Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Internal divisions inside north Caucasus’ Islamist insurgency, by Giovanni Giacalone

In the summer of 2014 ISIS released a video containing a threat to start a war in Russia’s Chechen Republic and the whole Caucasus region. The footage showed an insurgent speaking from a fighter’s cockpit at the al-Tabaka Airbase near the city of Raqqa, Syria, claiming that the extremist group was going to “liberate” Chechnya and the Caucasus.[1]
In October 2014 Omar al-Shishani, one of ISIS’ military commanders, threatened that Russia would become one of the group’s next targets. On the phone with his father in Georgia, al-Shishani said that he would have revenge on Vladimir Putin and that he would infiltrate Russia with thousands of followers. [2]
 Following the report in late December 2014 that several jamaat in Daghestan and Chechnya had left the Caucasus Emirate in order to pledge alliance to ISIS, some analysts speculated about the possibility that ISIS was trying to infiltrate the northern Caucasus with the objective of waging jihad against Russia. Is this a plausible hypothesis?
In order to find a possible answer to such question it is important to consider several elements:
1. In February 2015, during a U.S.-chaired summit against violent extremism in Washington DC, the head of FSB, Alexander Boratnikov, said that about 1,700 Russian citizens are currently fighting in Iraq and that the number has nearly doubled since the previous year. [3]
A relevant number of these north-Caucasian jihadists do not come directly from their home countries but they are rather members of the Chechen and Daghestani diaspora in Turkey and Europe, as recent arrests made in Austria and Germany show. [4] [5]
Jihad in Syria and Iraq seems to be far more appealing for Chechen and Daghestani militants who have a hard time waging war on Russia in their areas of origin and this is an important exogenous element with one clear implication: the chance that foreign fighters from the various north-Caucasian republics succeed in bringing jihad back home is strictly related to the possibility of their return back home, which so far seems unlikely to take place in high numbers.
The Russian security services seem well aware of the numbers and the identities of north-Caucasian jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq and in fact last month Russian authorities released another partial list of Daghestani, Chechen and Ingush jihadists currently with ISIS, including date and place of birth and even the month that they joined the ranks. [6]  This could be read as a clear sign that Moscow knows exactly what it’s doing on the foreign fighter issue.
2. The second element is endogenous as several Chechen and Daghestani jamaat commanders have recently retracted their oath of alliance (bayat) to Caucasus Emirate leader, Ali Abu-Muhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov), and pledged loyalty to ISIS leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Various sources published lists of jamaat leaders that are now allied with ISIS, six out of the eleven cited. [7] Among them Sultan Zaynalabidov (Emir of Aukhovsky jamaat), Rustam Aselderov (Emir of Vilayat Daghestan), Arslan-Ali Kambulatov (Emir of Shamil’kalinsky sector) and Makhran Saidov (Emir of the Vedeno sector). [8] [9]
On December 28th 2014, the leader of Caucasus Emirate, Ali Abu-Muhammad, released a video where he warned other organization members from siding with ISIS and expanding the “fitna” inside the Emirate. A problem that has reached north-Caucasian militants even in Syria, as explained by the website “Chechensinsyria”:
“Rivalry between North Caucasian factions of IS in Syria and the CE began as far back as late summer 2013 when Umar Shishani and his faction in Jaish alMuhajireen wal-Ansar grew closer to then-ISIS, with Umar being appointed ISIS’s military emir in northern Syria. Umar and his faction broke away from JMA in December 2013 and went over to ISIS, with JMA openly aligning itself as the Syrian branch of the CE. Since then, the rivalry between the two groups in Syria has continued to develop, based in the main on a power struggle for control of North Caucasian militants in Syria but also partly based on ideology: some IS North Caucasians have accused the CE of nationalism and asserted that, with the establishment of the “Caliphate”, all jihadis should fight with IS”. [10]
On one hand this clearly shows that the Caucasus Emirate, already weakened by the elimination of its former historical leader, Doku Umarov, by the total failure of putting into practice the Sochi Olympics threat and the counter-terror operations of the Federal security forces, now has to deal with an additional loss of forces due to jamaat who are fleeing for ISIS. This flow of militants can be related in part to different approaches to jihad that have emerged since 2012, to ideological frictions that can be summarized in “nationalism vs Caliphate” but also in a progressive weakening of the Caucasus Emirate that has brought disappointment among younger and more radical jamaat leaders, who decided to embrace the ideology of ISIS.
On the other hand, the fact that some jamaat are joining ISIS does not necessarily imply that al-Baghdadi’s group is gaining strength or that ISIS is actually infiltrating Chechnya and Daghestan. It is plausible to state that at this moment the internal divisions seem to be leading more towards a dispersion of forces on both sides.
In addition it is important to consider that Daghestan, which is considered Russia’s most problematic republic in relation to terrorism, has seen a decrease by 20% of terrorist incidents in 2014, with more than 180 jihadists eliminated and 200 arrests.
The Daghestani militias have recently shown lack of high strategic capabilities by focusing mainly on ambush of police officers, judges and security personnel and with the consequences of being subjected to strong counter-terror operations. In Chechnya the militants didn’t achieve much either and beyond the December 4th 2014 attacks in Grozny, there haven’t been any significant terrorist attacks reported.[11] [12]
In conclusion, it is plausible to state that due to internal ideological and strategic divisions, lack of common goals, dispersion and leakage of forces among north-Caucasian jamaats which must be summed to the heavy counter-terror measures taken by the Federal security forces, it is unlikely that in the short-medium term ISIS or Caucasus Emirate will succeed in trying to carry out substantial jihadist campaigns against Russia.

 Giovanni Giacalone is an Italian researcher and analyst in Islamic radicalism, lives in Milan where he studies political Islam in Europe with a close look at issues linked to integration, radicalism and relations between the various European Institutions and the Islamic organizations present in Europe.He wrote this article in English for RIMSE.

[4] In January 2015 German police arrested in Berlin two individuals of Turkish origin who were accused of recruiting Russian and Turkish nationals for jihad in Syria and Iraq.  (Ibidem)
[5] In January 2015 Austrian police in Krems arrested a Russian national from Chechnya accused of fighting with Islamic State.
[11] On December 4th 2014 a group of jihadists attacked a police check-point, entered the city and occupied the "Press House" building in the city center and a nearby school. 14 policemen and 11 terrorists were killed. Aslam Byutukayev and his militia claimed responsibility.