NOTE: For prior parts in the Clear Banner series you can view an archive of it all here.
The Clash Over ‘Real Jihad’ in Syria: ISIS vs. the Caucasus Emirate
By Joanna Paraszczuk
The ongoing hostilities between the Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS) and Syrian brigades have exacerbated a pre-existing rift between rival North Caucasian factions in Syria, specifically Umar Shishani’s faction in ISIS and his former brigade Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, which considers itself aligned to the Caucasus Emirate.
Essentially a struggle for prestige among North Caucasian jihadis in Syria and their supporters, the North Caucasian infighting has grown out of an ideological battle over which faction has the “correct” approach to jihad in general and the jihad “back home” in the North Caucasus in particular; how the jihad in Syria relates to the Caucasus Emirate’s struggle in the North Caucasus; and the circumstances under which North Caucasians may wage jihad in Syria instead of at home.
The ongoing debate has raised key questions not only about where North Caucasian jihadis’ loyalties should lie, but also about the nature of jihad in the North Caucasus and its relationship to jihad in other parts of the world. Is the North Caucasian struggle primarily a local, ethno-national battle restricted to “lands ruled by the Russian kuffar” (in which case North Caucasians ought to stay at home and fight there)? Or is it just one small part of a wider, transnational movement focussed on establishing a global Caliphate, a struggle that knows no national boundaries?
These difficult questions have been addressed by North Caucasians in Syria, by the Caucasus Emirate leadership itself and by pro-Caucasus Emirate outlets like Kavkaz Center. Moreover, against the background of the ongoing hostilities between the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham and Syrian brigades, this debate has become an integral element of a growing ideological rift between North Caucasians loyal to ISIS and those loyal to the Caucasus Emirate.
ORIGINS OF CHECHEN FIGHTERS IN SYRIA
The exact number of Chechen jihadis in Syria is unknown (and in any case numbers are fluid, as fighters are killed and new recruits enter Syria). Estimates have varied from around 200 to as many 1,700 fighters (the latter figure was given by the Russian Embassy in Damascus and is likely exaggerated).
Regardless of their numbers, these Chechen jihadis can be divided into four groups. The largest group are ethnic Chechens who had been living in Europe as migrants or refugees. The second-largest group is ethnic Chechens from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. Russian-language news site Kavkazskii Uzel estimates there are around 200 Pankisi Chechens in Syria, the most prominent of whom is ISIS military emir Umar Shishani. The third group are Chechens who came from Chechnya itself. Estimates of this group vary from 30-100 fighters and these include fighters from “Tarkhan’s jamaat”, the faction of Chechen commander Tarkhan Ismailovich Gaziyev, who split from Dokku Umarov in 2010. The smallest group consists of veterans of the Russo-Chechen wars, the most well-known of whom is Muslim Abu Walid Shishani who fought with Emir Khattab in Chechnya from 1995. Abu Musa Shishani, of whom little is known, is a seasoned fighter and is also likely a Chechen war veteran.
THE CAUCASUS EMIRATE’S POSITION ON THE SYRIAN JIHAD
The Caucasus Emirate (CE), officially declared on 31 October 2007 by a group of North Caucasian jihadis led by Dokku Umarov, has been described as a “transnational entity that extends beyond the Caucasus to encompass all Muslims oppressed by ‘Rusnya’” [i.e. Russia]. Umarov (whose death was announced on 18 March) expressed opposition to North Caucasian fighters traveling to Syria to wage jihad. In a November 2012 video address, Umarov accused those who had gone to Syria of undermining jihad at home, warning that these fighters were not waging jihad but simply trying to replace one taghut for another:
There are people going there [to Syria] who are saying that there is no jihad in the Caucasus, that jihad in the Caucasus is over, and therefore they allegedly went to Syria. No, there is jihad in the Caucasus, and it is more brutal and more severe than in Syria. No one provides help or support for jihad in the Caucasus.
However, by summer 2013, just before the first splits began to appear in the Chechen ranks, it seemed the CE was – at least in part – reevaluating this view, with CE-linked publications like Kavkaz Center beginning to report positively on Chechen fighters in Syria. As one analyst has argued, this move was likely, at least in part, an attempt to assert authority over Chechen jihadis in Syria, who appeared to be gaining in power and prestige.
