NOTE: For prior parts in the Clear Banner series you can view an archive of it all here.
“Let Him Eat Leaves”: North Caucasians Aligned to Islamic State Slam Caucasus Emirate Emir
By Joanna Paraszczuk
A recent video address by Caucasus Emirate (CE) Emir Ali Abu Muhammad stating that North Caucasians in Syria ought to have backed Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) and accusing the Islamic State’s (IS) military Emir in Syria Umar Shishani of worsening the fitna between IS and JAN, has unleashed a flood of responses and counter-responses from North Caucasian jihadis in various factions.
North Caucasians in or aligned with IS spoke out harshly against Abu Mohammad and the CE-affiliated group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), while those close to JMA expressed support for Abu Mohammad while slamming IS.
The storm has also prompted another prominent Chechen foreign fighter in Syria, Muslim Abu Walid Shishani, Emir of the independent faction Junud a-Sham, to break his long silence in a lengthy audio message discussing the “fitna in Sham,” IS, and Umar Shishani.
Previously, I examined the growing rift in Syria between North Caucasians aligned to the Caucasus Emirate, and those aligned to IS, over concepts of jihad. An exploration of some of the responses prompted by Abu Mohammad’s video message will help shed more light on this fault line. It will also show how, for North Caucasian jihadis in Syria, the question of loyalties, including with relation to the jihad “back home”, is a major cause of this rift.
1. ALI ABU MOHAMMAD’S CRITICISMS
In his video address, CE Emir Ali Abu Mohammad attempts to gain ideological and practical control not only over the CE-affilated Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, but over all North Caucasians in Syria. He makes several main points (for an English translation, click here). These chiefly reflect his concerns over how North Caucasian participation in Syria affects the CE and the North Caucasian insurgency.
Abu Mohammad’s main points are:
1. North Caucasians wishing to fight in Syria have posed an ideological/ theological conundrum for the CE . While some hadith implied Muslims could and should fight in Sham, others implied that one should fight “the closest enemy”. Abu Mohammad takes a harder line on this than his predecessor Dokku Umarov, stating that, “We did not find even one scholar calling for the brothers who are fighting in their own land, to leave the Jihad at home, and join the Jihad in Syria.”
While Abu Mohammad poses this problem as a matter of theology, in reality the issue of Caucasians in Syria is about resources, and (to some extent) prestige: the jihad in the North Caucasus needs fighters, and why should this struggle be marginalized? He admits, “We hoped that [Caucasians in Syria] would return to their home country after taking part in the jihad in Syria so we could share our experience with them, and that they would help us. This is because we have a severe shortage of brothers.”
2. The decision to form JMA went against the instructions of the CE, who told North Caucasian fighters not to form a CE battalion in Syria, but rather to join the “oldest and most legitimate” jamaat. Abu Mohammad deems this to be Jabhat al-Nusra. The CE also instructed fighters not to make video or other addresses. By disobeying, North Caucasians have made it known to “the Kuffar”—Abu Mohammad is of course referring to Russia—that the CE are fighting in Syria, making it harder for Caucasians to return home and fight there.
3. Abu Mohammad makes a personal address to two individuals: Umar Shishani, and his deputy Abu Jihad. Umar Shishani’s decision to join IS was mistaken, according to Abu Mohammad. Umar then disobeyed orders by failing to maintain a neutral stance in the fitna. Umar should not speak on behalf of the CE, should stay out of politics because he does not express himself well, and should return to JMA, Abu Mohammad insists. Regarding Abu Jihad, Abu Mohammad says the CE does not know who he is.
2. REACTIONS FROM NORTH CAUCASIANS IN AND ALIGNED TO IS
North Caucasian fighters in Syria and their factions maintain a network of social media accounts—mostly on Russian social networking site VKontakte—and Web sites. Many of these published criticisms of Abu Muhammad’s address, of the Caucasus Emirate in general, and of the Caucasus Emirate’s representatives in Turkey in particular.
