A Chechen militant and veteran of the conflict in the Russian North Caucasus republic has reportedly been killed fighting with the Islamic State (IS) group in the northern Syrian town of Kobani.
The man, named only as Yahya, was reported as having died by a pro-jihad account on the Russian social-networking site VKontakte on January 2.
According to the VKontakte post, which included several images of the militant, Yahya had previously spent about four or five years fighting pro-Moscow forces in the Sunzhensky district of Chechnya with the Caucasus Emirate militant group.
The post says that "after [the Islamic State group] declared the Caliphate, by the grace of Allah [Yahya] was able to go to the land of the Caliphate." The IS group declared that it was establishing a "caliphate" in the lands under its control in Syria and Iraq at the end of June.
The images of Yahya include a photograph of the militant with the former leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, also known as Dokka Abu Usman. Umarov's death was reported by Caucasus Emirate sources in March 2014.
These images indicate that Yahya was an experienced militant with a background in the insurgency in Chechnya, a rather different profile than what has been seen so far among ethnic Chechens fighting with the IS group in Kobani.
There is ample evidence that ethnic Chechens linked to Umar al-Shishani, Islamic State's military commander in Syria, are among the militants fighting in Kobani, as part of the Chechen IS faction known as Katibat al-Aqsa ("the Al-Aqsa Brigade"). While it is not known exactly how many Chechens are part of Al-Aqsa, and therefore it is impossible to draw definitive conclusions about the background of its members, social-media sources, including accounts run by members of the group, suggest that many of Al-Aqsa's militants are young ethnic Chechens from the Chechen diaspora in Europe, without prior fighting experience.
Veteran Chechen militant "Yahya" in Syria
While there are a group of veteran Chechen militants fighting in Syria, most of these have tended to gravitate away from the IS group and toward independent brigades that are either loyal to the Caucasus Emirate or not opposed to it. These veteran fighters are either vocally opposed to the IS group or do not actively speak out in its favor. The most prominent of these are Salakhuddin al-Shishani, who commands Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, the Caucasus Emirate's official affiliate in Syria; Muslim al-Shishani, who leads the Latakia-based group Junud al-Sham; and Abdul Hakim al-Shishani of the Latakia-based group Khalifat Jamaat.
The presentation on social media of Yahya as an IS militant with a veteran past in the Chechen conflict is likely part of an increased push by North Caucasians in the group to exacerbate the growing rift between IS and the Caucasus Emirate, both in Syria and in the North Caucasus. The portrayal of Yahya in the social-media post makes a point of noting that the militant had formerly been a member of the Caucasus Emirate but switched to Islamic State after the "caliphate" was declared.
In recent weeks, Russian-speaking IS militants have heavily promoted the move by several Caucasus Emirate groups in Daghestan to switch their oaths of allegiance to the Islamic State group, a move that has caused considerable consternation within the Caucasus Emirate, prompting its leader, Ali Abu Mukhammad, to make a video statement condemning the defectors as traitors.
In the upcoming months, it is likely that this conflict between the Islamic State group and the Caucasus Emirate will intensify, as Islamic State militants continue their efforts to destabilize and fragment their rivals in the North Caucasus.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk