Since major insurgencies have sprung up around the Arab world in recent years, stories have emerged of Chechens joining the fight. The first reports of Chechens fighting in Syria appeared in 2012. It has been implied that many of these fighters are veterans of the Russian-Chechen conflicts. The reason for Chechen involvement in Syria may be twofold: Wahhabists joining the fight against Alawite and Russian-backed Bashar al Assad.
Digging deeper, more reasonable explanations are uncovered, at least for the involvement in Syria. Ethnic Chechens are traditionally Sufis. In the later part of the 20th century, a more conservative form of Islam began to take hold. By the time of the Chechen-Russian wars, Salafi/Wahhabi Islam – an ultraconservative sect of Sunni Islam – had permeated much of Chechnya. Many of the rebels fighting the Russians were these Salafists, who wanted to establish a Caucasus Emirate. Once the wars ended, Russia installed a pro-Russian government, led by Ramzan Kadyrov. Fleeing the pro-Russian regime, many hardened Chechen rebels found their way into the mountains bordering Georgia. This is the area rebel leader Doku Umarov made his base of operations. Crossing into the North Caucasus from their mountain base had become increasingly difficult for Chechen rebels.
Enter 2011. Syrian rebels rise up against dictator Bashar al Assad. Chechen rebels found a new cause, helping the oppressed Sunni rebels fighting Assad. And they found it much easier to travel south than to go north. The Chechens found the funding and the training in Syria that they had not seen in the Caucasus. Fighting against Putin’s friend Assad must be a bonus. It is estimated that hundreds Chechen fighters have made the trek south to Syria to fight along side the rebels. There is even a website devoted to the phenomenon.
What about the recent reports of Chechens found fighting in Yemen? Last week, at least one Chechen militant was among those killed in a Yemeni military operation targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It’s possible that Chechens are growing weary of the chaos and brutal reality of fighting in Syria’s civil war. The once united struggle against Assad has turned into infighting among the rebels and terror groups. Chechen Islamists appear to be regrouping, and moving the fight to Yemen. At this time, there are no estimates on the number of Chechens in Yemen. But like Syria, the number of foreign fighters in Yemen is growing, making AQAP’s fight truly a global one.
Even more disturbing is a recent (unconfirmed) report of Chechen fighters seen in Ukraine this week. How do Chechens go from two wars and an ongoing insurgency against Russia, to backing pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine? The most likely explanation is that those showing up in eastern Ukraine are encouraged (read: paid) by Russia to cause unrest in the pro-Russian areas. Ukrainian officials have claimed to have encountered several Chechens fighting in the eastern regions, and that several were killed in operations around Donetsk and Slovyansk. Several months ago, it was reported that Chechnya’s “Vostok” 1st motorized infantry battalion helped in the operation to annex Crimea. This, of course, is vehemently denied by Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. It’s worth noting that Kadyrov is fully backed by Russia, who also denied military involvement in the annexation of Crimea despite evidence to the contrary.
Looking at all the reports of Chechens fighting in the Middle East and in Ukraine, it’s becoming clear that not all Chechens are created equal. Those found in the Middle East tend to be Chechen Islamists, helping out their brothers in the Struggle. Yet, those fighting in Ukraine are under the Kremlin thumb. Finding both sides outside of Chechnya’s borders is interesting. Given the economic conditions in Chechnya, it’s not outside the realm of possibilities that Chechens are becoming Jihadis for Hire.