Unanswered Questions About St. Petersburg.

On Monday 3 April, a bomb went off in the St. Petersburg, Russia, metro, killing 14. At first, there was some confusion about the identity of the perpetrator, having originally been blamed on a man from Kazakhstan. After he turned himself in and was cleared, the real attacker was identified as 22 year-old Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, an Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan. Initially, no claims of responsibility came. Then, on 18 April, a claim of responsibility showed up on al Qaeda’s North African channel, Agence Nouakchaott d’Information (ANI). In the statement, it was said that Dzhalilov was a member of a previously-unknown AQ group called Iman Shamil Battalion. The statement also said that Dzhalilov was acting on instructions from Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri, to coincide with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to St. Petersburg, and threatened more action:

“To the Russian government, which apparently has not taken a lesson from its defeat in Afghanistan, we say: This operation is only the beginning, and what is to come will make you forget it, Allah permitting.”

Following the attack, 8 people from Central Asia were detained in connection to the investigation. Several weeks later, 12 people were detained in Kaliningrad, suspected as being part of a terror cell there. The Kaliningrad cell was said to be led by an Uzbek wanted on extremism charges, and are supporters of Islamic State.

Terrorism in Central Asia is next to nonexistent. Economic conditions in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have many seeking to find work elsewhere. They often end up in Russia, where they are treated as lower-class citizens. The alienation they experience can, in part, lead to their being vulnerable to extremist via recruiters, as I wrote here. In recent years, more of their numbers have shown up in terror attacks outside of the region. In June of last year, the attack on Turkey’s Ataturk Airport included Central Asians. The New Year’s Eve attack at an Istanbul nightclub was perpetrated by an Uzbek. This year’s truck attack in Sweden was also carried out by an Uzbek. These attacks, however, were directed or inspired by Islamic State.

Despite the claim of responsibility by AQ, many questions remain. First, why was the claim of responsibility was released on a side channel and not on AQ’s main channel? New York Times writers Rukmini Callamachi and Ivan Nechepurenko spoke of this in an article on 25 April. They raised the question of why this showed up on ANI, AQ’s North Africa channel, but not on their main channel, where they speak of European operations. The statement was first released in Arabic, then later in Russian.

Second, the suspect did not show any of the signs typical of recent terrorists. Dzhalilov was, by most accounts, not an overly religious person, he did or didn’t pray (depending on the report), and save for a couple of “liked” Islamic groups, his social media showed no clues. He, likewise, did not have a criminal record, and did not do drugs. It had been reported that he had quit his job and “disappeared,” rumored to have gone to Turkey and Syria. How did this young man end up following orders from Zawahiri to blow himself up in St. Petersburg? One of the suspects arrested after the attack said in a court appearance that he was acting on someone else’s orders, and that he didn’t know he was part of a terror attack. Whose orders was he following, and what was he told? Dzhalilov told people he had an uncle in Turkey, but was that the real reason he went there? Was there someone who can confirm that he was in Turkey, and who, if anyone, did he talk to there?

Third, the Imam Shamil Group was an unknown group prior to this attack. Who are they? The group is named after a Caucasus imam who led the fight against the Russians in the nineteenth century. Shamil’s name is used frequently in the Caucasus, and it is not out of the question that this group was formed specifically for this attack. It is not an uncommon practice; the most well-known example may be the Madrid bombings in 2004. Mark Youngman, who follows extremism in Russia, gave a lengthy response as to why this group and the claim should be viewed with some skepticism.

One possibility is that al Qaeda is looking to become relevant again. With the rise of Islamic State, al Qaeda has been pushed out of the spotlight, and has lost members to IS. They could be seeking to expand their network outside the Middle East and the Caucasus, with the Imarat Kavkaz (IK) insurgency in the North Caucasus having been largely contained. There have been attacks, but nothing on a large scale. Ramzan Kadyrov’s security forces have been particularly effective at neutralizing the threat. Recruiting Central Asians already in Russia’s cities is one way of expanding their network inside Russia. Although there are factors in place to recruit Central Asia migrants as terrorists, it has not been a common occurrence. Despite the numbers of migrant workers in Russia, there have been very few instances of terror attacks involving them in the country. Most Central Asians involved in terrorism seem to be mostly aligned with Islamic State in the Middle East.

Another (conspiratorial) possibility is the involvement of the Russian government. They have used terror before as a pretext to launch operations, most notably the apartment bombings leading up to the Second Chechen War. And there was once a known Russian-AQ connection. In the 1990’s, the FSB had Zawahiri detained for six months. Besides the apartment bombings, Russia has also aided terrorists in the past for their own gains. Security services allowed known insurgents through checkpoints near Beslan, knowing an operation was possible in the area[1]. The inclusion of the Russian message on ANI by itself means nothing; the attack was in Russia. Maybe an insider had a contact with ANI and not AQ’s main channel. The question here is why would the Russian government need to set up Central Asians as terrorists? Would it be merely to show they can be tough on migrants (who are already treated poorly in Russia)? One result of the apartment bombings was a great increase in the approval rating of the president which, at the time of Yeltsin/Putin, was abysmal. That is not currently the case; Putin enjoys an 80% approval rating.

It has been months since the metro attack in St. Petersburg, and so many questions remain unanswered. Given that this happened in Russia, getting those answers anytime soon is unlikely. The only clues may come from Russia’s future response toward those from Central Asia.

1. David Satter, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2016) p. 104

The Twisted Saudi Connection and Ramzan Kadyrov

Could Chechnya’s one-time thorn in the side be just what they need to make the move toward independence?

During the Russian invasion of Chechnya in the 1995, a Jordanian (though he identified as both Jordanian and Saudi) named Ibn al Khattab quietly slipped into the country under the guise of being a reporter. His goal was not to report about the Chechen War, but rather to fight in it. With him he brought an impressive jihadi resume, and the highest of connections.

Ibn al Khattab began his mujahideen career in the late 1980s, fighting with in Afghanistan against the Soviet Army. It was in Afghanistan that al Khattab met Osama bin Laden, becoming a close follower of the al Qaeda founder. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces, al-Khattab traveled to Central Asia to fight in the Tajik Civil War. After seeing on television Chechen fighters praying before going into battle, al Khattab felt compelled to fight along side them against the Russians. By then, he was an experienced and respected fighter, even having lead an Arab unit in Tajikistan.

