Thursday, August 25, 2016

Tracking Islamic State

Why Russian Propaganda Links Chechen Militants, IS, And Assad's Coastal Stronghold

Junud al-Sham is led by the veteran ethnic Chechen militant Muslim al-Shishani (Murad Margoshvili) from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, who fought alongside Arab foreign fighters in Chechnya. But not IS.
Junud al-Sham is led by the veteran ethnic Chechen militant Muslim al-Shishani (Murad Margoshvili) from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, who fought alongside Arab foreign fighters in Chechnya. But not IS.
By Joanna Paraszczuk

Over the weekend, reports emerged that Russian forces are expanding a military airport in Syria's coastal province of Latakia. 

This comes amid more reports of a Russian military buildup near Latakia. 

Two weeks before these reports broke, Life News, a tabloid-style Russian website with links to the security services, carried a story that appears to set the scene for these developments, warning of the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) group in Latakia. 

And in an emotional appeal to its Russian readers, it frames the "war on terror" in Latakia as an extension of Russia's own struggle against Islamic militancy in the North Caucasus.

Life News claimed IS has dispatched "natives of [Russia's North] Caucasus republics" to Latakia. "Among them are militants who took part in actions against the Russian Army during the Chechen campaigns, and then fled from Russia," it said. "Their skills aid in the development and implementation of operations in the Latakia heights."


The Life News report is based on elements of truth that have been misinterpreted -- or twisted -- to tell a particular narrative.

It is true that there are several groups of Chechen militants based in the forests of Latakia (though Life News only refers to one). And three of those groups have leaders and fighters who are known to have fought against Russian forces as part of the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus.

Indeed, North Caucasus militants in Syria like to say that Latakia is "Syria's Caucasus." They joke that fighters feel at home there, because they can hide out in the forests and mountains.

The catch is that none of the Latakia Chechen groups is connected with IS.

The three main Chechen-led groups in the Latakia mountains are Ajnad al-Kavkaz (Soldiers of the Caucasus), Junud al-Sham (Soldiers of Syria), and a much smaller group, Tarkhan's Jamaat.

Ajnad al-Kavkaz is led by Abdul-Hakim al-Shishani (Hamzat Azhiyev), who is believed to be from Prigorodnoye, a town southeast of the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Azhiyev came to Syria via Turkey after losing several fingers from his left hand in an injury sustained during the armed insurgency against Russian government forces in the North Caucasus.

A media activist with Azhiyev's group told RFE/RL earlier this year that Azhiyev had not sworn an oath of allegiance to the North Caucasus militant group the Caucasus Emirate, but would fight alongside them if he were to return to Chechnya.

Junud al-Sham is led by the veteran ethnic Chechen militant Muslim al-Shishani (Murad Margoshvili) from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, who fought alongside Arab foreign fighters in Chechnya.

Tarkhan's Jamaat is a much smaller group of fighters loyal to Chechen militant Tarkhan Ismailovich Gaziyev.

All three fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces alongside Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham -- factions that are opposed to IS.

Why Create An 'IS Threat' In Latakia?

The Life News claim that IS poses a threat in Latakia is part of Moscow's "grand narrative" about the Syrian conflict, according to which Assad is engaged in a war against extremist groups funded by external enemies.

Moscow has insisted that only the Syrian Army is capable of opposing these groups, chiefly IS. "Excluding the Syrian Army from the fight against IS is absurd," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on September 13. 

Life News makes another assertion that is based on distorted facts but which reveals a larger truth about why Moscow is helping Assad shore up his military capabilities in Latakia.

Controlling the mountains of Latakia is "not the terrorists' goal," Life News says. Instead, the Chechen-led groups have advanced into Latakia to "advance from Idlib Province...and advance into Hama Province."

This claim is misleading. All three Chechen-led militant groups in Latakia have been entrenched there for well over a year before they took part in the Idlib offensives.

What is true is the claim that rebels from Idlib could advance on Latakia. That is a very real fear for Assad (and Moscow).

A key loyalist bastion, Latakia is the home of numerous Syrian government officials -- including Assad himself. And so far, although there have been Islamist rebel offensives here -- against the Armenian town of Kessab in 2014, for example -- Syrian government supporters have by and large felt safe there.

But that is changing.

Since taking Idlib city in March, Nusra-led fighters including the Chechen groups have advanced toward Latakia. In April they took Jisr al-Shughour, on the road between Latakia city and Aleppo.

The current focus of the battle is the Al-Ghab plain, a strategic area between Latakia, Hama, and Idlib provinces, which connects Idlib with the Latakia mountains. 

If the rebels advance past Al-Ghab, Assad is in serious trouble. He cannot afford to undertake a strategic retreat from his heartland of Latakia, a fact Russia understands all too well.

Ahead of any Russian military build-up in Latakia, it is therefore convenient for Life News to conflate the presence of Chechen militants in that province with the IS threat -- even if the threat to Assad's stronghold does not come from IS.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Mamuka
September 15, 2015 00:50
Putin is going into Syria to take advantage of a wide-open situation, back up his fellow dictator Assad, and if he manages to expand some kind of anti-NATO, anti-US power structure, its a bonus for him. All this nonsense about Chechens is just a little artistic license.
In Response

by: For the NSA archives from: Canada
September 15, 2015 22:47
You make points but its important to note there is no such thing as one nation thats all good and another all bad.

There is plenty of propaganda and support for dictators going on among some in the west that claim to stand for freedom but what they really mean is nationalist sophistry posing as ethics. (e.g Saudi Arabia may be our ally against ISIS but everyone knows it really isn't much better)

The problem is western press is owned by less than 10 companies. This oligarchy situation creates an illusion of objectivity because we hear the same narrative from sources that appear different but are essentially the same small group of companies. That isn't a partisan thing either. Fox News and NY Times can both selective report facts to massage stories in order to match the political agendas of ownership.

This is how many in the west have come to the false conclusion that Russia had no prior provocations in Crimea. Seemingling "Forgotten" by many in western news sources is the prior violent overthrow of a democratically elected pro-Russian government. The highly conspiquitous failure to condemn the extreme Ukrainian nationalists that did this (they could have waited for elections) was essentially a signal to Russia that America approved and funded i
What would Americans do if Russians supported the violent overthrow of a friendly Mexican government to replace it would a pro-Russian one hostile to the United States?

Not saying that Russia is innocent here but there is lots of blame to go around. Isolating Russia rather than working to repair the damage is a mistake. The days of western hegimony to push other countries to do our bidding are coming to an end with the rise of China to eventual economic superpower (and military).

by: The Joker from: Grozny
September 15, 2015 00:53
Jabnat Al Nusra and ISIS are different like salt and pepper, lol.
Its good to see Joanna that CIA is finally running out of money if you are the best they can afford.
In Response

by: Mamuka
September 15, 2015 10:50
To quote the article: "Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham -- factions that are opposed to IS." So the article says that al-Nusra is a faction that is opposed to IS. I guess Troll-Zavod is running out of money if you are the best they can afford.
In Response

by: CIA Agent only part-time from: Somewhere niece
September 15, 2015 22:46
I see that evil has charmed you, you spend all your time calling evil good and good evil. You are trying really hard to make Al Nusra branch of Al-Qaeda moderate covering up they crimes. All terrorist are the same they just fight under different flags thats all. Muslim Brotherhood is the tree and all different terrorist organisations are its branches its not complicated. With evil on your side right now, you are winning, but soon very soon now you will be covered with your own blood. The shaitan divider will be defeated, and I will have the last laugh, all this will pass swiftly now nothing can be subtracted from it.

by: eric d. from: IF ID USA
September 15, 2015 23:53
Putin sold the West on the "international war on terror" back in the 1990s, when US news media were still describing Chechnya as "the breakaway Soviet republic," by claiming that Chechen nationalist militants were linked to an international Wahabi/Salafist jihadi movement that threatened the West. And, surprise! A militant Chechen jihadi movement (Doku Umarov & Co.) arose to fulfill Putin's self-fulfilling prophecies. And, next thing, the West (the US) finds itself dragged into an anti-jihadist terrorist war, that re-casts the Chechens as national enemies (of the US?!?), and makes Putin into an ally (Putin?!?) of the White House's international crusade against terrorism. (But whose terrorism? Putins?). Despite White House propaganda (the notorious red lines...), the West (the US) has deliberately refused to take any action against Assad, because he's still the West's Man in Damascus (against the IS, now: another self-fulfilling terrorist threat), and there's no doubt been secret deals between the White House and Putin/FSB all along, to leave Assad in power. (See The Guardian article (9/15/15) about how the West refused a Russian offer to remove Assad several years ago, before the Syrian uprising degenerated into full scale civil war.) As bad as the Islamic State is, and whatever the Chechen militants might be up to, Assad is still 10x worse, and there will be no final solution to the Syria crisis until he's gone. I'm just hoping the Russians are in Syria to put Assad on a plane to exile before the Islamic State takes Damascus, and maybe then it will be possible to stop the Islamic State from taking Syria, and end this whole nightmare, before it's too late. If it's not already...

by: Charles
September 16, 2015 05:47
So your reasoning here is to say "lifenews is wrong because these guys are not IS, but Al Qaeda! Aha!" Really?

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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