Sham Today (ST), a VK account run by North Caucasian fighters in ISIS, published a multi–part response to the CE Emir’s address.
Like other IS-affiliated jihadis, ST was particularly incensed by what the writer saw as a personal attack by Abu Muhammad on Umar Shishani and Abu Jihad.
Beyond this, ST’s reactions also shed light onto how at least some IS jihadis perceive the jihad in Syria in relation to the insurgency in the North Caucasus. It is notable that IS-affiliated fighters, while setting themselves apart from the CE, still emphasize that they are North Caucasians, and even question whether JMA/CE affiliated fighters are “true” North Caucasians, and/or whether they truly can claim the North Caucasian jihadi heritage.
Rather than considering the North Caucasian struggle as separate from that in Syria, ST’s response suggests it wants to consider both conflicts as part of a wider transnational jihad. ST’s response also demonstrates that its writer does not consider himself obedient to the CE: the writer is careful to express solidarity with “brothers fighting in the Caucasus,” not “with the Caucasus Emirate.”
With regard to the CE itself, ST dismisses the group as out of touch with the situation in Syria (and by extension with the true state of global jihadi affairs):
The CE leadership have no clue what is really happening in Sham. It’s entire knowledge resource is the internet, non-objective tales from CE representatives in Turkey, and other non-objective opinion.
ST argues that the CE’s presence in Syria has always been limited to a small group; that Umar was not, as Abu Muhammad claimed, sent by the CE to Syria; and that Umar never had an oath of allegiance to the CE, though he “respected Dokku Umarov.” Rather, Umar was the Emir of a multiethnic faction, JMA, within which the CE-affiliated fighters were a small, discrete group with their own Emir. Writing of Umar’s decision to pledge allegiance to then-ISIS, ST emphasizes that Umar’s jamaat did not only include North Caucasians:
That night, Emir Umar and the first group gave bayat to ISIS and it was clear that the whole Muhajireen wal-Ansar brigade and its Emirs would go to ISIS, these were Caucasians, Arabs, Turks, Azerbaijanis, Europeans, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and others. The only ones who didn’t go was the CE group.
ST further claims that the CE had tried to press its own, local goals among North Caucasians in Syria, thus hindering the jihad, by sending representatives from Istanbul to interfere with Umar. Rather than supporting these jihadis in fighting the Kuffar on the global stage, the CE pushed its narrow, national interests, browbeating Umar into agreeing to train and send CE Mujahideen back to the Caucasus:
Representatives of the CE came to Syria from Turkey, ranted at Umar as per usual and told him how it was hard for them and what the situation in the Caucasus was, that he had to help the Caucasus and send brothers home, prepare them, unite them, and whatnot. After multiple negotiations, Umar knew he would have a ton of problems with them and that it would really distract him as he actively waged jihad in Sham… so he agreed. After all, he himself is from the Caucasus, he is pained and suffers because of the position of the Mujahideen in the Caucasus, as do we all, he really loved and respected Dokku Abu Usman…
Despite this, the CE refused to support its faction in Syria, leaving their welfare to Umar:
All the CE in Syria jamaat’s expenses were paid for by Umar’s jamaat. Food, weapons, cars, visits to Turkey and Europe, sending cash to the Caucasus, treating brothers…they didn’t have a single ruble to spend, it all came from Umar…
In warning the CE that it is alienating the wider ummah by criticizing IS and Umar, ST positions itself as part of that ummah within the wider jihad. Rather than seeing Abu Muhammad as the Emir of all North Caucasian jihadis, ST implies he is but a small, Russian-speaking fish in a very big jihadi pond:
We advise you to change your informants…whoever shows friendship to infidels and does not show hatred toward them..is in a bad position. This video is already translated into Arabic and the entire Ummah and most mujahideen are watching this video on the lands of jihad… in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The reaction is negative and many are asking us, “how can the Mujahideen of the Caucasus and their Emir talk that way and insult us and our Emirs…Maybe we only knew their good side…”
3. JAISH AL-MUHAJIREEN WAL ANSAR: UMAR BROKE HIS OATH
In response to these criticisms, CE fighters published a rebuttal on the pro-CE VK account Ajr ot Allakha Subhanu wa Tag’alya SHAM, stressing their loyalty to the CE and Abu Muhammad:
[A]fter our Emir, Ali Abu Muhammad clarified his position regarding the fitna in Syria, some began to unleash on our Emir a barrage of criticism with with explanations about the fitna in Syria, totally humiliating the dignity of the Mujahideen of the Caucasus Emirate in the blessed land of Sham.
Arguing that both Umar and Abu Jihad had in fact pledged allegiance to Dokku Umarov, the rebuttal concludes that both men have broken that oath by swearing to ISIS. Umar and his followers, they argue, should not have broken their first oath to Umarov, because the conditions had not arisen to allow them to do so. CE jihadis, even those fighting in Syria, cannot relinquish their allegiance to the CE until there is a single Emir to whom all Muslims can pledge allegiance:
And the difference between us is that these people gave their oath of allegiance to the Caucasus Emirate first, and then violated this oath, and we gave this oath to the Caucasus Emirate and still keep it, and will keep our State until Muslims elect a single ruler in compliance with all conditions. And the first of these conditions – that the governor is chosen by Ahl Al-Hal wa Al-‘Aqd…And if the leaders of jihad around the world gather under one banner and one elected Emir, I swear by Allah, we will extend our hand first in allegiance to this Emir.
Other JMA criticisms have centered on more practical issues, such as rebutting IS’s claims that the CE in Syria has not participated in any real battles.
4. “JMA ARE LIKE THE CAUCASIAN NOBLES WHO CRITICIZED THE MUJAHIDEEN IN THE FOREST”
Perhaps one of the strangest exchanges between JMA/CE and IS fighters in Syria has focussed on attacking the North Caucasian jihadi heritage of the other side, in order to suggest that they are not waging jihad correctly.
In response to a JMA criticism that IS fighters could not have established an Islamic State, because “what kind of Islamic State is it where people go around wearing masks because they’re too afraid to show their faces,” one IS-affiliated group on VK writes:
That’s very much like the hypocritical tales directed at the brave forest Mujahideen of the Caucasus – from the Caucasian grandees – who talked about this newfangled guerrilla war in the forest and with hidden faces. History repeats itself – the same hypocrites manifest themselves!
5. “WE’RE FIGHTING THE WORLD, LET ABU MUHAMMAD STAY IN THE FOREST AND EAT LEAVES”
One of the harshest attacks against Abu Muhammad the the CE came in the form of an audio message that has been widely shared around the web. The speaker says that IS is fighting on the world stage, in order to free the global ummah from the Kuffar, while Abu Muhammad is sitting at home in a small-time, provincial conflict.
“We’re fighting on all fronts against the Kurds and the Basharite dogs, the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra… the whole world, get it? While Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar don’t fight anyone… We’re freeing the whole world from the Kuffar… and that Muhammad Ali (sic), let him sit in the Caucasus, let him shut his gob, let him eat leaves.”
6. MUSLIM ABU WALID SHISHANI: AN INDEPENDENT VOICE
In a move apparently triggered by the storm over Abu Muhammad’s message, Chechen foreign fighter Emir Muslim Abu Walid Shishani (Murad Margoshvili) issued an audio message on 29 June, in which he says he is breaking his silence to talk about the fitna between IS and JAN. 
Muslim, the leader of the Latakia-based Junud a-Sham faction, has maintained a strict policy of refusing to swear allegiance to any faction in Syria, a stance he stresses in the opening of his speech:
First and foremost, I want to say that I don’t belong to any group, we have our group, Junud as-Sham, and I am the Emir of that group, and we work with all groups and don’t differentiate them.
