The head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, has lashed out at the West over what he said is an attempt to portray Chechens as terrorists in Syria.
Kadyrov announced on his Instagram account on November 2 that he had met with the Mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun and the Syrian Ambassador to Russia, Riad Haddad, in the Chechen capital, Grozny.
"[The Mufti] noted that, in the West, there is a lot of talk about some sort of Chechen brigade in Syria. The Syrian authorities have a list of Chechens who have been arrested or killed. The overwhelming majority of these are residents of Western countries, who were born there or who left 20 years ago," Kadyrov wrote.
The Chechen leader said that the West was deliberately trying to portray Chechens as "terrorists and extremists", even though there are foreign fighters from "several tens of countries" in Syria.
"The Mufti stressed that U.S. and European intelligence services are carrying out serious crimes and publicizing them, claiming that they are Chechens or Syrian forces. The Mufti is sure that in the Middle East there is a war going on against Islam. He emphasized that the United States and Europe, under the guise of fighting IS [the Islamic State group], are carrying out attacks in Syria," Kadyrov said.
Links To 'Caucasus Emirate'
This is not the first time that the Chechen leader has addressed the issue of Chechen fighters in Syria -- an unsurprising fact, given that this is a very sensitive topic for Kadyrov. His initial position in 2012 was to deny completely that there were any Chechens in Syria at all:
"Again, there are lies printed about Chechens, who are supposedly fighting in Syria. It's a falsehood. Just like they said there were Chechens fighting in Afghanistan," he tweeted in July 2012.
Despite the fact that Kadyrov has frequently denied that Chechens from Chechnya are fighting in Syria, there has been an intermittent exchange of insults and threats between the Chechen leader and various ethnic Chechen fighters in the Middle Eastern country. A number of the Chechen fighters in Syria, including Umar Shishani, Islamic State's military commander in Syria, are or were previously linked to the Caucasus Emirate, the North Caucasus-based militant group, which calls for the overthrow of the Chechen Republic and other Russian North Caucasus republics, and the establishment of an Islamic state in their stead.
Shishani, who is part ethnic Chechen from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, threatened Kadyrov in a December 2013 interview published on the Beladusham website, which is run by Chechen militants in Syria.
"To Kadyrov I want to say the following, there's enough mujahideen [militants] there [in Chechnya and the North Caucasus], but when everything is finished here, we will come for you even stronger and even more prepared," Umar Shishani was quoted as saying.
Kadyrov also reacted to the death of another Chechen militant from Pankisi, Seyfullakh Shishani, who had made a number of videos in which he threatened to go to Chechnya and attack the Chechen leader. Kadyrov praised Seyfullakh's death, calling him a "Wahhabi Satan bandit gangster." The Chechen leader boasted that it was Chechen special forces that had killed Seyfullakh (in reality, the militant was killed by shrapnel during a botched raid on the Aleppo Central Prison).
The extent of Kadyrov's sensitivity and embarrassment over the Chechen presence in Syria came to a head late last year, when it became known that the 20-year-old daughter of the head of Chechnya's Federal Migration Service, Asu Dudurkaev, had run away to Syria and joined IS militants there. Media sources said the young woman had married a young man who was fighting with IS in Aleppo. The scandal upset Kadyrov not just because it involved a senior member of his administration, but because the young woman involved directly criticized the pro-Moscow Chechen administration.
In December, a video was circulated on the Internet of an address to IS military leader Umar Shishani from Sheikh Mohammed As-Suhaibani in Medina. The Sheikh explained that, during Dudurkaeva's wedding in Syria, she was asked whether she had a father. "Oh yes, the girl replied."But he's a Sufist and he works in a department for giving foreign passports in Chechnya for the Russian regime."
WATCH: Sheikh Mohammed As-Suhaibani Addresses Umar Shishani
Kadyrov's reaction was to fire Asu Dudurkaev. The scandal, which had received some notice in the Russian media, largely disappeared from the headlines.
The Chechen leader's current stance on the issue is to deny that ethnic Chechens from Chechnya are fighting in Syria, blaming Chechens who were born or raised in the West.
Meanwhile, Chechens in Syria have also complained that the West -- and even other Islamist militant groups in Syria -- are trying to claim the Chechen name, "Shishani" in Arabic, because they think this is associated with bravery on the battlefield.
"The name "Shishani" has become a brand," one Chechen militant in Latakia said via Facebook. "Lots of people want to be a Shishani, when they are not. Umar Shishani isn't a Chechen. We call him Umar Gruzinets [Umar the Georgian]."
-- Joanna Paraszczuk