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North Caucasus Group Hardens Line Against Rival IS


Caucasus Islamists in Syria announced a split from Al-Qaeda-linked rebels long ago, and the rift has since widened.

Caucasus Islamists in Syria announced a split from Al-Qaeda-linked rebels long ago, and the rift has since widened.

A leading social-media account affiliated with the Caucasus Emirate's affiliate in Syria has called on its supporters to warn their friends and family against the militant group Islamic State (IS).

"You must warn all the brothers and sisters, husbands and wives with whom you are acquainted against the Islamic State organization," the account wrote on March 13.

In what is its first open call to speak out against IS, the Bely Sneg ("White Snow") account, which operates on social-media networks Facebook, VKontakte, and Twitter, said that to warn others against the group does not constitute "fitna" (sedition).

"Do not be afraid of words, as if fitna will come of this...this is not fitna! Warnings against those who are misguided is not fitna!" the Bely Sneg account wrote.

A grab from the Bely Sneg (White Snow) social media account warning supporters against cooperation with Islamic State (IS)

A grab from the Bely Sneg (White Snow) social media account warning supporters against cooperation with Islamic State (IS)

As a warning, the account told the story of a wife who had "gone to Syria, to the 'caliphate' [the term used by the Islamic State group for the lands under its control] without notifying her husband, they caught her and imprisoned her. How can this be -- to live together for four years and not know the secrets of your wife or husband?"

"So do not avoid this topic!" the Bely Sneg account exhorted its supporters.

On March 11, the Bely Sneg account posted an explanation of its position on IS, saying that while JMA "certainly do not think that everyone in the IS organization are khawarij ["outsiders" who have deviated from the true path of Islam], we just as certainly believe that the IS organization itself is build on a khawarij tradition."

The call by the Bely Sneg account for supporters to speak out against IS signifies a hardening of the position of North Caucasian militants fighting alongside the Caucasus Emirate's Syrian affiliate Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) regarding IS.

The split between North Caucasians in JMA and IS is a phenomenon that has evolved over time and which at its heart is rooted in a power struggle between groups of Russian-speaking militants.

The first cracks in the ranks of North Caucasian militants in Syria appeared as far back as the summer of 2013, when JMA's then-commander, an ethnic Kist from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge named Umar Shishani, began to grow closer to the Islamic State group, or ISIS as it was then known. In late November 2013, websites run by Chechen militants in Syria reported that Umar Shishani and a group of his men from JMA had pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Umar Shishani -- who had been appointed IS's military commander in Syria -- and his men left JMA for IS, and JMA appointed a new leader, Salakhuddin Shishani (Feyzullah Margoshvili), also a Pankisi Kist. Salakhuddin, however, was loyal to the Caucasus Emirate, and under its new leadership JMA began to refer to itself as the "Caucasus Emirate in Syria."

As Umar Shishani's faction in IS battled for ideological supremacy over JMA by trying to win over the hearts and minds of JMA militants, the two groups also found themselves on opposite sides of bloody infighting between Syrian Islamist militant groups and IS in Syria. North Caucasian militants in JMA, however, vowed that they would stay out of the fighting between IS and Syrian groups, and would not promote "fitna" by openly slamming IS.

In recent months, JMA has grown closer ideologically and practically to Syrian Islamist groups, particularly Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham faction. JMA has and continues to fight alongside these groups in offensives against Syrian government forces in Aleppo, although it has stayed out of clashes with IS militants.

Daghestani Pledges To IS

The split between the two factions has widened into a yawning chasm in recent months, particularly following the decision by several Caucasus Emirate factions in Daghestan to pledge allegiance to IS leader Baghdadi.

Some leading members of IS in Syria have openly praised the Daghestani militants' decision to transfer their loyalty from the Caucasus Emirate to IS. These include a former prominent member of the Caucasus Emirate, the Chechen Akhmed Chatayev, who was previously reputed to be close to the Caucasus Emirate's former leader, Doku Umarov.

Although some analysts have suggested that the move could have been an attempt by IS to destabilize the North Caucasus from within, the switch to IS by the Daghestani groups does not seem to have been orchestrated by North Caucasians in Syria. Though IS has acknowledged oaths of allegiance by militant groups outside of Syria and Iraq, reports suggest that IS leader Baghdadi has refused permission to foreign militants to return home and wage "jihad" there.

The pledges by the Daghestani groups to IS do not -- at least so far -- appear to have made much difference to how the groups are operating on the ground in the North Caucasus, though Chechen analyst Mairbek Vatchagayev raised the possibility of whether the Russian security services were behind the declarations. Russia, which has increasingly warned of the threat posed by IS to its domestic security, has taken several steps recently to crack down on radicalization and home-grown militancy.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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