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Chechen On Trial In Austria For Fighting With IS In Syria


"Magomed Z.," a Chechen refugee, in court in Krems, Austria, on January 23

"Magomed Z.," a Chechen refugee, in court in Krems, Austria, on January 23

A Chechen man is standing trial in Austria on charges of fighting with the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and sending militants money.

The 30-year-old man, known only as Magomed Z., is accused of training with IS from July to December 2013, adopting the group's "nationality" and sending militants $800. He pleaded not guilty on January 22, testifying that he had only gone to Syria to help refugees and to try to find the son of a relative.

Magomed Z. told the court that he "saw the images of war on the internet and wanted to help." According to Reuters, his lawyer Wolfgang Blaschitz argued, among other things, that IS had only formed in early 2014 so his client could not have fought with them in 2013.

Is Blaschitz's argument -- as far as the details reported by Reuters go -- a plausible one?

While the IS group changed its name and the title of its leader in mid- (not early) 2014, the group did not change its ideology or its leadership structure. The name change happened on June 29, 2014, when the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself the "caliph" of all Muslims. The group also said that it was declaring a global "caliphate."

It is possible, however, that a Chechen in Syria from July 2013 through December 2013 could have been with a group that was loosely affiliated with, but not a part of, the then-ISIS until after December 2013.

It is also not plausible to argue that the Islamic State group did not exist before early 2014. The group changed its name and the title of its leader in mid-2014 but did not change its ideology.

Details of the allegations against Magomed Z. are sketchy. (The reports do not say where he allegedly was in Syria or with which subgroup of militants.) However, it is possible to make some reasonable assumptions about where a Chechen who came to Syria in July 2013 would most likely have gone, based on the usual experiences of Chechens who joined militant groups there at that time. When examined in this context, Blaschitz's argument that Magomed Z. could not have fought for IS before early 2014 makes more sense (although, of course, Blaschitz argues that Magomed Z. did not fight in Syria at all).

It is plausible that, as a Chechen arriving in Syria in July 2013, if Magomed Z. did join or become associated with any faction, he would have joined the largest and most prominent Chechen-led group in that country. That faction was Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), which at that time was led by a Kist from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, Umar al-Shishani.

Although JMA was a distinct group, under Umar's leadership it grew closer to the group then known as ISIS, fighting with it in a number of large offensives in Aleppo province. Umar was appointed ISIS's military commander for northern Syria. However, it was not until December 2013 that Umar formally joined ISIS, pledging allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and leaving JMA with a group of his men.

The move by Umar caused a rift in JMA, with some militants refusing to join him in ISIS, saying that they had a previous oath of allegiance to the then-leader of the Caucasus Emirate militant group, Dokku Umarov.

It could therefore be argued that Chechens with JMA technically could not have fought "for ISIS" before December 2013 -- even if they fought in the same offensives as ISIS under Umar's command -- because they were not formally a part of ISIS at that time.

Chechens In Austria (And Germany And Syria)

There is evidence to show that young ethnic Chechens with connections to Austria joined and fought with JMA under Umar Shishani prior to December 2013.

According to Reuters, the Austrian Interior Ministry says that around half of the 170 people who traveled from Austria to fight with militants in the Middle East are Chechens.

One such militant was Abu Abdullakh Shishani (real name Khamzat Achishvili), a former close associate of Umar Shishani. Achishvili, who was born in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia but spent most of his life in Austria, was killed in July 2013 when JMA fought alongside ISIS in Aleppo province. He was introduced to radical Islam in Austria.

And even if Magomed Z. is found innocent, as he has pleaded, his version suggests that there are connections between the Chechen diaspora in Syria and Austria. Magomed Z. traveled to Syria from Chechnya but came to Austria in December 2013 after "it became too much" for him, his lawyer said.

Police in neighboring Germany are also reportedly concerned about the radicalization of the country's Chechen diaspora, some of whom are fighting in Syria with IS.

However, German news reports say that the authorities are particularly concerned about Chechens fighting with the Chechen-led Junud al-Sham group in Latakia province. That faction is led by an ethnic Chechen from Georgia, the veteran jihadi Muslim Abu Walid al-Shishani, who is an "idol for the Islamist scene in Germany" according to an anonymous source in Germany's domestic security agency.

-- 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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