Once in the Caucasus, Emir Khattab (or Khattab, as he was known by then) used his influences to secure funding for the fighters. It has been reported that Khattab set up training camps in the Caucasus, much like those used by al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He is also said to have taken Chechens back to Afghanistan to train, including Chechen commander Shamil Basayev.

While in Chechnya, Khattab produced videos to aid in fundraising, and acted as an intermediary between the fighters and the charities that funneled funds to aid the insurgency.

One of the most well-known of these charities was al Haramain. Al Haramain was an NGO founded in Saudi Arabia. Its stated purpose was to distribute food and aid to poor Muslims around the world, but it also operated as a front to funnel money to various al Qaeda-linked organizations. In 2010, an Oregon man was convicted of tax fraud related to a donation to Checnhya. Pete Seda, the man who founded al Haramain’s US branch, was charged with failing to report $150,000 the charity sent to help fund the Chechen insurgency, via Saudi Arabia. Although that conviction was overturned, Seda plead guilty in 2014 to tax fraud stemming from his work with al Haramain. The US government has since declared al Haramain a terrorist organization.

Another well known charity-slash-terror funding organization is Benevolence International Foundation. Originally founded in Saudi Arabia, BIF was at one time one of the largest Islamic charities in the US, as well as having offices in nearly 20 countries. During a 2002 raid on BIF’s Bosnian offices, authorities found material offering proof the organization was funding al Qaeda. And as with al Haramain, BIF’s director, Enaam Arnaout was charged with financing terrorism. Like al Haramain, the US government designated BIF as financiers of terrorism.

After the end of the Chechen Wars, Saudi money began to show up elsewhere in the Caucasus. Religious school teaching Wahhabi doctrine began to spring up, most notably in the Pankisi gorge. Finding the source of the backers of these schools is difficult to uncover but it’s believed Saudi-backed charities are part of the funding.

In the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, Saudi Arabia guaranteed the security of the Games during a meeting with Vladimir Putin. Prior to that, Caucasus insurgents were threatening to attack the Games. Two months prior, a pair of suicide bombers linked to the insurgency struck Volgograd in separate attacks. The Sochi Olympics went off without incident, leaving few to wonder of the Saudis really did have a hand in keeping the insurgents at bay.

Enter 2015.

In recent months, however, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya have been building relations. On the surface it may seem strange that Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and Sufi Chechnya are cozying up, especially since Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s security forces have been at the forefront of the fight against the insurgency.

One school of thought is that Russia is using Kadyrov to repair relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia. It is entirely plausible, given Russia’s recent support of Iran – a rival of Saudi Arabia – during nuclear negotiations. Iran and Russia are viewed by many as international pariahs, whereas Saudi Arabia, despite a raft of human right violations, is welcome in most international political circles. There could be a second reason for Kadyrov’s new found friendship with Saudi Arabia. Kadyrov could be making a move away from Russia, to establish more independence.

In the past year, Kadyrov has been taking many steps in what appears to be in defiance of the Kremlin. Following the December terror attack in Grozny, Kadyrov ordered the houses of the perpetrators’ families to be destroyed, a move that the Kremlin chastised. A month later, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down outside the Kremlin. Those charged with the crime had close ties to Kadyrov, leading many to believe he played a part in the murder. During recent security operations in Stavropol by local police, Kadyrov publicly announced he would not tolerate this and told his own security forces to shoot any foreign service members, including Russian. This is all in addition to a well-known mutual dislike for FSB, a feud which spawned the infamous incident of Kadyrov ordering the doors of the local FSB building welded shut after they refused his men.

One reason for Kadyrov to make friends with Saudi Arabia has to do with economics. In an interview in June, Kadyrov announced that Chechnya has as much oil as Saudi Arabia, saying it hasn’t been capitalized due to “chronic underinvestment.” He all but said it was Russia’s fault, citing Rosneft’s command of Chechen oil reserves, and Russia’s refusal to grant Chechnya licensing.

If Kadyrov is indeed looking to break free from Russia, gaining economic independence is the beginning. If he can lure Saudi investors – and get the necessary licensing – he might be able to build up the Chechen economy, one that sees nearly a 22% unemployment rate.

Beyond economics, Kadyrov seems willing to do anything to secure his republic against any threat, internal or external. Though effective in anti-terror operations in the region, effectively quashing the insurgency, his kadyrovtsy aren’t an army. One line in a Jamestown article regarding Chechen-Saudi relations and Islamic State may offer a veiled explanation: “the Chechen government is prepared to cooperate with anyone to prevent the group’s emergence in the North Caucasus.” If Kadyrov is willing to partner with Saudi Arabia – the very country funding the Chechen insurgency, many of whom support IS – to fight IS, what else are they willing to partner for? As Kadyrov keeps straining at his Russian leash, acquiring a wealthy and powerful partner could be just the thing that leads to Chechen independence.

Of course Ramzan Kadyrov will be fully aware of what happens to those who defy the Kremlin. Russian soil is soaked in the blood of dissidents. Is Kadyrov so important in keeping terrorism out of Russia that Russia is willing to look the other way, as it has in previous incidents? Or will Kadyrov finally take one step too many? Ramzan Kadyrov, like Putin, will keep pushing until someone pushes back. Except for Ramzan, that might mean a bullet to the head.

Caught in the middle: Zaur Dadaev & the murder of Boris Nemtsov

On the night of 27 February 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was walking with his girlfriend on Moscow’s  Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge when someone fired at least six shots into Nemtsov’s back. A car quickly pulled up, providing a getaway for the shooter. The biggest political assassination to happen during Vladimir Putin’s presidency happened in the shadow of the Kremlin, the most secure place in all of Moscow.

Six days after Nemtsov was killed, investigators announced they had arrested five men in connection with the crime. Not surprising to Russia-watchers, the suspects were Chechen. Two of the men, Zaur Dadaev and Anzor Gubashev, were charged with the murder. The other three, Shagid Gubashev (Anzor’s brother), Tamerlan Eskerkhanoz, and Khamat Bakhayev, were charged as accomplices. Dadaev and Anzor Gubashev were both members of Battalion Sever, part of the ‘kadyrovtsy,’ paramilitary Chechen police named after Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. Dadaev was deputy commander of Sever until he reportedly stepped down the day after Nemtsov’s murder.

Almost immediately following Dadaev’s arrest, Chechen leader Ramzam Kadyrov made a statement on his Instagram account calling Dadaev a “as a patriot of Russia,” “a profoundly religious man,” and implied that Zaur may have murdered Nemtsov over the politician’s comments following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. It was at this time, on 8 March, that word came out that Zaur Dadaev had confessed to the crime.

Within a week of Dadaev’s confession came word that it may have been made under duress. Russian Human Rights Council member Andrei Babushkin reported that Dadaev had wounds on his wrists from handcuffs and marks on his legs from rope. He also claimed that Dadaev said he had been tortured with electricity and that he had signed a confession only in exchange for the release of a friend who was arrested with him.

Nearly a month after the murder of Boris Nemtsov, a new witness stepped forward. Previously, only Nemtsov’s girlfriend had been the only witness but she claimed not to have seen the shooter who came at them from behind. This new witness, identified only as Yevgeny, said he was walking behind the couple, wearing headphones and looking at his phone. He said he didn’t hear the shooting but looked up right after to see Nemtsov on the ground and the shooter leaving the scene. Most importantly, Yevgeny provided a description of the shooter: medium height, slim build with dark, possibly wavy hair about four centimeters in length. This is not a description of Dadaev, who is tall and athletically built. Yevgeny also gave a different description of the getaway car.

During the first week of April, news came out that Dadaev had been arrested in Ingushetia but unidentified men and held for two days in an unknown location. Dadaev said he was not told why he was picked up, but that it was at this time he was “told what to say and how to say it.” At the same time, Unian posted a story claiming Dadaev had confessed and was cooperating with officials despite earlier reports of him pleading not guilty and having an alibi.

Nemtsov was killed steps away from the Kremlin, arguably the most secure place in Moscow. Coincidentally, security cameras facing the bridge where Nemtsov was murdered were down “for maintenance.”  One camera did manage to record the moment Nemtsov was shot, but at the exact moment a snowplow drives by, obscuring the couple and the gunman. Perhaps another coincidence, but it appears to be a coordinated effort to hide the identity of the shooter.

With Zaur Dadaev vehemently denying his involvement in the murder, theories abound as to who was really behind the killing of Boris Nemtsov. Given what is known, the most likely scenario is that Kadyrov had Nemtsov killed as a sort of present for Putin. Kadyrov has continually expressed his loyalty to Putin, even calling him a father-figure of sorts. Although no proof exists, it is said that Kadyrov was behind the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Nemtsov could be just another “gift,” a way for Kadyrov to show his devotion by killing a popular rival of Putin’s. But it could also be Kadyrov sending a message that he is more than just Putin’s lapdog in Chechnya. In recent months, Kadyrov has become more bold in his actions and words. After the December 2014 militant attack in Grozny, Kadyrov ordered the removal of the families of those involved, and the destruction of their homes, earning a reprimand from Putin. In late April of this year, Russian security forces and local police from Stavropol conducted operation inside Chechen territory, during which an armed Chechen man was killed. Having not known of the operation, Kadyrov replied by saying “open fire if someone from Moscow or Stavropol appears on your turf without your knowledge.”  The statement appeared on Grozny TV and has since been taken down, but not before the statement reverberated back to Moscow. Many, and not just in Moscow, saw Kadyrov’s statement one of insubordination, openly testing the reach of his power.

The alleged involvement of another Chechen in the Nemtsov murder leads some to believe Kadyrov was behind it. Ruslan Geremeev was an officer with Sever Battalion, and is a member of a prominent Chechen family. It had been reported by Novaya Gazeta that Geremeev was not only wanted for questioning in connection with Nemtsov’s murder but that was actually the organizer. When authorities went to Chechnya to arrest him, they found his home guarded by Chechen agents. Geremeev has since disappeared, and is thought to be hiding in Dubai.

Why Zaur Dadaev? If Ruslan Geremeev was truly behind the murder of Boris Nemtsov, Dadaev may be a convenient patsy. He served with Geremeev in Sever Battalion, and was on leave around the same time as Nemtsov’s murder. That in itself is a flimsy argument as to Dadaev’s involvement. The truth – if it is ever revealed – will only come from those directly involved: the one who really pulled the trigger and the one who ordered it. In the meantime, it seems Zaur Dadaev is a pawn in a Kadyrov game.

 

Russia and Islamic State (updated)

Earlier this year, I recently participated in a class discussion in which we were asked if we thought the Islamic State (IS) would attempt to expand into Russia’s North Caucasus. Many in the class thought that IS would in fact try for the North Caucasus because it was, as one student put it, the obvious next step. The North Caucasus is predominantly Muslim and somewhat adjacent to the Middle East, the students argued. The ones who believed IS could make an attempt were citing the relative ease at which they overran parts of Syria and Iraq. Islamic State’s sheer determination and barbarity, they argued, allowed them to quickly overtake poorly defended towns and Iraq’s less-than-stellar army. In Syria, the chaos of the civil war made for easy inroads for IS. Those who disagreed pointed to the Islamic State’s preoccupation with Syria and Iraq, basically IS is too busy to threaten the North Caucasus. Not a single student mentioned Russia.

When it comes to dealing with terrorists, Russia has a reputation of not messing around. Diplomacy is not an option. One of the most infamous cases of the Russian response to terrorism happened in 1985. In September of that year, a group going by the name Islamic Liberation Organization took four Soviet diplomats hostage. The group demanded that Moscow lean on pro-Syrian militia to stop shelling northern Lebanon or they would kill the diplomats one by one. One was wounded in the initial capture and was subsequently shot as the first warning. Any chance of negotiation disappeared when his body was found in a dump, shot through the head.

In a short time, the KGB discovered that the Islamic Liberation Organization was really Hezbollah. The KGB responded to the killing of the diplomat by kidnapping the relative of a top Hezbollah leader, castrating him and sending the parts to the Hezbollah leader with the message that this would continue unless the diplomats were freed. The remaining diplomats were quickly dropped off, unharmed, at the Soviet embassy in Beirut. Their ordeal lasted less than a month.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians had to deal with another kind of terrorism, that from militants in the Republic of Chechnya. These militants were born from the 1994–1996 Chechen War, during which they fought the Russians for an independent Chechnya. This period also saw the rise of radical Islam in the North Caucasus.

The rise of an insurgency after the war gave the Russians enough of an excuse to once again invade Chechnya in 1999, beginning the Second Chechen War. While the first war ended in a sort of defeat for Russia, the second would not end the same. Russia, now led by newly-elected president Vladimir Putin, launched a full assault on Grozny in order to crush the insurgents. This resulted in the near-total destruction of Grozny and the deaths of an estimated 25,000 [this figure is still disputed] Chechens. Many of those deaths were civilians as a result of indiscriminate shelling by Russian forces. Their goal was to kill all the insurgents, no matter what.

