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North Caucasus Fighters in Syria Pledge Allegiance to Umarov's Successor

Estimates of the number of Chechens and other North Caucasians fighting in Syria vary hugely, ranging from hundreds to thousands. (file photo)
Estimates of the number of Chechens and other North Caucasians fighting in Syria vary hugely, ranging from hundreds to thousands. (file photo)
The North Caucasus insurgency website Kavkazcenter has posted a statement in the name of militants from the North Caucasus fighting in Syria pledging support for Aliaskhab Kebekov (aka Ali Abu-Mukhammad), who recently succeeded Doku Umarov as head of the North Caucasus Emirate that Umarov proclaimed in 2007.

That statement is signed by Abdul-Khalim Ash-Shishani, a member of the Shariat Committee of, and a spokesman for, the Djeish Mukhadjirin va Ansar (Brigade of Migrants and Ansars ) group that is comprised of foreign fighters, primarily from Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus.

Ash-Shishani expresses regret at Umarov's death, but adds that the news that Kebekov, the "elder brother and mentor of the [Caucasus] Emirate's Muslim youth," had been chosen to succeed him was "healing balsam to Muslims' bleeding hearts." In the name of his fighters, Ash-Shishani pledges allegiance to Kebekov for as long as he abides by the teachings of the Koran.

Addressing Kebekov, Ash-Shishani further affirms the readiness of his men to return to the North Caucasus to fight under Kebekov's command. He declares "Know, Oh Sheikh, that you have fighters on the territory of the North Caucasus and Sham [Syria], on the territory of other countries, and they are all ready to return home at the first opportunity and fight under your leadership."

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has publicly expressed concern at the possibility that Chechens and other North Caucasians currently fighting in Syria might return to Russia to wage jihad there. He claimed that there are "thousands" of militants in Syria who post video footage on a daily basis declaring their readiness to move on to the North Caucasus once the fighting in Syria ends.

Estimates of the number of Chechens and other North Caucasians fighting in Syria vary hugely. Riad Haddad, the Syrian ambassador in Moscow, said in December 2013 that there were 1,700 fighters from Chechnya alone. Russian journalist Orkhan Djemal gives a far lower figure of 200-400 from the entire Russian Federation, including those from Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.

By his own admission, it was in Syria that Kebekov studied Islamic theology. According to Djemal, Kebekov studied there in the early 2000s under his own nephew, Murtuzali Magomedov. It was, Djemal writes, Magomedov's unresolved killing in 2009 that impelled Kebekov to join the insurgency.

One of Kebekov's first public statements in his capacity as Caucasus Emirate head was addressed to militants from the North Caucasus fighting against government forces in Syria. He recalled that he had warned them before their departure for Syria that "we do not want you to form a detachment named 'Imarat Kavkaz,'" but instead to join the foremost group fighting under the banner of monotheism, subordinate themselves to its commander, and not allow themselves to be drawn in to any dispute among the various anti-Assad forces.

Addressing all militants in Chechnya, especially those from the Caucasus, Kebekov appeals to them "do not on any account take part" in the fighting between Al-Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Shams (ISIS) and more moderate groups. Djeish Mukhadjirin va Ansar commander Salakhuddin Shishani said in a January interview that his men maintain strict neutrality in that conflict, although they have provided medical care to wounded ISIS fighters.

In the two weeks since the insurgency publicly confirmed that Umarov had indeed been killed and Kebekov chosen by his peers as his successor, four more formal pledges of allegiance to him have been posted on insurgency websites. They were issued in the name of the group of fighters in the Daghestani capital, Makhachkala; the insurgency wings in Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria; and "fighters of the Chechnya Vilayet." There is no way of knowing whether the latter category includes the small group of Chechen fighters who maintain that Umarov's proclamation of the Caucasus Emirate was not justified under Shari'a law.

-- Liz Fuller

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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