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Uzbek, Chechen Militant Groups Fight Alongside Islamists In Major Syrian Offensive

The footage is shot from a moving vehicle and shows groups of militants in the center of Jisr al-Shughour following its capture.

The footage is shot from a moving vehicle and shows groups of militants in the center of Jisr al-Shughour following its capture.

An ethnic Uzbek militant group has posted a video showing its members fighting alongside Syrian Sunni Islamist factions in the northwestern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib Province.

The group Tawhid wal Jihod (TWJ), which is also known as Jannat Oshiklari, posted the video on YouTube and on its website on April 25.

The TWJ video footage is shot from a moving vehicle and shows groups of militants in the center of Jisr al-Shughour following its capture. Some of the militants are shown in armored vehicles. A small number of civilians, including women and children, are also seen out on the streets.

TWJ militants are heard shouting in Uzbek, saying that "with Allah's will we have conquered the city of Shughour" and "with Allah's will we are given ghanimah (war booty)."

A number of allied Islamist factions, including Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) and the hard-line Ahrar al-Sham group, captured Jisr al-Shughour on April 25.

The capture of Jisr al-Shughour, the last major town held by Syrian government forces in Idlib Province, comes after Islamist militants took over Idlib city last month.

Jisr al-Shughour is in a key strategic location on the road between the cities of Latakia and Aleppo. The town had been a main Muslim Brotherhood stronghold in the 1980s.

The group of Islamist factions who united to capture Jisr al-Shughour calls itself Jaish al-Fatah. According to The Guardian, the two main groups in the alliance, JAN and Ahrar al-Sham, which is backed by Turkey, "share much of Al-Qaeda's worldview."

A Chechen-led group, Junud al-Sham, also took part in the Islamist offensive against Jisr al-Shughour. Junud al-Sham is led by the veteran ethnic Kist militant Murad Margoshvili, who is better known by his nom de guerre Muslim Shishani. Margoshvili, whose militant "pedigree" includes a history fighting in Chechnya alongside Arab foreign fighters, had previously been conspicuous by his absence from the Syrian battlefield, prompting questions as to whether he had been injured or even killed.

A video of Margoshvili in Jisr al-Shughour was posted on social media by Junud al-Sham's media activists earlier this week.

That TWJ and Junud al-Sham have joined the JAN-led Islamist alliance in Idlib Province is not surprising. Both foreign fighter factions subscribe to a similar hard-line, Al-Qaeda inspired Islamist worldview as Ahrar al-Sham and JAN.

Both TWJ and Junud al-Sham have fought alongside Syrian Islamist groups previously -- TWJ in Aleppo Province and Junud al-Sham in Latakia Province.

Junud al-Sham had previously announced its intention to merge with Ahrar al-Sham, though it quickly retracted that announcement. The reasons for the retraction were never given, though it was likely to do with a dispute between Junud al-Sham leader Margoshvili and Islamic State-linked North Caucasus militants.

TWJ's website includes video footage of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri.

TWJ has been banned in Kyrgyzstan, where some Kyrgyz officials have said that the republic's minority ethnic Uzbeks are the majority of Kyrgyz nationals fighting in Syria.

-- 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