While the Caucasus Emirate hardly expressed its full support for North Caucasians going to Syria to wage jihad, via its media outlets it moved toward the admission that this was permissible, if only for those who were not in a position to wage jihad back home. In other words, jihad in the North Caucasus should take priority over that in Syria, but the North Caucasian and Syrian jihads were part of the same global struggle of Islam against the kuffar.
Kavkaz Center hinted at this new position in July 2013 through a “letter to the editor” (purportedly) written by one Umm Sayfullah of Uruz Marten:
“The issue I want to discuss is jihad in Syria and the Caucasus. And even though several articles and fatwas have been published on this matter, the situation has not been clarified.
Jihad in Syria started after the jihad in the Caucasus, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, where the Holy Al-Quds has for several decades been occupied by the kuffar, but it’s the jihad in Syria that has become most popular among Russian-speaking followers of Islam, and even Caucasian Muslims, who are going to Syria in entire jamaats.
In connection with this, I want to raise the question — is it not a priority for Caucasian Muslims to wage jihad in the Caucasus? Allah is my witness, I’m not against brothers going to Sham. But isn’t fighting the kuffar in the Caucasus more important for Muslims from this area?
In Syria, as we know, Muslims are coming from all Arab countries, and also from Turkey, Pakistan, Southeast Asia, Europe, and America… So what about the Caucasus? It is right for Muslims to leave the fight at home and go to another area?
I understand that the jihad in Syria needs Mujahideen. We see how the kuffar, Shi’ites from all over the globe are joining in the war against Sham and this is a serious issue. But for Caucasians, in my view, the priority has to be jihad in their native home. After all, the hardest jihad is in the Caucasus today! …
I think that Emirs in the Caucasus and in Syria need to explain to people, that those Caucasian brothers who can join the jihad in the Caucasus must in the first instance try to go there. And in the event that there is no way for them to get there or if there is some major reason — then they can go elsewhere.
Those brothers from Syria, who ask for help, must absolutely explain that they are talking about those who cannot wage jihad for the Caucasus Emirate. And that for Caucasians, jihad at home is more important and the first priority over jihad in any other place.”
Two weeks later, on July 30, 2013, this message was further reinforced in a a video address — also published on Kavkaz Center — by a Chechen fighter named Salahuddin Shishani, at the time the commander of a group named az-Zubеyr. Salahuddin, who had been named the “official representative of the Caucasus Emirate in Syria” was therefore presumably also speaking in that faction’s name when he addressed “the Muslims of the Caucasus, Crimea, and other Muslim lands occupied by the Russian kuffar”. In other words, this is not an address intended for Muslims or Mujahideen in general, but for those under the ideological sway of the Caucasus Emirate.
In the video, Salahuddin – whose affiliation to the Caucasus Emirate further emphasized by his sartorial choice of an “Imarat Kavkaz” logoed t-shirt – repeats the message given in Umm Sayfulla’s letter, but goes beyond this by placing the issue of where North Caucasians should wage jihad in the context of a more global cause. It is understandable, he notes, that Muslims from countries where there is no jihad or where it is not possible to wage jihad should come to Syria. However, he cautions, such a move is “not correct” for those in places where there is already jihad, such as Libya, Kashmir “or our Caucasus”. Notably, Salahuddin also refers clearly to Dokku Umarov’s authority by noting that the CE leader gave an explicit order for North Caucasians to wage jihad against the Sochi Olympics, an order which must take priority to the jihad in Syria, at least for those able to fulfill it.
SPLITS IN THE RANKS
Infighting among North Caucasian fighters in Syria began as early as August 2013. By summer 2013, many if not most Chechen fighters were part of the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar brigade (JMA), commanded by a charismatic, ginger-bearded jihadi named Umar Shishani.
By August, however, there were already signs of tensions among North Caucasian jihadis.
One cause of the tensions was the decision by Umar Shishani to take on the role of ISIS military emir in northern Syria. Although at that stage he had not formally sworn allegiance to ISIS nor did he move for JMA to be absorbed into join ISIS, the predominantly North Caucasian faction was de facto fighting as part of ISIS, most notably in the battle for Menagh Airbase in Aleppo.
In August, Umar very publicly expelled a group of about 27 Chechens headed by Sayfullah Shishani, a charismatic and volatile ethnic Chechen who was formerly Umar’s close confidante and second-in-command. Umar accused his former ally of being a “takfiri”, but it later emerged that two men had disagreed over whether JMA should pledge allegiance to ISIS or not. Sayfullah was against the move, and wanted the Chechens to remain independent, while Umar supported it. Initially, Sayfullah and his faction joined forces with Muslim Shishani, and Abu Musa Shishani.
By November, there was another, more significant split in the North Caucasian ranks, when Umar and a group of his men from JMA decided to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham and left JMA en masse. They left behind a group of Chechen jihadis who had already pledged allegiance to CE Emir Dokku Umarov, and who refused to renege on that pledge by swearing an oath to ISIS leader Baghdadi. The leadership of JMA was assumed by Salahuddin Shishani, who had been named the “official representative” of CE in Syria.
This move effectively ended Kavkaz Center’s support for Umar Shishani. The site, which had previously published reports and interviews with Umar that had originally appeared on Umar’s website FiSyria, stopped doing so.
Not all Chechen jihadis in Syria who chose not to pledge an oath of allegiance to Dokku Umarov joined ISIS, however. While Salahuddin Shishani and his faction in JMA remained loyal to the CE and Umarov, Sayfullah and two other prominent Chechen jihadis in Syria, Muslim Shishani and Abu Musa Shishani, announced in a video address in November that they believed that although they had pledged allegiance to Dokku Umarov, they should remain independent in Syria because Umarov did not hold sway over Syria; and neither did any other emir.
Although Sayfullah supported his comrades-in-arms Muslim and Abu Musa in their drive for independence, by December he had changed tack again. Likely because his group, Jaish ul-Khilafa, was relatively small and based in Aleppo (Muslim and Abu Musa fought mainly in Latakia Province), and because he liked to take part in well-publicized, large battles against regime targets, Sayfullah had begun to fight alongside Syrian Islamic faction Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo. Fired up by the success of that battle, he formally swore allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra. However, Sayfullah — who had previously been involved in anti-Russian protests in Istanbul — remained ideologically committed to the North Caucasian struggle, making several videos in which he cursed and threatened Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
CLAIMING ALLEGIANCE TO THE CAUCASUS EMIRATE: UMAR’S ISIS FACTION
Having decided to join ISIS and pledge an oath to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Umar Shishani and his second-in-command Abu Jihad Shishani (although he uses the name “Shishani” (“Chechen”) sources say he is an ethnic Karachay) faced a dilemma. Either they had to admit that they had renounced the Caucasus Emirate, or they had to produce a convincing explanation as to why pledging allegiance to Baghadi did not mean they were completely breaking with Dokku Umarov and turning their backs on the North Caucasian jihad.
One indication of the pressing nature of this question is that Abu Jihad referred to it in an address to the Syrian people in January. Abu Jihad gave the address in Arabic in Umar’s name in January, in response to the outbreak of hostilities between ISIS and other factions.
Abu Jihad said that the only reason he and Umar chose to join ISIS and not Jabhat al-Nusra is because Baghdadi had agreed to help send Chechen fighters back to the North Caucasus to wage jihad. This condition, Abu Jihad claimed, was so important to Umar Shishani that he immediately agreed to join ISIS:
We went to their Emirs [i.e. of Syrian factions, he does not say which but Jabhat al-Nusra is implied] and were surprised to experience arrogance and complacency. We told them that we had a bit of business connected with the jihad in the Caucasus, and that the intention was to help, and that we were planning to send brothers back, home.
We were surprised by the reply, when they told us that these conditions were unacceptable and that whoever joins them can’t set out conditions…. And then we found out about the proclamation of ISIS…We described [to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] the position in the Caucasus and said that we want to send brothers to help the Caucasus Emirate. His answer was pleasing, the Sheikh said that he had long been looking for ways to help the Caucasian brothers and he had finally found it. “It is our duty!” he said and praise Allah, from that moment we took an oath to Sheikh Baghdadi.
OTHER NORTH CAUCASIAN ISIS FIGHTERS’ POSITION ON JIHAD
Abu Jihad’s claim that Umar’s faction joined ISIS because it was the only way to help the Caucasus Emirate is not one that has been repeated by other ISIS fighters.
Instead, most Chechen ISIS fighters and thinkers have argued that, while the jihad in the North Caucasus is important, true mujahideen should avoid nationalism and separatism, since this is not true jihad. Instead, real mujahideen should unite under a single emir, regardless of their ethnic origin, and fight together to defeat the global kuffar and establish the global Caliphate. These jihadis have argued that the North Caucasian diaspora and its leaders call for Chechens to “wage jihad at home” as an excuse for not waging jihad at all, while JMA and those laying claim to be “the Caucasus Emirate in Syria” are hypocrites, because they do not practice what they preach and go home to the North Caucasus.
Abdullah Shishani, a Chechen ISIS fighter who regularly writes on ideological issues, expressed this worldview in a recent post on Russian social networking site VKontakte. First, Abdullah argues that there is no difference between waging jihad “at home” and elsewhere: for him, the concept of “Mujahideen” is wholly transnational rather than local or ethno-national — after all, there is only one global jihad and only one Ummah. Abdullah reinterprets Dokku Umarov’s November 2012 message, to mean that only those living in the North Caucasus should not go to Syria:
For those who say that as a first priority one should wage jihad at home in the Caucasus, and that it is not allowed to travel to other places where there is jihad…
We need to understand one thing – that the Mujahideen are those brothers who undertake the same activity on various territories. We have to help one another, keep in touch, and develop our fight against the Kuffar and traitors in all areas of jihad.
1. Every believer agrees that we need to wage jihad where the Kuffar is closest to us. Caucasians LIVING in the Caucasus and Russia and those who went abroad but have the opportunity to go back should unite with the Mujahideen on that territory (Caucasus, Russia). But what about those who have no opportunity to go back to the Caucasus and those who aren’t helped to unite. At first, establish channels to go home and help brothers go back and then it will be possible to consider who and where is virtuous in the name of jihad.
2. In his speech, the Emir of the CE meant don’t go to Syria and generally that EXISTING mujahideen in the Caucasus not leave. And everyone agrees with that because at home the position is complicated and it’s not right for the mujahideen to leave that area of jihad and travel without permission from the Emirs.
3. Brothers, we must understand that it is not OK and not right to sit for years at home without waging jihad and not to fight the Kuffar and to say that we have to go home and that its not allowed to go elsewhere. Whether you’re starting to fret out of cowardice or whether Dunya has held you back so much and you’ve polluted yourself…Usually these themes are raised by those who are not in the Caucasus or in Syria either, but someplace in Turkey or Europe. They don’t go to fight the Kuffar and they are busy with some sort of “global affairs”.
4. We need to understand one thing, that this opinion and all these conversations, that you ought not to go to Syria, they’re coming from Emirs or from the usual blabbermouths and fanatics. Now the question arises. What is the whole Caucasus Emirate jamaat doing in Syria? The second question, why don’t they go home, if they’re needed at home. Third question, why are there thousands of brothers hanging around Turkey and Europe, who should be first in line to go home.
When you send them home, then let’s talk about the newbies who’re going to Syria and other mujahideen who want to wage jihad where they are able to travel. But you don’t do this. Then what’s the point in gathering people and leaving them at home. Start with yourselves. Go home…
5. How many ayahs and hadith are there on the theme of jihad. Our obligation is to strive on the path of Allah against the Kuffar wherever we can do that. And best of all, to create a good fundament on one land, to establish Sharia and work from there in all directions. But for that we have to unite under one imam and swear allegiance…the best example of this today is ISIS in Syria They are constantly busy with fighting and the ribats, liberating hundreds of kilometers from the kuffar and traitors… and why do they have victory after victory, when so many are against them? Because they are doing what Allah wanted, they are uniting in a big army and uniting for an Islamic State.
“YOU’RE NOT EVEN REAL JIHADIS, ANYWAY” – ISIS ATTACKS KAVKAZ CENTER AND UMMAH NEWS
As the rift between Chechens in ISIS and JMA deepened, ISIS jihadis have begun to publicly attack pro-CE sites and social media accounts, including Kavkaz Center and Ummah News. This trend has increased in recent weeks, as JMA’s reputation and prestige as an elite fighting force in Aleppo has grown, while Umar Shishani and his faction appear increasingly marginalized.
In April, FiSyria, the website close to Umar Shishani and his North Caucasian faction within ISIS, published a scathing attack on Kavkaz Center, accusing the website of waging a deliberate disinformation campaign against ISIS. According to FiSyria, Kavkaz Center was promoting what it called “the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar brand” at the expense of ISIS and “true” jihad.
FiSyria’s attack — a response to a report by Kavkaz Center that accused ISIS of attacking Syrian Islamic brigades and thus hindering them in their fight against pro-Assad’s forces — attempted to discredit Kavkaz Center’s position as the voice of the Caucasus jihad movement:
“As the face of the Caucasians they have disgraced themselves and many people laugh at them, calling them the Kav-Kav Center [the “Woof-Woof Center”]”, FiSyria wrote.
(The FiSyria website has since been taken offline so the original post is not available.)
Other ISIS-linked North Caucasians have taken these attacks further, accusing pro-CE outlets of promoting a narrow, nationalist (and hence anti-global jihad) agenda. They have claimed that pro-CE sites like Kavkaz Center and Ummah News do not represent real jihadis — and are perhaps even promoting US interests, as a recent post on the pro-ISIS website dowlah.wordpress.com suggests:
“Caucasian vinegratchiki [vinegrat is a Russian salad made from chopped beets. It is used as a slang term for a dismembered corpse created by a grenade or rocket explosion], if you got used to interfering with everything, if you can’t tell black from white, if you mistook Islam for a vinegrat, then someone has to deal with your ignorance. I don’t consider most of you followers of Islam, you’re more like adherents of the Caucasus, nationalists. Sites like “Chuma News” [“Plague News”, a play on words referring to Ummah News] and StorsjöCenter [i.e. Kavkaz Center, the reference is to Mikael Storsjö, the Finnish entrepreneur who hosted Kavkaz Center on his servers] had a chance to rethink their anti-Islamic and separatist activity regarding Islam, however they didn’t take that chance and just doubled their efforts to divide the Muslims into as many groups as possible, i.e. in essence they are carrying out the Pentagon’s propaganda work, most likely as volunteers…”
North Caucasians in ISIS have also tried to directly discredit JMA by claiming that jihadis from this faction have defected to ISIS because JMA was promoting the wrong sort of Islam.
“THEY DON’T EVEN FIGHT THE TAGHUT NUSAYRIS” – JMA’S RESPONSE
Though JMA and Sayfullah’s jamaat are officially neutral in the conflict between ISIS and Syrian factions, in recent weeks these groups have begun to openly criticize ISIS, accusing Umar and his men of harming local Syrians, and fighting other jihadis rather than the Assad regime. ISIS, they argue, thus goes against the ethos and practices of the “Caucasus Emirate in Syria” (JMA), and against those of Islam.
Abu Ubayda al-Madaniy, a North Caucasian scholar who is currently with Sayfullah’s jamaat writes this week that “Imarat [CE] are waging jihad exclusively against the kuffar, fulfilling their duty, ISIS are fighting against Muslims, calling them kuffar without basis. (They might have rare skirmishes with Assad’s soldiers once a month but mainly they fight Muslims)…The CE was announced by a shura of Caucasus scholars and on the advice of the mujahideen, and the mujahideen give allegiance to the Emir of CE of their free will, unlike ISIS which forces everyone to accept their Emir…”
Another outspoken ISIS critic has been Abdul Karim Krymsky, an ethnic Crimean Tatar and Salahuddin Shishani’s second-in-command in JMA. In March, Krymsky gave an interview to pro-CE site Sham News, in which he strongly criticized ISIS for their behavior toward civilians in Aleppo. Krymsky argues that ISIS’s violence and brutality toward local populations is not Islamic and is therefore inconsistent with ISIS’s stated ideology and goal of wanting to create an Islamic State:
When they resorted to demonstrations of brutality against the population, it doesn’t smell like Islam at all. And such a policy for those who supposedly want to build an Islamic State, it looks really strange.
You can, of course, intimidate civilians. They lived for years under fear and oppression. But when these same several thousand armed men try to intimate tens of thousands of armed men, it looks very illogical not to say stupid.
Any unbiased view sees an enormous gulf between the words “Islamic State” and the violent crimes that they did. Again, it is impossible to discern any common sense, not to mention sincerity, in these acts. (the full interview is translated here)
RIFT SET TO DEEPEN
In the short-term at least, the rift between North Caucasian factions in Syria looks set to deepen still further, as the hostilities between ISIS and Syrian brigades continue and as JMA’s reputation as an effective fighting force is growing, while Umar Shishani’s faction becomes increasingly marginalized in the Syrian conflict and pushed out of the North Caucasian “jihadosphere”. It is likely therefore that at least while JMA’s star is on the rise in Syria, pro-ISIS North Caucasians will step up their attempts to denigrate that faction, including by arguing that its fighters are not true jihadis and are more interested in nationalism than establishing a global Caliphate.
Joanna Paraszczuk is a journalist with the Jerusalem Report magazine, covering the Syrian conflict, Israel, and the wider Middle East. She also monitors North Caucasian and Russian-speaking jihadis in Syria. You can find more of her work on her blog: chechensinsyria.com.