Background on main Chechen factions in Syria:
The main Chechen factions inside Syria are Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, Sayfullah al-Shishani's jamaat, ISIS Chechens, and Junud ash-Sham. The ISIS Chechens are loyal to a man named Abu Omar al-Shishani, who serves as the ISIS military commander for Northern Syria. Before holding this post, he, along with Sayfullah al-Shishani, formed the group Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (Army of the Emigrants and Helpers--will be referred to as JMA). After a falling out between the two, Omar and his followers went to ISIS and Sayfullah and his followers went to Jabhat al-Nusra; Sayfullah died assaulting the Aleppo Central Prison in 2013. JMA is now led by Salahuddin al-Shishani and his deputy Abdul Karim Krymsky (a Crimean Tatar); the group refers to themselves as the Caucasus Emirate's contribution to the war in Syria or the “Imarat Kavkaz in Syria”.
Junud ash-Sham, an independent group who fights alongside JMA and al-Nusra, is led by Muslim Abu Walid al-Shishani. Muslim had close ties and friendship with Sayfullah before the latter's death in 2013. These are the main Chechens and Chechen groups fighting inside Syria; however, these are by no means the only Chechens or Chechen groups in Syria. For instance, Ansar Sham, a group aligned to the Islamic Front, is headed by a man named Abu Musa al-Shishani (who just so happens to be close to Muslim al-Shishani). The main group I will be focusing on here is the JMA since they consider themselves the Syrian branch of the Caucasus Emirate, an al-Qaeda linked group.
The Emirate's Role in al-Qaeda:
As highlighted in this Congressional testimony, the Imarat Kavkaz (IK) is committed to the global jihad and considers the United States a target. The US government must be taking these threats seriously, since they have designated both the organization and their late leader, Dokka Umarov, as a designated terrorist organization and a designated global terrorist, respectively. Similarly, the UN also has Dokka Umarov and the Caucasus Emirate on their sanctions list of al-Qaeda associated individuals and entities. The testimony highlights the history behind the IK’s role in the global jihad and their extensive connections and ties to al-Qaeda. For this article, however, I just want to focus on one little aspect: “The IK operates as part of al Qaeda’s global network”.
To quote the testimony: “Jihadist from the IK play a pivotal role in the fighting in Syria, and leaders from the Caucasus command large numbers of Syrian and foreign fighters in several jihadist groups operating in the country”. But the IK’s history of fighting alongside al-Qaeda doesn’t begin in Syria. Chechens were found in Iraq (read “American Sniper” for an interesting story about Chechens in Iraq), Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even Bosnia. They have shown time and time again they are committed to supporting al-Qaeda operations globally.
How does this correlate to a threat against the United States and the West?
Knowing the history of fighting in the North Caucasus and Chechens fighting around the world should highlight the fact that Chechen fighters are battle-hardened and very experienced in conducting asymmetrical warfare. In fact, they are some of the best fighters in Syria as shown with JMA essentially being “shock troops” for al-Nusra and the Islamic Front. For those American and Western fighters in Syria who are fighting alongside and interacting with these Chechens, this means that they are gaining valuable knowledge and expertise on how to conduct guerilla warfare and other tactics. Being that the IK is committed to al-Qaeda’s objectives, it is reasonable to assume the IK forces inside Syria could begin to train those Westerners and Americans in the aforementioned tactics to use in their respective home countries.
The prospect of trained and experienced jihadists training foreign fighters in how to conduct guerilla and terrorist tactics extends beyond just Chechen fighters inside Syria. This article is merely an attempt to showcase how Chechen fighters should be involved in the discussion of the implications of such a dire threat currently affecting the West. The need to combat this threat becomes even more important with such a diverse collection of trained and experienced jihadists training Western citizens.
The picture used above is of a vehicle owned by JMA in Syria, which shows their affiliation with the Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz).