The Path of Jihad from Caucasus to Syria

Before we take a look at how much impact fighters from Caucasus have had on Syria and the war taking place there, we need to for the time being go back into the past and examine the roots which caused people from Caucasus to start jihad in their area and then travel to Syria. The main focus of this article will be Russia’s North Caucasus because this area has the highest level of organized insurgency and the highest concentration of fighters compared to the other parts of Caucasus region.

Even though focus will be on the Russian part of Caucasus, there will be some talk about other areas of Caucasus along with prominent fighters from these areas. First part of the article will focus on the history of “Islamic resistance” in Caucasus.

“Islamic resistance” in northern Caucasus can be traced back to 1828 when Caucasian Imamate was established by imams from Dagestan and Chechnya in order to fight against Russian Empire during the Caucasian War. Ghazi Muhammad (Qazi Mullah) was the first imam of the proclaimed Imamate. Shortly after being proclaimed as imam in Gimry, capital of the Imamate, Ghazi formally called for jihad and enforced Sharia law across the Imamate. Main reasons Ghazi cited for this uprising were avaricious Russian activities in Caucasus and taxation.

First military operation launched in 1830 against Avar Khanate’s capital Khunzakh was unsuccessful. Following this failed attack Imam Shamil, 3rd imam of the Imamate played crucial role in uniting all local tribes under Sharia law. In 1831 successful attack was organized against Russians in northern Dagestan, Russians being unprepared for guerilla tactics. in 1832 forces of Caucasian Imamate were in position to endanger Vladikavkaz, however, all attacks directed towards the city were repulsed by Russians and counterattack was launched resulting in the capture of Imamate’s capital, Gimry. During the battles for Gimry, Ghazi Muhammad was killed and Imam Shamil was wounded during his escape, he was reportedly one of the two who successfully escaped. Since Shamil went into hiding after escaping from Gimry everyone assumed he was dead and Gamzat(Hamzat)-Bek was proclaimed as the second imam.

In 1833 Hamzat managed to capture Gergebil from Russians and local allied Khanates, capture of Gergebil meant that Khanate of Avaria was surrounded from three sides by Imamate. In the meantime Shamil recovered from his wounds and participated in offensive against Avaria. Ruler of Avaria, Pakhu-Bikhe saw that the resistance was futile this time and tried to negotiate with attackers laying siege to the Khunzakh. However, Shamil advised Hamzat to attack the city which resulted in Pakhu-Bikhe and her relatives being beheaded and Hamzat proclaiming himself as a khan. Hamzat didn’t have a lot of time to celebrate his recent successes in battles and his new title as he was murdered by Hadji Murad, Avar leader and his followers in 1834.

After Hamzat’s death it was finally time for Imam Shamil to take the title of imam. Shamil ruled for 27 years and was the last imam of the original Caucasian Imamate. During Shamil’s rule Imamate reached its peak conquering all western Muslim tribes tribes in Caucasus and uniting them in one country. Over the course of the years Shamil achieved a number of victories against Russians with his guerilla tactics. In 1859 Russian Emperor Alexander II offered Shamil a peaceful surrender which the latter accepted putting an end to the original Caucasus Imamate. Shamil died in 1871 in Medina, part of the Ottoman Empire then.

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Picture of Imam Shamil.

In 1919 Uzun Hajji Saltinsky saw a window of opportunity after the Russian revolution of 1917 and has recreated Caucasian Imamate under the name of North Caucasian Emirate and proclaimed himself as the 4th imam. North Caucasus Emirate was under the protection of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed VI making military action less desirable as there was a chance of huge escalation. In 1920 Uzun Hajji accepted the entry of Emirate into Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic with some autonomy in exchange.

After the second failed attempt at successfully creating Sharia-based country “stability” prevailed in Caucasus until the 1990s. “Active resistance” against the Russian army started after Bagauddin Magomedov of Islamic Djamaat of Dagestan called “Islamic patriots of the Caucasus” to take part in jihad against Russian “colonialism”. Jihadist groups that participated in the First Chechen War answered the call and prepared an invasion of Dagestan with 2000 militants led by Shamil Basayev (Emir Abdallah Shamil Abu Idris Al-Bassi) and Thamir Saleh Abdullah (Habib Abd al-Rahman Ibn al-Khattab ). Invasion was repelled by Russians forcing the attackers back to Chechnya. Shortly after the failed invasion, Russians used it as a reason to attack Chechnya and rid it of domestic and foreign extremists. Russian troops were able to regain control of Chechnya and install pro-Russian government. However, insurgency in Caucasus continued for a very long time.

Over the course of the years extremist groups remaining in Chechnya managed to make a number of small successes against Russian army using guerilla tactics. Despite the casualties inflicted to Russians groups were hit harder by counterinsurgency units that managed to dismantle and destroy some groups with their leaders. With the death of Ibn al-Khattab in 2002 by a nerve agent, Islamic International Brigade ceased to exist. Al-Khattab was an invaluable asset to the Caucasian jihad with his rich experiences from Afganistan, Tajikistan and Bosnia. While in Afghanistan he was in contact with Osama Bin Laden.

Four years later in 2006 Caucasian jihad suffered another important loss, Shamil Basayev was killed by an explosion while weapon shipment was being loaded. Dispute exists regarding who killed Basayev, most agree that it was an accidental explosion due to careless handling of a mine, while fraction believes Federal Security Service intercepted the shipment destined for Basayev, forced smuggler into cooperation and placed a rigged mine amongst the cargo. As a result of Basayev’s death Riyadus-Salihiin group went inactive until its reactivation and incorporation into Caucasus Emirate in 2009.

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Photos of Shamil Basayev (left) and Thamir Saleh Abdullah (right). Source: The Hindu

The aforementioned Caucasus Emirate was officially formed in 2007 after several salafist groups united under the leadership of Dokka Umarov, President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, unrecognized proclaimed government of Chechen Republic. Most of the Emirate’s manpower came from the salafi coalition known as Caucasus Front which consisted of; Ingush Jamaat, Kataib al-Khoul, Shariat Jamaat, United Vilayat of Kabarda, Balkaria and Karachay, Nogai Jamaat, Khalifat Jamaat, Amanat Jamaat, Jamaat Siddik, Ossetiyan Jamaat, Yarmouk Jamaat and Jamagat Jamaat.

Caucasus Emirate is rebranding of Caucasus Front and other smaller salafi organizations from military groups into a proclaimed Islamic Emirate/State. Dokka Umarov remained as the emir for six years and during that time Caucasus Emirate was stable and still able to significantly hurt the Russians. Umarov died in March of 2014 with no details provided regarding his death, Aliaskhab Kebekov (Ali Abu Muhammad) succeeded him as the emir. Kebekov didn’t last long as emir though, after only a year he was killed in a raid by Russian security forces in Buynaksk, Dagestan. Magomed Suleimanov was announced as the third emir and during his leadership an interesting event occurred. Russian forces besieged Gimry again, 182 years later in an attempt to capture Suleimanov but he managed to escape. However, he was killed a year later by Russian forces near Gimry.

The last emir to be announced by Caucasus Emirate was Zalim Shebzukhov and he was also killed by Russian forces in August of 2016. Currently the emir position remains vacant and it could possibly remain vacant until Caucasus Emirate dies out in the Caucasus as it is very weakened by defections and frequently targeted by counter-insurgency operations.

Caucasus Emirate was unchallenged in its area of operation until the November of 2014, with the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq defections started and influential commanders such as Aslan Byutukayev pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. These allegiances were acknowledged and accepted by IS in the June of 2015 when Abu Mohammad al-Adnani announced creation of Wilayah al-Qawqaz and Rustam Asildarov as its leader. Insurgency continued but on a smaller scale than in previous years with only few attacks claimed by the group.

Wilayah al-Qawqaz was weakened in December of 2016 when Federal Security Service forces killed Asildarov and a few of his close associates in a counter-insurgency operation near Makhachkala, Dagestan. IS’s Wilayah al-Qawqaz has taken the “title” of the leader of jihad in Caucasus from Caucasus Emirate which is now more active and organized in Syria.

