co-opt them on return, therefore, pose a significant threat, both to Russia’s control over the North Caucasus republics and to the proliferation of jihadist ideology within southern and central Russia.