The Second Chechen War effectively ended when the Russians took control of Grozny in February 2000. The Chechen government and the insurgents fled the capital, and the Russians installed a pro-Russian government, led by Akhmad Kadyrov, father of current Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov.

The Chechen insurgency didn’t give up their fight, nor did the Russians. After the major fighting stopped, the insurgents began terror attacks. Some of the most notable also highlighted Russia’s response to terrorism. In 2002, a group claiming to be aligned with the Chechen insurgency stormed the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, taking nearly 900 people hostage. Among the hostage-takers were several women strapped with explosives, some of the infamous ‘Black Widows.’ They demanded that Russia withdraw all troops from the Chechen Republic. After two days, Russian security services, including Alfa Group, began pumping gas into the theater in hopes of subduing the terrorists. This was followed by the Russian special forces storming the theater, resulting in a firefight. In all, 130 hostages and 40 terrorists were killed, and nearly 700 were injured during the siege. Afterward, the Russian were heavily criticized for using excess force rather than negotiation to resolve the situation.

In 2004, the Russians once again demonstrated how they deal with terrorists, this time at Beslan. On 1 September 2004, a group of more than 30 heavily armed men stormed the School Number One. It was the first day of school, a day filled with festivities, so there were many parents and relatives gathered as well as students. Some managed to flee but the gunmen managed to herd nearly 1,100 people into the school gymnasium. Their demands were the same as from Dubrovka: All Russian troops must leave Chechnya. The terrorists also rigged the gymnasium with explosives, telling the Russians they would blow up the school if any attempt was made by Russian police or security forces to retake the school. The Russians provided a negotiator, as requested by the terrorists, but those efforts were unsuccessful, though a handful of hostages were released.

On the third day of the siege, two explosions were heard in the school. While unsure the origin of the explosion — reports vary from an accidental bomb detonation to Russian sniper fire triggering a bomb — Russian forces took this as a cue to storm the school. During the ensuing chaos, some hostages managed to escape. But in the end, 334 people had been killed, most during the assault by Russian forces. As with the Dubrovka siege, the Russians were heavily criticized for using extreme deadly force in dealing with the terrorists rather than less lethal means.

In the years following Beslan, Russia doubled-down on anti-terror operations in the North Caucasus. Since 2007, most of their efforts have focused on the Caucasus Emirate (CE). Divergent from the traditional Chechen form of Islam — Sufism — CE is based in the more radical Salafism, a form of Islam that claims to follow the literal meaning of the teachings of the Qur’an. It was formed not only to fight for an independent Chechnya, but also to establish a Chechen caliphate.

In the years since their formation, and under the leadership of Doku Umarov, CE have launched regular attacks against Russians, both in the North Caucasus and in Russia itself. The most notable of these attacks involved suicide bombings by the so-called Black Widows. The Russian response to these attacks have been swift and deadly: security forces arrest any persons thought to be involved in the attacks, including relatives. Regularly, militants are “neutralized” while “resisting arrest”. Still, CE remained a cohesive movement. It wasn’t until the death of Umarov in Spring 2014 that cracks began to show. New emir Ali Abu Mukhammad made an announcement that CE would no longer attack indiscriminately, as was the case under Umarov. He also stated that militants should no longer employ suicide bombers, especially women. Not all CE commanders were happy about these orders, but major attacks largely stopped.

Since November of 2014, a half dozen Dagestani commanders from the Caucasus Emirate (CE) switched allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. It is unknown whether the reason is the poor leadership of CE emir Ali Abu Mukhammad or if the draw to al Baghdadi’s vision of a caliphate is more enticing. FSB (Russian Security Services) director Alexander Bortnikov recently estimated around 1,700 Russians are fighting with IS. The most prominent is Omar al Shishani, a Georgian from the Pankisi Gorge region. In October, al Shishani’s father said he got a phone call from his son who vowed to bring the jihad back to Russia to retake Chechnya. Chechen president Kadyrov, a loyal supporter of Putin, promised to crush any attempt. In fact, when CE attacked Chechen capital Grozny in December 2014, Kadyrov responded by expelling the militants’ families and destroying their homes.

Pure speculation only, there have been rumors of links between Russia and al Qaeda without any concrete evidence. Ayman al Zawahiri was known to have spent time in FSB custody in 1996 after trying to enter Chechnya with two other Egyptians. He was released after being detained nearly six months, but nothing has been reported as to what happened to al Zawahiri while he was in FSB custody. Former FSB Aleksandr Litvinenko once had said that al Zawahiri was one of many links between al Qaeda and the FSB. As John Schindler wrote in a piece last year, this is not the first instance of Russian intelligence getting involved with Islamist extremists. Schindler writes:

Collusion between radical Islamists and Russian special services in the Caucasus would be fully consistent with traditional Soviet/Russian counterterrorism techniques; it also adds a very different dimension to understanding the Chechen wars of the last fifteen years, and their links to the global jihad.

So if Russian intelligence has been able to get inside the insurgency in the North Caucasus, is to too much of a stretch to ask if they could have gotten into the Islamic State, given the number of Russian-linked fighters?

While IS was able to easily take over parts of Syria and Iraq, it stands little chance of doing so in Russia. They would have to overtake the Russia security services, which have proved over the years that they will whatever means necessary to defeat terrorists. This is not to say there won’t be an attempt. When Russian fighters return to the North Caucasus they will bring the IS ideology with them. It’s possible the terror attacks will increase. Both IS and al Nusra Front have called for jihad against Russia. Counterterror operations (CTOs) have increased in the North Caucasus in recent months. Since the death of Umarov, and subsequently Ali Abu Mukhammad earlier this year, along with the increasing number of IS supporters among the remaining members, the Caucasus Emirate’s future is uncertain.

Within the last month, Russia has, with permission from Syrian president Bashar al Assad, begun airstrikes against what they call terrorists. Despite Russia’s claims that they are helping Assad in the fight against IS, most of Russia’s bombing campaign has been focused on Syrian rebel-held positions. That Russia is supporting Assad’s quest to stay in power is no secret. What is not widely reported, if at all, is the identity of who Russia is bombing. One of the major targets of Russia’s bombs is al Nusra Front, the Syrian al Qaeda branch whose members include a large number of Caucasian fighters. Meanwhile, IS has been successful in making gains against Syrian rebels. In addition to helping Assad, Russia has taken its fight against Caucasian Islamists to Syria.