It is remarkable to see that the original motives for Caucasian jihad started in 1828 remain to this very day, establishment of an Islamic Emirate/State based on Sharia law and “expulsion of Russians” from Caucasus. The main reason they are so focused on “expelling Russians” from Caucasus is because Russians are seen as colonists and there is some truth to it, ethnic Russians are a minority in the number of Russian “republics” in Caucasus. In Dagestan there are 3.6% Russians, in Chechnya 1.9%, in Ingushetia 0.8%, in North Ossetia-Alania 20.8%, in Kabardino-Balkaria 22.5% and in Karachay-Cherkessia 31.6%. Keep in mind that these percentages are according to the census made in 2010, numbers may be slightly different now.

Any possible civilized, democratic movement calling for independence of one or more “republics” if wanted by people was discouraged and undermined by extremist armed group that seek to establish a country in Caucasus based purely on religion ignoring ethnic makeup of the region. The biggest victims of this armed “resistance” are obviously the people of Caucasus who had their potential freedom movements hijacked by the extremists that only brought them death and destruction. Map of Caucasus’s rich ethnolinguistic diversity can be found below.

One area outside of Russian Caucasus deserves to be mentioned due to its infamously known extremist presence and that area is Pankisi Gorge in Georgia. Extremist activity in Pankisi Gorge originated somewhere between the Chechen wars and it was used as a refuge by insurgents and as a staging area for attacks against the Russians. Local population of Pankisi Gorge was supportive of operations going on as the Kist people inhabiting the area are sub-ethnos of Chechens. Georgian Army supported by both United States and Russia launched counterinsurgency operation in 2001 and declared full control over Pankisi Gorge in 2003. In 2005 operation finished and Georgian Army withdrew from the area allowing it to resume acting as a hotbed for radicals.

Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov claimed in January of 2016 that Islamic State fighters is using Pankisi Gorge for training and resting purposes, Georgian side was quick to refute these claims stating that Georgian authorities are in full control over Pankisi Gorge. Estimated number of fighters from Georgia that went to Syria and Iraq is between 100 and 300, big part of them from Pankisi Gorge area, the most famous ones are Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Omar al-Shishani) and Murad Margoshvili (Muslim Abu al-Walid al-Shishani).

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Map of diverse ethnolinguistic groups in the Caucasus region

Now that the origins and the situation of insurgency in Caucasus are out of the way, we can finally focus on the impact that fighters and groups from Caucasus had on Syria. Document publicly released by Europol in the November of 2015 states that at least 2200 individuals from the Russian Federation, mostly from Caucasus area traveled to Syria and Iraq in 2014 to fight on the behalf of Islamic State and other salafi groups. Fighters from Caucasus can be sorted in three groups; those fighting for Islamic state, those fighting for Caucasus Emirate & ex Jabhat al-Nusra and those who created their own “independent” groups.

Caucasus Emirate’s move to prioritize their operations in Syria over Caucasus seems logical as the “jihad” in Syria and Iraq managed to capture large swaths of land compared to the one in Caucasus where things almost reached a stalemate with an occasional raid here and there. This is one of the main reasons jihad in Caucasus was partially abandoned in favor of the new “mainstream” jihad taking place in the Levant. Fighters from Caucasus didn’t have to get accustomed to jihad in Levant as it was compatible with theirs, only difference being that instead of expelling Russians they will be exterminating Shia Muslims which are seen as heathens by extremists.

Caucasus Emirate has been in the Al-Qaeda’s camp since the beginning of the Emirate’s activity in Syria and that activity can be traced back to 2012. It all begins with Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, ex Katibat al-Muhajireen which was composed of foreign “Mujahideen” having experience from the previous conflicts. The first leader of the groups was Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Omar al-Shishani), more about him later. Group has participated in many offensives led by extremists of Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State while they were all still on the same side.

The most notable offensive in which Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar participated would be the siege of Menagh Air Base where they used an SVBIED effectively targeting the last SAA defenders of the air base killing and wounding a number of them, shortly after the rebel-extremist alliance imposed full control over the air base. Besides in Aleppo governorate, group has presence in Latakia governorate where they also supported offensives led by other groups.

In the late 2013 group experienced its first split after Abu Omar al-Shishani pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of Islamic state. Part of the fighters sided with Abu Omar and joined Islamic State while others remained in JMA and appointed Salahuddin al-Shishani as the new leader. Following the death of the first Caucasus Emirate’s leader Dokka Umarov, JMA reiterated their allegiance to the Caucasus Emirate and its second leader Aliaskhab Kebekov.

Since its first split and until the mid-2015 JMA joined a number of rebel operations room & alliances and participated in offensives against the SAA and IS. On the 23rd of September of 2015 JMA pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra. In mid-2015 JMA suffered another split after an internal dispute between Salahuddin al-Shishani, leader of JMA and Mu’atassim Billah al-Madani, head of JMA‘s Sharia committee. Al-Shishani was deposed from the leadership and al-Madani became the new leader. After being deposed al-Shishani and fighters loyal to him “joined” Caucasus Emirate in Sham (Imarat Kavkaz v Shame) and pledged allegiance to the third leader of Caucasus Emirate Magomed Suleymanov. Later in the year Salahuddin al-Shishani released a video addressing the split from JMA and surprisingly his removal from Caucasus Emirate in Sham.

New group was then formed, Jaysh al-Usrah with Salahuddin al-Shishani being the leader and Khayrullah al-Shishani his deputy. Little info is available about Jaysh al-Usrah, it is reported that they have presence in southern Aleppo, northern Hama and Latakia.

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Group of Imarat Kavkaz v Shame fighters in Syria. Source: From Chechnya To Syria

Another group mostly comprised of North Caucasus fighters, Chechens to be precise was Junud al-Sham. The group was founded in 2012 by Murad Margoshvili (Muslim Abu al-Walid al-Shishani). JAS was closely allied with Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham often accompanying them on offensives. Main area of operations of JAS was Latakia governorate with limited presence in Aleppo and Hama govenorates in the past. It is interesting to see that the majority of foreign groups are based in the border area between Latakia and Idlib, city of Jisr al-Shugur being completely overrun by Uyghurs and TIP.

JAS was one of the few groups that managed to survive independently without joining any larger faction, however, like many other groups it was hit with defections during the rise of Islamic State. Due to financial difficulties JAS had to let go some of the fighters in the beginning of 2016. Besides participating in offensives in Latakia, JAS participated in the Battle of Aleppo, more precisely in the unsuccessful siege of Aleppo Central Prison and in 2016 Hama offensive spreaheaded by Jund al-Aqsa.

JAS stopped existing in November of 2016 due to internal disputes, financial difficulties, defections and other reasons, most of the members joined Ajnad al-Kavkaz while Muslim Abu al-Walid al-Shishani still remains neutral and without a group.

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Photo of Muslim Abu al-Walid al-Shishani.

Ajnad al-Kavkaz, previously known as Khalifat Battalion is another predominately Chechen group, leader of Ajnad al-Kavkaz is Abdul Hakim al-Shishani. AAK isn’t a huge group numbering only between 50 and 100 members, for that reason they always had a supportive role in the offensives launched by stronger rebel groups. Group was involved in the Second Battle of Idlib led by Jabhat al-Nusra during which city of Idlib was seized by the joint rebel-jihadi forces.

Like other Chechen groups in Syria, AAK is also based in Latakia where they participated in offensives against SAA. Group was also allegedly a part of the offensive on the city of Aleppo launched by rebels in summer of 2016 aimed at breaking the siege imposed by SAA. AAK allegedly participated in 2016 Hama offensive led by Jund al-Aqsa.

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Ajnad al-Kavkaz leader Abdul Hakim al-Shishani (left) with Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini (right) in Idlib. Source: From Chechnya To Syria

Jund al-Qawqaz, also known as Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz is a small group consisting of fighters from all over the Caucasus formed in 2013. JAQ is reportedly independent from other groups with some links to Caucasus Emirate. Like other Caucasus groups in Syria, JAQ is also based in Latakia and only participated in offensives taking place in that governorate. In 2014 group had around 30 fighters.

