A Russian citizen arrested and acquitted by a court in Georgia in connection with the so-called Lopota Gorge incident of 2012 has apparently surfaced in Syria as the commander of a Russian-speaking Islamic State battalion.
Akhmed Chatayev, also referred to as Akhmed al-Shishani, is an ethnic Chechen who was previously granted refugee status in Austria. He was arrested by Georgian forces in September 2012 in the Lopota Gorge and was named by the Georgian Foreign Ministry as a member of the armed group that clashed with Georgian special forces in August 2012.
At least 14 people were killed in the incident, including 11 members of the armed group and three members of the Georgian special forces.
Chatayev, who before his arrest had lived with his family in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, was put on trial in Tbilisi on charges of illegal weapons possession and of purchasing and carrying an explosive device. Chatayev pleaded innocent. His lawyers argued that Chatayev had gone to the Lopota Gorge in order to take part in negotiations that never took place.
Akhmed Chatayev leaving a Tbilisi court on December 6, 2012.
The Tbilisi city court declared Chatayev innocent in January 2013 after releasing him on bail in December 2012, after which the Russian national said that he planned to fly back to Austria.
Whether Chatayev went to Austria or not is unclear, but a recent video uploaded to YouTube and shared on February 20 shows a man who appears to be Chatayev and who is named as such, in Syria. The text accompanying the video says that Chatayev is the commander of the Yarmouk Battalion, a Chechen faction in the Islamic State group. It is not known how long Chatayev has been in Syria, but he has not appeared in previous videos shared by Russian-speaking Islamic State militants.
Chatayev appears alongside the notorious Islamic State militant Abu Jihad, a close confidante of the militant group's commander in Syria, Umar al-Shishani. Abu Jihad was named by the Russian outlet Kavkaz Press as Islam Seit-Umarovich Atabiyev from the village of Ust'-Dzheguta in the North Caucasus Republic of Karachai-Cherkessia. According to Kavkaz Press, Abu Jihad previously studied in Egypt and came to Syria in late 2011.
In the three-minute video, which bears the logo of the Russian-language pro-Islamic State website FiSyria, Chatayev greets militants in Daghestan who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in December.
Chatayev says that the Islamic State group in Syria rejoiced when they heard the news that "almost every mujahid (militant) in Daghestan had pledged allegiance."
The Chechen militant then speaks in Chechen, greeting those militants in Chechnya who switched allegiance from the North Caucasus-based militant group the Caucasus Emirate to the Islamic State group.
"By Allah, when we received the news from the brothers, we greatly rejoiced, many brothers were very glad. First and foremost, you have fulfilled your duty before Allah and all the brothers say, 'Salam aleikum' (greetings) to you," Chatayev said.
Chatayev called on those militants in Chechnya who had not yet declared allegiance to the Islamic State group to do so.
"If a man gives an oath of allegiance and later on leaves that oath -- here I'm talking about an oath to the caliphate [the name given by the Islamic State group to the areas under its control], he who breaks his oath will stand before Allah on Judgement Day without any justification," he warned.
According to the account that uploaded the video of Chatayev and Abu Jihad onto YouTube, there are now three Chechen-led battalions in the Islamic State group.
The first, and best-known, is Umar al-Shishani's Katibat al-Aqsa, which has fought in Kobani.
The second is the Yarmouk Battalion, led by Chatayev.
And the third is named as the Muwahiddeen (Monotheists) Battalion, led by a Chechen militant named Khattab al-Shishani. Khattab al-Shishani has appeared in at least one video published in February 2014, in which he calls on militants in the North Caucasus to come to Syria and join the Islamic State group.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk