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Why The Death Of A Chechen Media Activist In Iraq Suggests IS May Be In Trouble


IlyasDeniev pictured in Mosul in 2014.

IlyasDeniev pictured in Mosul in 2014.

Last week, social media accounts run by Chechen militants fighting alongside the Islamic State (IS) group announced that one of their group had been killed in a clash with Iraqi government troops in Baiji.

The militant, an ethnic Chechen who appeared to have been in his early 20s, was named Ilyas Deniev and is thought to be from the Chechen Republic.

Deniev went under the nom de guerre Sayfullakh Shamsky and was associated with the main Chechen-led faction in IS, a group known as Katibat al-Aqsa (KAA). KAA has fought in a number of high-profile IS offensives in Syria, including at the Taqba Airbase in Raqqa Province and in Kobani.

On the surface, Deniev's death appears to be straightforward, easy to understand -- and not particularly significant in the grand scheme of things. The young IS militant died, his associates said, when he was hit by fire from a "Dushka," the Russian rather ironic nickname (it means "Dearie") for a DShK 1938 Soviet heavy machine gun used by the Iraqi military.

Yet to those familiar with Chechen militants in IS, there are several odd things about Deniev's demise in Baiji, discrepancies that together can be read as possible clues to a bigger truth about IS.

In fact, the death of Deniev is an indicator that all is not well with IS, and that the extremist group is struggling on the battlefield in both Iraq and Syria, amid ongoing U.S.-led air strikes, attacks from Kurdish YPG and Peshmerga militias, Shi'ite forces and Iraqi government forces.

Before we examine Deniev's role in the battle of Baiji, it is important to note the first odd thing about his death -- the fact that KAA were fighting at Baiji at all.

While Chechen and other North Caucasian militants have been spotted in Iraq, the reports of the death of Deniev in the offensive in Baiji was the first time that the Chechen-led IS faction has been reported to be fighting in Iraq.

Why had IS sent KAA, which has until now fought in northern Syria, to bolster its Iraq-based militants in their struggle to maintain a hold on the Baiji oil refinery?

This seems to indicate that IS needed all the men it could get for its Baiji offensive. IS stormed the refinery -- Iraq's largest -- late on April 11, and by April 12 said its fighters controlled part of Baiji, though Iraqi government forces denied that claim.

The storming of Baiji came at a sensitive time for IS, just two weeks after the gunmen were routed from the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit, just 40 kilometers from Baiji.

IS's assault on Baiji was about more than restoring lost pride after losses at Tikrit, however. By controlling Baiji, IS could inflict significant amounts of lost oil revenues on the Iraqi government, while filling its own coffers.

IS's decision to send a Syria-based Chechen battalion to Baiji indicates two things: that the assault was very important to IS and that it needed extra reinforcements to boost its forces at the oil refinery. That this was very likely the case becomes even more apparent when we examine the case of Deniev's presence at the offensive.

The most striking thing about Deniev's presence on the front lines of a major IS offensive in Iraq was that the young Chechen was not actually a fighter at all.

A picture of Deniev created from examining his social media postings and those of others shows that he was a young Chechen who appears not to have had any prior military experience before coming to Syria. Neither did Deniev appear to take part in IS offensives with KAA.

The most important fact about Deniev is his role in IS and in KAA. Deniev was not a militant who went out and fought in offensives, but rather one of the group's "media mujahedin," who played an important role in running the Sham Today media wing.

A "death notice" for Deniev published by Sham Today says that he was the leader of the "Sham Today Studio."

Sham Today emerged in 2013 on social media, predominantly on the Russian-language social networking site VKontakte. The group was run by, and for, North Caucasian and other Russian-speaking militants in IS and their sympathizers. Although Sham Today's account was banned by VKontakte last year, the group has not only remained active but has increased the volume of its postings and its outreach activities. Sham Today has done this primarily via opening new accounts on VKontakte, as well as running regular lectures on other platforms, mainly the Zello "walkie-talkie" social network, which allows members to talk to each other over the internet.

Deniev's role in Sham Today is a likely explanation for why he has been photographed in a number of places under IS control -- particularly in Mosul, Iraq -- even though KAA had apparently not fought in offensives there.

The fact that IS sent Deniev, a media activist who apparently had no frontline experience, to fight in an important offensive in Baiji suggests that the militant group are short of men and needed all the help -- including "cannon fodder" like Deniev -- that they could muster.

Not much is known about Deniev's background, although a few facts can be gleaned from his and others' social media postings.

It seems that Deniev was radicalized in Chechnya, possibly in Grozny. A photograph of Deniev before his radicalization shows him in an urban setting with Russian-language store signs in the background. Deniev also appears to have been personally known to at least one other member of KAA before he came to Syria. One of the KAA commanders, a militant known as Abu Umar Grozny or Abdulmalik Magomadov, posted two photos of Deniev before he came to Syria.

Deniev was not alone in Syria. As well as his "brothers" in KAA, the young Chechen had a baby daughter, Khadija, with whom he appears in a number of photographs. His wife, however, is not shown in any of the pictures.

Deniev appears to have been a popular figure among his fellow North Caucasian militants, who nicknamed him Sayfullakh Krasavchik, ("Sayfullakh the Dreamboat") on account of his good looks.

In some of the photographs of Deniev in Syria and Iraq, he looks less like a militant in an extremist Sunni group and more like a young man snapped on his first holiday abroad with his friends. In one snap, Deniev poses in a Manchester City football shirt and large shades in front of what looks like the Euphrates river. In another, taken in the summer of 2014 after IS took over Mosul, Deniev is standing in front of that city's famous Grand Mosque of Al-Nuri wearing a decidedly nontraditional item of headgear -- a baseball cap with the slogan "Bad Boy" written across it.

Deniev's baseball cap offers another possible hint about his past in Chechnya, as well as about his personality. The Bad Boy company makes clothing for Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, fighters. MMA is a popular sport in Chechnya and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, and several young men from the region who have joined IS in Syria have been involved with MMA or freestyle wrestling.

-- 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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