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Does IS Pose A Threat To Putin?


Umar Shishani (left), the Islamic State’s military emir for northern Syria

Umar Shishani (left), the Islamic State’s military emir for northern Syria

A report that claiming that Islamic State is "grooming" Chechen fighters against Russian President Vladimir Putin is causing some stir in the Russian media.

Bloomberg reported on October 9 that an ethnic Chechen Islamic State military commander had threatened to attack Russia. Umar Shishani, the Islamic State’s military emir for northern Syria, made the remark in a recent phone call to his father in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, according to the report.

The story, widely circulated in the Russian-language press, comes after reports in the Russian and Ukrainian media in September that an Arab Islamic State fighter had threatened Putin. The threats were made in video footage shot after Islamic State captured the Assad regime’s Taqba air base.

How credible are these threats, and rumors of threats, from Islamic State? Does Islamic State have plans to mobilize its North Caucasian and other fighters from the former Soviet Union against Russia?

At least until recently, any direct threat of "blowback" -- jihadis returning from Syria and committing terrorist acts in their home countries -- to Russia would more likely have come from North Caucasian fighters in factions other than Islamic State, particularly those linked to the Caucasus Emirate, the North Caucasian jihadi organization considered a terror group in Russia.

Part of the reason for this lies in the growing ideological split between the pro-Caucasus Emirate faction Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar and Islamic State, sparked after Jaish’s former leader, Umar Shishani, broke away from the group in December 2013 and pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

Umar Shishani has so far paid only lip service to the jihad in the North Caucasus. He said that he only joined Islamic State because its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, promised to help him send fighters back to wage jihad in Russia. However, there has been no sign of him attempting to do so, and the Caucasus Emirate leadership has criticized his decision to join Islamic State, saying that he has abandoned the jihad in the Caucasus.

Following Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate in June, some of its North Caucasian fighters openly scorned the jihadi militancy in the Caucasus, saying that all Muslims should join Islamic State and fight for the global ummah (the Muslim community) rather than waste time in parochial conflicts in distant backwaters like the Caucasus.

In any case, North Caucasian fighters who want to return home to carry out terrorist attacks or join insurgent groups face practical difficulties. Most Chechens in Syria -- both those with Islamic State and those with other factions -- traveled there because they were not able to fight at home, either because they were hunted by the security forces or because they were physically unable to reach militant groups in Daghestan or Chechnya.

However, there is a clear danger that the ideology of Islamic State could continue to spread and take hold in the Russian Federation or elsewhere, helped by Russian-language jihadi networks on social media.

Recent developments in Syria have catalyzed a new phenomenon of Chechen support for Islamic State outside of Syria, particularly in Germany. As the U.S.-led coalition bombs Islamic State positions around the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, pro-IS Chechens have clashed with Kurds in Germany, particularly in Hamburg and Celle.

Notably, Russian-language social media accounts run from Syria and associated with both Islamic State and other factions have this week urged Chechen immigrants in Germany to defend themselves against the Kurds in these clashes.

-- 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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