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The North Caucasus Insurgency’s Syrian Balancing Act
By Mark Youngman
Since the involvement of fighters of North Caucasian origin in the Syrian conflict was first confirmed in August 2012, the official websites of the Caucasus Emirate (IK) have struggled to balance competing interests in their reporting on Syria. In line with the movement’s alignment of insurgents in Russia’s troubled southern region with the global jihadist movement, IK websites have reported extensively on events in Syria and on the activities of groups that ethnic North Caucasians are fighting with. However, statements by the IK’s leader, Dokka Umarov, and material published to IK websites suggest concerns that the Syrian conflict could have a detrimental effect on the North Caucasus insurgency. Multiple articles have insisted that North Caucasians are obliged to fight at home and may only travel to other jihadist “fronts” if unable to do so. Judging by regional variations in IK coverage, these concerns are most acute within the Ingushetian and, possibly, Chechen sectors of the insurgency.
Syria: The View From the Caucasus
The participation of fighters of North Caucasus origin in the Syrian conflict was first confirmed with the death of Rustam Gelayev in August 2012. Since then, the presence of ethnic North Caucasians fighting in Syria has become incontrovertible. They have been most prominent in the group currently known as Jaysh al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar, which is led by ethnic Chechen Umar al-Shishani and which – judging by the title slates of recent videos – is now part of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Although North Caucasians, and Chechens in particular, have long been rumoured to have been present in other conflicts, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, the Syrian conflict represents their clearest and most extensive foreign engagement.
IK websites, and its main media outlet, Kavkazcenter, in particular, have long reported on global Islamic extremist activity and Syria has unsurprisingly received high levels of coverage. In 2012 and 2013, Kavkazcenter’s Twitter feed – which closely reflects the website’s content – mentioned Syria more than any other foreign country. Of approximately 7,200 articles posted to the website between 1 August 2012 and 24 August 2013, just over 400 referred to the Syrian conflict. Material posted to IK websites has ranged from translations and summaries of mainstream media reports to content reproduced from other jihadist websites to material from Russian-speaking fighters on the ground to eulogies of those killed in the conflict.
The Caucasus Emirate’s Apparent Concern About Syria
However, while IK websites have applauded the fighting in Syria, the attention afforded – both by mainstream and extremist media — to the conflict, coupled with the presence of fighters of North Caucasus origin, also appears to have created particular difficulties for the IK. There are several overlapping categories of North Caucasians involved in Syria. Most fighters appear to come either from existing ethnic North Caucasian communities outside of Russia, or from the refugee communities created by the Chechen wars. Al-Shishani, for example, appears to have come from Georgia’s Chechen community in Pankisi. Others, like Gelayev, travelled to the Middle East for a religious education prior to the start of the conflict. And some have travelled directly from the North Caucasus to participate in fighting. It is this last group that appears to have generated concern in the IK that Syria could have a detrimental effect on the North Caucasus insurgency.
In November 2012, IK leader Dokka Umarov issued a statement refuting claims supposedly being circulated by some North Caucasians in Syria that “Jihad in the Caucasus has ended, therefore they supposedly came to Syria.” At that point, Umarov’s statement appeared to have been intended to dissuade expatriate Chechens from choosing to travel to Syria rather than the North Caucasus. However, in August 2013, Umarov dispelled any lingering doubts that at least some had travelled directly from the North Caucasus to fight in Syria. He claimed that the insurgency was unable to accept all would-be recruits for logistical and security reasons and, “because we cannot accept them (or they cannot come home) they head to wage Jihad in different places. Most of all they go to Syria, many become martyrs there, God willing. They go to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other places.”.