A self-proclaimed veteran of the Russo-Chechen wars who says he fought alongside Arab foreign fighters Ibn Khattab and Abu Walid (from whom he takes his nom de guerre), Muslim has maintained his distance from the CE. He did not refer directly to the CE at all in his latest address, and does not frame the fitna between IS and JAN has having anything to do with the CE. He does refer several times to his experiences in the Russo-Chechen wars, and specifically to Khattab, comparing the start of the jihad in Syria to Chechnya:
[The early days of the jihad in Syria] was a second Chechnya, and we had experience adopted from Khattab and those brothers who were with him, and it wasn’t hard for us to repeat it.
For Muslim, who is outside of the CE-IS debate, there is no need to pledge allegiance to any Emir because the conditions for doing so have not yet been fulfilled. For him, the reason for waging jihad in Syria and not the Caucasus or any other place is clear: there is a clear instruction to do so in the hadith. The fact that there are many factions in Syria, and that there is infighting between jihadi groups, is not important:
It [where the Islamic State will be established] is not in the Caucasus and in other places that are not mentioned in the Hadith. This is Sham and there are quite a few hadith of the Prophet, we just need to listen to them…
Did [the hadith] say join the fight in Iraq? Or do you doubt that Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s fight is the fight of Iraq?…Do not be fooled. Even after Sham, there is nothing said about Iraq. And if you say that there is no single fight in Sham, then I say at the beginning of the war there wasn’t one in Afghanistan nor in Chechnya, nor in Iraq. This fight will be, as long as there are groups of people coming for it.
Muslim does talk about the problems of control that Umar Shishani faced when dealing with an influx of jihadis from the North Caucasus, who either joined JMA or were located close to its headquarters in Hraytan, Aleppo. Despite problems—including a mafia-style operation run by a group of Dagestanis who would murder local Syrians and steal their cars—JMA under Umar was respected including among locals:
There was no small kudos given to the group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, headed by Umar Shishani…Local people greatly trusted this group, if problems occurred, they immediately turned to Umar Shishani.
Abu Muhammad’s attempt to extort authority over what has become a CE subgroup in Syria, JMA, and over key North Caucasian foreign fighters, specifically Umar Shishani, has only succeeded in exacerbating an existing rift that began around a year ago.
The CE Emir’s address may have gained him some notice, but it has exposed his lack of control and sway over many North Caucasian fighters in Syria. Umar Shishani has not responded to the criticism directed against him, and it is almost certain that he will not obey Abu Muhammad’s call for him to return to JMA. Abu Muhammad has opened his group’s foreign operations, particularly in Turkey, to criticisms that they are concerned with local goals, not global jihad.
While JMA have openly expressed their loyalty to Abu Muhammad, their military victories in Aleppo that propelled them to notice in past months have tapered off at the same time as Umar Shishani has gained fresh prominence, filmed alongside IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani destroying the Iraq-Syria border before declaring the Caliphate. The rift between North Caucasian fighters is unlikely to heal, and there may be fragmentation among smaller groups. Particularly after the announcement of the Caliphate, Umar’s jamaat in IS may prove a bigger pull for new North Caucasian jihadis crossing into Syria.  And while fighters like Muslim Shishani insist on their independence, in reality Junud a-Sham has had to team up with larger Syrian Islamic brigades in order to make an impact on the battlefield.
 For more background on the CE’s relationship with Al Qaeda, see this recent piece by Mairbek Vatchagaev, Statement by New Leader of Caucasus Emirate Creates Rift Among Chechen Groups Operating in Syria, Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 121 (https://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=42587&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=7&cHash=af78595cf7cb3732319d514c41520fb6#.U7aBqhZjDwJ)
 This Muslim’s second lengthy address. A translation of his first address can be found here:https://wp.me/p4sJvO-5yi
 According to sources close to Dagestani and Chechen Islamists, there is a great deal of interest among individuals in the North Caucasus in trying to find ways to go to fight in Syria.