Putin, ISIS and the Chechen factor
Beirut - In May, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered Iraq weapons to help the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi push back jihadists of the Islamic State (ISIS), but it wasn’t just to rack up major arms sales in an effort to regain the influence Moscow exerted in the Middle East during the Cold War.
Moscow is heavily engaged in the Ukraine conflict and facing off against NATO in a new Cold War-style confrontation. But Putin is also worried about ISIS spreading its tentacles into Russia’s volatile Muslim republics and reigniting the ferocious Islamist wars that raged from 1994 to 2009 in the northern Caucasus.
There are an estimated 4,000 Chechens and other Caucasian jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq — up to 2,000 of them with ISIS — and Moscow sees them as a potentially grave threat. Chechen leaders “view the fighting in Syria as a great opportunity to train their fighters and use the combat experience back home”, observed Major- General Wael Abdul Muttalib of the Cairo-based Regional Center for Strategic Studies.
For Moscow, control of the Caucasus, the southern tier of the Russian Federation, is a strategic imperative and the Kremlin has shown it’s prepared to mount massive counter-insurgency operations in which tens of thousands have perished in the last 20 years. It’s also waging a global assassination campaign hunting down Chechen jihadist leaders in Turkey and the Gulf region.
Russia maintains it has largely pacified Chechnya, centre of the jihadist-backed secessionist campaign, and the neighbouring Muslim-majority republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Indeed, Putin, the ambitious former KGB lieutenant colonel, rose to power largely because of the relentless and brutal campaign he waged to crush that long-running insurgency.
But separatist discontent continued to smoulder, and in 2007, Chechen rebel leader Dokka Umarov, who fought in the Chechen wars, declared the Imarat Kavkaz, or Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE). He was its self-appointed emir until he was assassinated in September 2013 by Russian special forces, as most of his predecessors and, indeed, his successors, too, have been eliminated.
The latest to die was Magomed Suleimanov, aka Abu Usman Gimrinsky. Moscow says he was killed with three aides in “a counterterrorism operation” in Dagestan in early August, just a few months after he took over. He was the third ICE emir to be slain by the Russians in just more than 18 months.
These assassinations have been a major coup for Putin but still the Chechens remained a thorn in his side. Putin’s alarm grew when the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed an Islamic caliphate centred on Mosul in northern Iraq in June 2014. The ICE, a consolidation of the region’s rebel forces, which has links to al-Qaeda and the international Salafist network, has since 2012 been extending its operations southward into Georgia and oil-rich Azerbaijan as well as the Russian heartland.
But as the constant loss of ICE leaders demonstrates, Putin is piling on the pressure, and this, counterterrorism specialists say, is forcing many jihadists to head for the Middle East, most of them to ISIS, drawn by its string of battlefield victories and the proclamation of the Islamic caliphate. Islamist sources in Moscow say 4,000 Tajiks and other Central Asian migrants have been recruited by Chechens with ISIS in the last couple of years.
Indeed, there have been suggestions that Putin’s security services have done little to stop Islamists heading west. However, returning to the Caucasus may be more problematic, which gives the Chechens in Syria and Iraq a reason to fight for Baghdadi’s caliphate.
The main Chechen contingent is Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (Army of the Emigrants and Partisans). It splintered in mid- 2014 after the ISIS caliphate was declared and Baghdadi ordained himself supremo of the world’s 2 billion Muslims.
One faction aligned with ISIS. It’s led by one of the ablest of the jihadist military commanders, a 28-year-old red-bearded Chechen war veteran whose kunya, or nom de guerre, is Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen). Born Tarkhan Batirashvili, he’s an ethnic Chechen from the Pankisi gorge, an Islamist stronghold in north-eastern Georgia on the border with Chechnya. He served in an intelligence unit of the Georgian Army.
The other faction, identified as ICE’s Syrian branch, is led by a Chechen veteran who was once Omar al-Shishani’s second in command. His kunya, confusingly, is Salahuddin al-Shishani.
Omar al-Shishani is seen as one of the most dangerous jihadist commanders in the killing fields of Syria and Iraq. He was named commander of ISIS’s northern operations in 2013 and led the blitzkrieg offensive that stormed Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014, routing an Iraq army force ten times its size.
According to Islamist websites, Shishani has vowed to return to Chechnya to unleash a new war against Putin’s regime.