A Religious Duty To Stay Home and Fight
At first glance, Umarov’s August statement appears to suggest that the outflow of fighters is not particularly problematic: If the insurgency cannot accept them, then what does it matter if they go elsewhere to fight? However, Umarov is trying to make a virtue of rebel weakness, and elsewhere IK websites have argued that North Caucasians should not use their inability to link up with existing groups as an excuse, but should instead set up their own cells. The clearest evidence of IK concern is the number of statements and articles insisting that domestic jihad is fard al-ayn, a religious duty incumbent on every Muslim, for North Caucasians. In October 2012, VDagestan.com, the IK website for insurgents in Dagestan, published an article describing jihad in the North Caucasus as fard al-ayn for North Caucasians and claiming it is inexcusable to wage jihad elsewhere simply because it is easier to do so. Two months later, VDagestan.com published an article that claimed that “Jihad in Sham [the Levant] is initially the individual obligation of the people of Sham, and Jihad in the Caucasus is the individual obligation of the people of the Caucasus. At heart, each people of a country should work to repulse the enemy that has attacked its land, and not leave the enemy on its land, and not go to repulse another enemy in another country.” The article went on to claim that jihad in Syria is for North Caucasians only fard al-kifaya, a collective duty that does not supplant an individual one. Hunafa, the IK website for Ingushetia, republished the article in July 2013. At the end of July 2013, Kavkazcenter, Hunafa, and VDagestan.com all published a video address by a rebel in Syria urging North Caucasians to wage jihad in the North Caucasus or elsewhere in Russia and not travel to Syria. 
In order to dissuade North Caucasians from travelling from the region to Syria, but also to avoid alienating those North Caucasians already fighting there, IK websites have stressed that jihad is acceptable only for those unable to reach the Caucasus. Thus a December 2012 article on Hunafa argued that “a Caucasian may travel to another front of the jihad only after making certain that he does not have any possibility whatsoever to participate in the jihad with Russia. We know of many cases when brothers, declared wanted by the infidels, have died, been wounded, or been captured trying to enter the territory of the Caucasus.” IK websites have also claimed that those already in Syria would return home if they were able to do so. A “Letter From Syria” published on Hunafa in November 2012 claimed that North Caucasians in Syria were unable to return home because “there is no road, no way to the brothers.” The letter urged those “brothers who have the opportunity to join the brothers at home” to do so. Another “Letter From Syria,” published to the same website in February 2013, claimed of North Caucasians in Syria that “their hearts are at home, they worry about the brothers of the Caucasus, they wait and look for a way there, to the Caucasus.”
A Particularly Acute Concern For Some
Articles on IK websites urging North Caucasians to fight at home are not new: The October 2012 VDagestan.com article, for example, originated on Hunafa months previously and referenced Afghanistan and Iraq, not Syria. But the regularity with which such articles are being published suggests the IK views the outflow of fighters to Syria as being particularly problematic. Regional differences among the IK websites suggest the concerns are greatest for rebels in Ingushetia. Islam Din, the website representing rebels in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkesia, has completely ignored Syria since posting two videos by Karachay-speaking fighters there in October 2012. VDagestan.com has pushed the “wage jihad at home” message, but its material on Syria has accounted for only a small portion of its overall output. By contrast, of approximately 140 articles posted to the main page of Hunafa since 1 August 2012, at least 20 have related to Syria. The Chechen sector has no dedicated official website, making comparison impossible. However, the Chechen sector is most closely linked to the Ingushetian one; the Chechens have been the most prominent of the North Caucasus nationalities in Syria; and Umarov himself has addressed the topic. All these give grounds to suggest the Chechen sector shares the concerns of their Ingushetian counterparts.
The scale and prominence of North Caucasian ethnic group involvement in the Syrian conflict is unprecedented, and it appears to have brought with it unprecedented complications for IK messaging. The IK is at least in part trapped by its own ideology: Having positioned itself as part of the global jihadist movement, it cannot (and does not want to) present the Syrian conflict as illegitimate, yet it needs to make Syria less attractive to would-be recruits. Thus it praises and criticizes almost simultaneously, and it is partly this seeming contradiction that has necessitated repetition. The IK also needs to avoid alienating those North Caucasians already in Syria – at least some of whom the movement would presumably like to see return home and strengthen the movement.
Mark Youngman is a postgraduate studying terrorism at the University of St Andrews, specializing in Russia’s North Caucasus