What is not known is if the remaining CE members and the Russian IS fighters will work together in the attempt to oust Russia from Chechnya. Despite calls to wage jihad against Russia, there has been little activity in that direction. If, in the future, there is, the two groups need to find a common ground and not fight each other because the results could be devastating for Chechnya. This is a country that has spent billions of roubles repairing the infrastructure and economy that had been destroyed by the wars. Should another war break out, even among rival militants, the result would only hurt the people of Chechnya. Russian IS fighters could try to “liberate” Chechnya, but Russia would destroy the country to stop them. By taking the fight to Syria, Russia is making an attempt to prevent the fight from coming back to the Caucasus.

 

Ali Abu Mukhammad: The Emir who Wasn’t There?

On 18 March 2014 it was officially announced that Caucasus Emirate (CE) emir Dokku Umarov had been martyred, and that a successor had been named. The announcement, made by CE-linked website Kavkaz Center, took many by surprise when they named Aliaskhab Kebekov as new emir. Before his appointment, Kebekov – now known as Ali Abu Mukhammad – was Qadi of CE. Prior to 2010, little is known about Abu Mukhammad and little has been released since. So what is known about Emir Ali Abu Mukhammad al-Dagestani, and does he have what it takes to lead the Emirate?

Abu Mukhammad was born in 1972 in the Shamilsky District of Dagestan in Teletl. It was during his time at university that he really began to study Arabic, the Qur’an and Islam from several sheikhs. He even went to university briefly at Abu Nour Institute and at Ahmed Kuftaro University, both in Syria. After university, Abu Mukhammad returned to Dagestan where he began working at a local madrasa. It was at this madrasa that Abu Mukhammad met other Dagestani mujahideen. Through them he met Dagestani Emir Seyfullakh, who ultimately appointed him qadi of Dagestan. After Seyfullakh was killed, Umarov chose Abu Mukhammad as qadi of IK in 2010.

Abu Mukhammad had a bit of a criminal past prior to becoming qadi. Some of his known crimes are a conviction for selling homemade alcohol in 1996, and ordering the murder of Said Afandi al-Chirkavi, a well-known Sufi sheikh in Dagestan. In April 2012 he was put on Russia’s federal most-wanted list for participating in the “creation of an armed formation…as well as leadership in such a formation or its financing.” It’s unknown his exact role, but it’s thought that he led an insurgent group prior to becoming qadi. After being appointed, Abu Mukhammad did take part in an operation near Gimry (in Dagestan) in April 2013. His background, however, is more ideological than tactical.

Since his appointment, he has been mostly quiet, issuing basically one “major” statement in regards to the direction of CE. Although he has the allegiance of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, a Chechen-based Islamist group fighting in Syria, Abu Mukhammad has already announced he does not approve of fighting abroad and prefers the mujahideen to continue their fight in the Caucasus. He has also announced his disapproval of suicide bombers, especially women. While he takes this more moderate stance now, he is thought to have been behind an attack in August 2012 in which a woman blew herself up, killing a prominent Dagestani Sufi leader. The 4 December attack in Grozny is more an example Abu Mukhammad’s ideas in practice. The attackers didn’t target civilians, but law enforcement. His statement caused some concern with other networks, which approve of any means to gain independence and establish a caliphate. Since then he has been largely quiet; even the CE propaganda site, Kavkaz Center, has posted very little by Abu Mukhammad.

It has yet to be seen how long Ali Abu Mukhammad will last as emir. That it took several months for him to named emir indicates there may be some internal problems in CE. He is the first non-Chechen to become emir. It was even thought that Aslambek Vadalov may be appointed emir. Since the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, many groups within CE and neighboring Dagestan have split alliances, some pledging to IS, others saying an oath to support al Qaeda-linked factions. The Dagestani network, easily the most active, recently pledged their loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This may all be an indication of a shift in tactics in the Caucasus. The insurgency is far from dead in the Caucasus. Skirmishes happen frequently, but since the Chechen Wars, the crackdown on terrorists in Chechnya has been severe so that makes for attacks in Dagestan easier. If more networks switch allegiances away from the Caucasus Emirate and align themselves with the Islamic State, Abu Mukhammad’s authority as Emir could be called into question. He needs to show that he can be a leader and convince the fighters to swear to the Caucasus Emirate, the CE of Emir Dokku Umarov, especially if he now has to compete with not only networks in the Caucasus but also with the ideology of the Islamic State.

Currently, the ranks of the Caucasus insurgency are thin, due to the two Chechen Wars and the ongoing effort by Chechen and Russian security forces to eliminate the threat. The real fight may not be back to the Caucasus for some time, but there are still Caucasians fighting in Syria and Iraq, as well as Chechen diaporas in Germany, Austria and Turkey, to name a few. There have been plenty of signs of radicalization in these diasporas. If Ali Abu Mukhammad doesn’t want to risk losing these to Islamic State, he needs to speak up, and fast.

Killing the Dissidents

Recently, Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov made the (erroneous) claim on his Instagram account* that prominent ISIL fighter Omar al Shishani had been killed. While Kadyrov didn’t credit who had supposedly killed al Shishani, he did take great pleasure in reporting it. Kadyrov sees al Shishani as somewhat a threat to his control of Chechnya, not only because of al Shishani’s repeated calls to bring jihad back to the Caucasus but also because of al Shishani’s popularity among Kadyrov’s opposition. Kadyrov may not be able to get to al Shishani in Syria, outside a war of words, but he can – and has – gotten to many other dissidents outside of Chechnya. And it’s not just Kadyrov. His handlers in the Kremlin are still making good on their promise to hunt down the terrorists.

Since the end of the Chechen Wars, there have been a number of Chechens who have been murdered or at least targeted. The one thing they had in common was their vocal opposition to the Kadyrov and Putin regimes. Many of these assassinations have been attributed to Kadyrov, but Russia has certainly played a hand in several.

One of the most brazen killings happened in Vienna in 2009. In January of that year, Chechen War veteran and former Kadyrov bodyguard Umar Israilov was gunned down in broad daylight in the Austrian capital. Prior to living in exile in Vienna, Israilov fought against Russian in the Second Chechen War. He was captured in 2003 and was eventually made to be Kadyrov’s bodyguard. It was from this vantage that Israilov could see much of the inner workings of the Kadyrov regime. There was a falling out, and Israilov fled to Poland then to Austria. It was then that he first filed complaints with the European Court of Human Rights, alleging he had been tortured by the Kadyrov regime. It wasn’t the first time these allegations have been made regarding Kadyrov, but it was the first time they came from someone who had been so close. In the summer before Israilov was killed, a Chechen going by the name Artur Kurmakayev visited Israilov and allegedly showed him a list of several hundred Chechens targeted by Kadyrov. Israilov’s father, who passed on the story of the visiting Chechen, claimed the man told Israilov that he would be on the list if he continued speaking out against Kadyrov. Seven months later, Umar Israilov came home from shopping to find two men waiting at his flat. He ran, but was caught in an alley and shot twice in the head. One man was detained in connection to the shooting; a Chechen living under the name “Otto Kaltenbrunner” was held as the driver of the getaway car. The surveillance and clean kill had the hallmarks of a professional job. In a city filled with intrigue and nefarious characters, a city where the authorities don’t want to be bothered, this murder made them take notice.

Another Chechen who once had ties to Kadyrov met this fate in Dubai earlier in 2009. Sulim Yamadayev once commanded the Russian-backed Vostok Battalion during the Wars and even into South Ossetia during the conflict with Georgia. His popularity as commander swelled so much during the conflict that Kadyrov began to see him as a rival. A run-in between Vostok Battalion and Kadyrov’s motorcade, involving the exchange of gunfire, proved to be the beginning of the end for Yamadayev. He was stripped of his command and even charged with crimes including kidnapping and murder. He reportedly left Russia in 2008. The following year he was shot three times in a car park in Dubai. Interpol issued a notice for three Russians in connection with the murder.

Sulim Yamadayev should have known the fate that awaited those who fall out of favor with Kadyrov. In September 2008 his brother Ruslan was killed on the streets in Moscow. Ruslan, a former State Duma member, was shot while stopped at a red light in Moscow. The Yamadayevs are from a powerful clan, and Ruslan was a major political rival of Kadyrov’s. Ruslan had fought against the Russians during the First Chechen War but switched sides in 1999. For his actions he was even given the title of Hero of the Russian Federation. When Dmitri Medvedev was elected President, there were rumors that he would replace Kadyrov, possibly with Ruslan Yamadayev. These rumors fueled Kadyrov’s animosity toward Ruslan.

The assassinations of Israilov and the Yamadayevs were but three in a string of Chechens who have been killed abroad following the Chechen Wars. As far back as at least 2004, Chechen dissidents have been meeting their deaths at the hands of killers tracing back to Kadyrov’s regime and even the FSB.

The onetime acting president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was killed in Qatar in 2004. Yandarbiyev was a proponent of an independent Islamic republic of Chechnya. President from 1996-1997, he was defeated in the 1997 election for president. Yandarbiyev was then sent to the Gulf as a representative for Chechnya. There he continued to lobby for support for an Islamic republic, pushing a radical interpretation, his relations with the Chechen government grew strained. Russia began warning Gulf States that dealing with Yandarbiyev would be considered an act of hostility, and that Yandarbiyav was backed by al Qaeda. They even submitted to have him extradited back to Russia, to no avail. Then, in February 2004, Yandarbiyev was killed by a car bomb. Two Russian agents were arrested in connection with the bombing. After the assassination, Russian-backed Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov (Ramzan’s father) was quoted as saying Yandarbiyev wouldn’t be missed.

In November 2006, one-time commander of the Gorets unit and former FSB colonel Movladi Baisarov was gunned down on the streets of Moscow. The conflict between Kadyrov and Baisarov began when Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated. The Gorets was disbanded and reassigned to the Chechen Interior Ministry as a special policing group under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov. Baisarov, and much of the unit, refused to be subordinate to Kadyrov, after which Baisarov was charged with kidnapping and murder. Those crimes, along with a previously dropped 2004 charge of murder, were mostly fabricated. Once he resisted Kadyrov, Movladi Baisarov was considered a threat. The Russian government announced federal charges against him, and issued a nationwide search, though he never actually showed up in any database. He was held at least two times on unrelated charges prior to his assassination. On the night of his murder, Baisarov exited his vehicle and approached a group of Chechens on the street, who happened to be members of the Moscow Department to Combat Organized Crime (UBOP). They opened fire, claiming they saw Baisarov with a grenade and claimed he was resisting arrest.

The Chechen diaspora in Istanbul has suffered the most. As of this writing there have been at least six assassinations in the city. The first known happened in December 2008 when a former Chechen commander, Islam Dzhanibekov, was shot. At first it appeared to be just another murder until the murder weapon was revealed to be a 7.62 MSP Groza. This pistol is extremely rare, a highly specialized silenced pistol not available on the open market, and used almost exclusively by FSB for assassinations. That same weapon appeared again with the assassination in February 2009 of Musa Ataev, known as Ali Osaev. Osaev was a fundraiser for the rebels in Chechnya. In that killing, Turkish officials named Temur Makhauri as the suspect. Makhauri, the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) alleged, was an FSB agent who went by the name “Zona.”
In September 2011, three Chechen exiles were killed by a single gunman. Berg-haj Musayev/Amir Khamzat was a known associate of, and fundraiser for, Caucasus Emirate Emir Doku Umarov. Rustam Altemirov was wanted for an alleged involvement in the January 2011 attack on Domodedovo Airport in Moscow. The third victim was an alleged fighter by the name of Zaurbek Amriyev. A Russian MIT named Alexander Kharkov was suspected of killing the three men. A Groza pistol and a counterfeit passport were found in his hotel room. A person by the same name was also in Istanbul when Ali Osaev was assassinated. “Zona” has also been mentioned as an alleged suspect in the murder.

There have even been near misses in the effort to silence the dissidents. Magomed Ocherhadji, the leader of the Chechen community in Norway, was allegedly targeted for assassination. His would-be killer, Ruslan Khalidov, announced in a video that he had been contracted by Ramzan Kadyrov to kill Ocherhadji. He also claimed that he had been blackmailed and tortured to force him to comply with the contract. Instead of killing Ocherhadji, he instead informed him of the plot. Ruslan Khalidov’s fate since then is not known. What is interesting about him is that he is the nephew of Shaa Turlaev, a former presidential advisor and an alleged leader of a Chechen assassination squad charged with targeting Chechen dissidents abroad. Turlaev was said to be in Vienna immediately prior to the killing of Umar Israilov. Despite several other assassination attempts, Turlaev is said to be living openly in Chechnya.

December 11 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the First Chechen-Russo War. Officially the wars are over, but for some the killing has never stopped. The Chechens in exile, the dissidents who dared speak out against Ramzan Kadyrov and his Kremlin handlers still have much to fear. Russian President Vladimir Putin once announced he would wipe out the terrorists “in the outhouse.” Colorful as that was, he means what he says. Russian agents alone and with Chechen government assistance are hunting down the dissidents where they live. Given what’s going on in Ukraine, as well as the continuing insurgency in the Caucasus, crossing Russia and her proxies are ill-advised. Nowhere is safe.

*Kadyrov’s Instagram post has since been deleted.

A Brief Look at Terrorism & the Pankisi Gorge

With the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the emergence of Abu Omar al-Shishani as a top commander has put a spotlight on a small area in the Georgian mountains called the Pankisi Gorge. The last time Pankisi Gorge made major news was in 2003 when the Georgian military launched a campaign to flush out Islamic extremists who had taken refuge there following the Chechen Wars. Russia has long accused Georgia of letting extremists make Pankisi Gorge a safe haven. Russia has even gone so far as to make military incursions there themselves. Fast-forward 11 years and Pankisi Gorge is once again in the news, this time as an alleged corridor through which Chechens and other Islamists from the Caucasus are using to get to Syria, and as a breeding ground for terrorists.

While it is true that some Chechens fighting with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have ties to the Pankisi Gorge, it is disputed that the region breeds terrorists. The area is home to many Chechens who fled the Wars in the 1990s. It is also home to the Kists, an ethnic group which traces back to the Chechens. The Kists, along with many Chechens, practice the mystical Sufi form of Islam. Some of the newer, younger residents have embraced the stricter Wahhabi, or Salafi, form of Islam (a subject for a post in itself). Both groups live peacefully with each other, but this is one area that has spawned rumors that the Wahhabi are proselytizing and encouraging extremism. Residents vehemently deny the extremist accusations, saying it’s all Islam. They also claim that most of the Chechen fighters going to Syria are coming from the Chechen diasporas in Europe, not Pankisi.  There is no irrefutable proof that the Wahhabi mosques and imams in Pankisi are encouraging young Muslim men to join jihad, but there is a certain laissez faire among some. One imam recently said that it is the obligation of Muslims to “protect Muslim women and children wherever they are persecuted, whether it’s in Russia, Syria, Spain or Germany.” He also said his mosque receives donations from Saudi Arabia.

It is a poor area with high unemployment. Sometimes, the only place for young men to gather is at a local mosque. Others, in search of work, make the trip to Georgia’s neighbor, Turkey. Of course, Turkey is a major entry point for anyone wishing to join up with the fighting in Syria. Georgian officials claim that only 50-100 residents from Pankisi have gone to Syria. Of that relatively small number, several have made names for themselves in Syria besides Omar al-Shishani. Muslim Abu Walid Shishani has been called the most experienced fighter to come from Pankisi. Militant group Jaish Al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar is commanded by another former Pankisi resident, Salahuddin Shishani. To the others making the trip through Turkey to Syria, jihad is a way to fight for their faith and to make names for themselves. None of this proves that the Pankisi Gorge is breeding terrorists or not. The real concern should not be whether Pankisi Gorge is a hotbed of terrorism, but what will happen when the war is Syria ends. In a recent phone call to his father, Omar al-Shishani allegedly promised revenge against Russia, presumably referring to Chechnya and the rest of the Caucasus under Russian control.

Unrelated to the current war in Syria but interesting to note, that both Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have spent time in the region, lending credit to the reports that the area had become a safe haven for al Qaeda terrorists. As Georgia largely leaves the area undisturbed, the reports of the Pankisi Gorge being home to terrorists will persist.

Looking Back at Beslan

It’s been 10 years since the world first heard  about Beslan, a town in Russia’s northern Caucasus. On 1 September 2004, militants stormed School No. 1 and took 1120 people hostage in a siege that would last 3 days.

I’m not here to provide lengthy, detailed insight into the failures leading to the deaths of more than 300 people. Over the years many reports have been written, such as this and this. I want to highlight the failures, and call attention to those involved and those who survived. There are so many unanswered questions, even after ten years. I am offering a simple observation on this anniversary.

The Russians

The Russian response to the siege was set up for disaster from the beginning. Despite the ongoing tensions in the North Caucasus due the the recent wars, security in the area was lax. Militants were able to get past checkpoints either by bribe or by having an inside man (this post briefly mentions GRU infiltration of the insurgency), and they trained in the woods outside Beslan undetected. Once the siege began, Russia treated it as a military counterterrorism operation rather than a civilian hostage crisis. This could have been in part because of previous failures such as the Dubrovka Theater siege. They refused a negotiator, which can drag out a situation. Local assistance was ignored, and no information was shared with the FSB, who likely never inquired. Instead, Russia became impatient and chose a military incursion not unlike the FBI at Waco. Their goal was to thoroughly eliminate all terrorists and completely disregarded any civilian casualties; they didn’t even clear civilians away from the school. There are even reports of Russian soldiers firing on civilians running from the school believing them to be terrorists.

Given the results, the Russian response was a total disaster. Their response basically insured mass casualties. Ten years later, Beslan’s families are still demanding answers from Russia. They’re in for a long wait. In the meantime, all we have is the testimony from survivors.

The Mother

Nadezhda Guriyeva was a teacher at School No. 1, and was there with her three children on when the militants stormed the school. She was one of the last to be herded into the gymnasium only to realize her children were already there. She recalls the militants breaking sinks and pipes so the hostages couldn’t have water. They weren’t allowed to leave the gymnasium for any reason. When the hostages began to get unruly, Guriyeva said the militants took one of the men and shot him in front of everyone.

Guriyeva remembers the explosion that set off the incursion. Around 1:00 pm a huge explosion shook the gymnasium. Hostages began running, some being shot as they ran. A second explosion happened a short time later, collapsing the roof and setting a fire. Sadly, two of Guriyeva’s children died as a result. When the Russian special forces moved in, Guriyeva escaped out a window, reuniting with her youngest daughter.

Nadezhda Guriyeva still teaches at School No. 1, now in a new building. She says the only way she survives is because her youngest daughter did. She is still haunted by what happened and wants answers. Those answers will likely never come.