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Fighters of Jund al-Qawqaz somewhere in Latakia governorate in 2014. Source: Syria Comment

Jamaat Ahadun Ahad (Group of The One and Only) was a group formed in 2014 by foreign fighters in Syria. Leader of Ahadun Ahad was Chechen known as Al Bara Shishani who fought under the leadership of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. At its peak Ahadun Ahad had around 300 soldiers. Group was based in Latakia and closely linked with Junud al-Sham, often fighting side by side. Ahadun Ahad participated in 2014 Latakia offensive and were among the last rebels to leave Armenian town of Kessab before SAA retook it. In 2016 it was claimed that Jamaat Ahadun Ahad left Latakia and joined Islamic State.

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Fighters of Jamaat Ahadun Ahad before launching an attack. Source: Hasan Mustafa

Nogai Jamaat is a subgroup formed in November of 2016 inside of now former Jabhat Fateh al-Sham which became Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham. It is unknown if this group has or had any connections to the Nogai Jamaat in Caucasus, former Nogai Battalion created during the First Chechen war by Shamil Basayev from Chechen Nogais.

All important and semi-important groups in Syria with significant number of Caucasus fighters have been listed and now it’s time to take a look at the most prominent fighter from Caucasus, Abu Omar al-Shishani.

Named Tarkhan Batirashvili but more known by his nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Shishani was a Georgian Kist (Chechen sub-ethnos) most famous for his commander and “minister of war” roles in the Islamic State. Batirashvili joined Georgian Army after high school received his first battle experience during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. He showed signs of radicalization at an early age helping the Chechen militants smuggle into Russia during the Chechen wars and sometimes accompanying them on the operations against the Russian Forces. Army unit that Batirashvili was a part of received training from the U.S. Special Forces. In the early 2010 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and later discharged from the military. He spent 16 months in jail for illegally possessing weapons before he embarked on his journey towards Syria.

Once in Syria in 2012 he was at first a leader of Katibat al-Muhajireen later “rebranded” as Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. In 2013 during the rise of Islamic State he pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr a-Baghdadi and defected with a part of his soldiers. Under the IS banner he participated in a number of battles, most notably Siege of Kobani and Al-Hasakah offensive. On September 24 of 2014 the U.S. Department of the Treasury officially designated Tarkhan Batirashvili as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and later offered up to 5 million dollars for information that could lead to his capture.

Batirashvili was claimed to have been killed a number of times in the past but it appears that on 13 July of 2016 he was finally killed as the Amaq agency, IS media outlet stated he was killed in Al-Shirqat, Iraq. The U.S. claimed to have targeted Batirashvili on 10 July of 2016 and were trying to verify if he was killed in the strike. Gulmurod Khalimov, Tajik national also trained by U.S. Special Forces succeeded Batirashvili as the “minister of war” of Islamic State.

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Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Omar al-Shishani) during his time as IS “minister of war”.

Officials from Russian republics where Caucasus fighters came from took official stances condemning the actions done by their “citizens” and encouraged operations aimed at destroying local extremist cells in the area by counterinsurgency units. However, one could argue that they could’ve done a better job at cracking down radicalized individuals and it almost appears like they are allowing radicals to leave for “jihad” in Syria and Iraq. This move doesn’t seem illogical as they won’t have to deal with stronger and larger insurgency in Caucasus but they might face the issue of returning fighters that could possibly radicalize local population and inflame more dangerous insurgency in Caucasus.

Fighters from Caucasus constitute a 2nd largest foreign force in Syria fighting against the government of Bashar al-Assad in a bid to establish an Islamic State/Emirate on the territory of Syria exclusively based on Sharia law. Caucasian fighters played a crucial role in keeping the “jihad” alive in Syria with their constant participation in offensives where they proved their high determination for the cause they believe in.

Sources used in making this article; Wikipedia, The Economist, Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy, Europol, Russian and Eurasian Politics – Gordon M. Hahn, From Chechnya To Syria, Reuters, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Russia Today, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Syria Comment, Hasan Mustafa, Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Intellectual credited property used may vary from an edition to edition.

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For those of you interested, you can follow us on an official Twitter account @SyrianWarDaily, or me personally on my biased twitter @joskobaric where I occasionally tweet some things.

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