The Terrorist

Nurpashi Kulayev was captured trying to escape from the school. The lone surviving terrorist, he was put on trial in 2005 in what was basically a show trial. He barely spoke Russian but was denied a translator. The judge openly mocked him in court. Angry families shouted at him throughout the trial, the judge barely containing them. One group – the Beslan Mothers – wanted Kulayev to tell his story thinking it was the only way to know what truly happened inside the school. But what does Kulayev’s story tell us?

Kulayev came to be in School No. 1 not as a willing participant but as leverage of sorts. The militants were looking for his brother, a veteran under the leadership of Shamil Basayev. It was suspected by the rebels that Kulayev’s brother had been under the employ of pro-Russian leader Ramzan Kadyrov. This was echoed by Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, failed Moscow suicide bomber and Chechen, who was brought in to be a witness against Kulayev.

Once inside the school, Kulayev was placed in the cafeteria not in the gymnasium where the hostages were being held. He was only given a rifle after the siege began. He claims to have never fired the rifle, and that one of the first explosions was set of when a sniper shot a militants foot which was resting on an explosive device detonator. During the chaos of the Russians storming the school, Kulayev climbed out a window hoping to escape. It was then that he was caught.

The Beslan siege was a tragedy for all involved. The question remains, has anyone learned from it? Will the Russians approach the next situation the same? Probably. Have other countries reviewed their response procedures? Will the Beslan families ever find out what really happened? Too many questions remain unanswered. We can only hope that the lessons were learned. In the meantime, remember the victims of that day. Beslan should never be forgotten.

A View of Chechens in Syria

Since the bloody Syrian civil war began in 2011, foreign fighters have been streaming in to join the fight against the infidels, as Bashar al-Assad’s regime is known. What began as a revolution to overthrow the Assad regime has turned into a training ground for jihadis from all over the world, many from European nations. One group of foreign fighters is making their presence known, due to their experience and tenacity. While most of the world is focused on the battle between Assad and the Syrian rebels, Chechens are becoming known as some of the best fighters in Syria. Their prominence is growing, and it is alarming.

Initially, the Chechens joined established groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and Al-Nusra Front (JAN). Mounting tension between the groups caused the Chechens to form a new group, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA). JMA was fronted by Omar al-Shishani. A recent, interesting explanation for the rift can be found here. Even like-minded terror groups fall victim to sectarianism.

Omar Shishani chose to pledge his allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Many other Chechens in JMA had already sworn their allegiance to (late) Caucasian Emirate leader Doku Umarov, and ultimately split from Omar al-Shishani and ISIL.  Now there are at least four known Caucasian groups fighting in Syria. In the ISIL faction, they are led by Omar al-Shishani. Salahuddin Shishani fronts Caucasian Emirate-loyal JAM. In Abu Mohammed al Jolani-led JAN, Caucasians were originally under the leadership of Sayfullakh Shishani, until he was killed in an attack in February 2014. The last group is independent of the major factions in Syria. That group is Jundu Sham (sometimes called Jund al-Sham), led by Muslim Abu Walid Shishani. Unfortunately, there is little known about this group, as it shares its name with a Lebanese-dominated jihad faction.

Chechen fighters have been on the forefront of some major attacks inside Syria. The February 2014 attack on Aleppo Central Prison by JAN and Islamic Front involved many Chechens, and was the battle where Sayfullakh Shishani was mortally wounded. Chechen fighters have been major players in fighting in Latakia, as well. Perhaps the most well know operation involving the Chechen factions was the 2012/2013 attack and eventual siege of the Menegh Air Base in northern Syria. JAM was a leading force, along with JAN, ISIL and the Free Syrian Army, in taking the air base.

The takeover of the air base, and the subsequent treatment of captured Syrian military personnel, showed what many already knew, the brutality of Chechen jihadis. Those who were captured were summarily executed, their throats slit then beheaded. Others were merely lined up, placed on their knees, and shot in the back of the head. Some fighters even proudly recorded their feats. The Chechen fighters are earning a reputation as some of the most ruthless, but best fighters in Syria. Some of the atrocities are described here. Chechens also reportedly make up about a tenth of the ISIL forces fighting in both Syria and Iraq. Remember, this is a group so extreme in its actions that even one-time ally al Qaeda disavowed them.

The fear is that the Chechen fighters are using their time in Syria as combat training to bring back to the Caucasus. It is still the desire of many in the North Caucasus to create an Islamic Emirate. While the Chechen Wars may have ended, there are still occasional incidents between Islamic militants and Russians in the Caucasus, but there is no ongoing major conflict, such as that in Syria. Fighting in Syria against a major Russian ally could be the combat training the Chechens use to renew the insurgency in the Caucasus. Initially, now-deceased Islamic Caucasian Emirate leader Doku Umarov, tried to dissuade Chechens from traveling to Syria, stating it was more important to wage jihad at home against the Russians. One hope was that the fighters would come back and focus their efforts on the Sochi Olympics. Despite threats, the Games went off without incident. Umarov eventually relented; realizing fighting in Syria would give the Chechens more training in their own fight. Umarov’s successor, Ali Abu-Muhammed, also supports Caucasians fighting in Syria, specifically JAM, who has pledged their allegiance to the new Emir.

Another thing to consider is who or what is funding the Chechen fighters. As far back as 2000, there have been claims of Saudi Arabia financing fighters in Chechnya. In an article by the Jamestown Foundation, the FSB (Russian Security Services) makes the claim of Saudi financial support.  Many sites claim that Saudi Arabia, among several other countries, is helping fund the fighters now in Syria. As both the Saudis and the Chechen Islamist are Wahhabis Sunnis, it is not impossible to think the former would be helping the latter defeat the Syrian Alawites. Saudi Arabia has, financed or at the very least hosted terrorists in the past. We cannot forget that many of the September 11 hijackers were Saudis. Many of the claims I have found are from less than legitimate sites, but there are enough rumors to at least consider the possibility.

If and when the Chechen fighters ever return to the Caucasus, it could turn that region into the next battleground. They will not be satisfied with defeating the infidels of the Assad regime, and helping bolster the ISIL led caliphate. Whether any other jihadis travel to the Caucasus to defeat the Russian infidels remains to be seen. But the Chechens will not stay contained in the Caucasus.The current Syrian war will be felt long after it is over, and will reach far beyond its borders. The Chechens will continue to fight (as evident in Yemen, where a Chechen was killed earlier this year fighting with AQAP).  The Chechens will apply what they have learned on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, and very well may lead the way in the next global jihad movement.

Chechens: Jihadis for Hire?

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.