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How Many Chechens Are Fighting In Syria?

Chechen fighter Abdallah Shishani, reportedly killed in Syria in January.
Chechen fighter Abdallah Shishani, reportedly killed in Syria in January.
It is almost a year since the first reports surfaced that some Chechens, together with fighters from elsewhere in the Russian Federation, had joined the ranks of the armed opposition to Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad. Since then, Western journalists have met with some of those Chechen fighters, and video footage of them has been posted on YouTube. While their numbers remain unclear, it seems that by no means all of them traveled to Syria directly from Chechnya.

There may, in fact, be as many as four separate categories of Chechens in Syria -- or even five, if an unconfirmed recent report that a detachment of the Chechen security forces is fighting in Aleppo on the side of Assad is indeed true.

The first category are the battle-hardened veterans of the North Caucasus insurgency. It has been suggested, but not proven, that Qatar and Saudi Arabia financed the recruitment of those experienced former insurgents because "the Chechens are regarded as the best of the jihadist fighters."

"The Guardian" profiled in September 2012 a brigade of fighters that included Chechens, together with fighters from Libya, Tajikistan, Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. The author of that article described the Chechen fighters as "older, taller, and stronger" than their comrades in arms, many of whom clearly lacked any previous combat experience. He further noted that the Chechens "carried their weapons with confidence and distanced themselves from the rest, moving around in a tight-knit unit-within-a-unit," suggesting that many have been members of the North Caucasus insurgency.

The second category is Kists -- members of Georgia's Chechen minority from the Pankisi Gorge close to the Georgian-Chechen border. Two of the Chechen commanders in Syria, Abu Omar al-Chechen (the commander of the brigade profiled by "The Guardian") and Saifullah, are reportedly from Pankisi.

One of those fighters from Pankisi, who gave his name as Abu Hamza, told a Western journalist two months ago that he was motivated to travel to Syria and join the opposition by video footage on the Internet of Syrian government forces killing innocent women and children. The Georgian-Russian border is so tightly controlled that it is far easier for the Kists to travel to Syria than to enter Chechnya to join the North Caucasus insurgency.

The third category is young Chechens from among the estimated 250,000 who left Chechnya since the beginning of the first war in 1994 and settled in Europe and elsewhere. Abu Hamza said most of the Chechens he encountered during the several months he spent in Syria were from this category.

Pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has confirmed that young Chechens from Europe are fighting in Syria. He claims some of them, from low-income families, were attracted by the prospect of "violence and looting," while others were victims of a concerted effort by Western intelligence services to recruit fighters by means of jihadist websites. Last summer, Kadyrov had affirmed that if young Chechen refugees in Europe wanted to take up arms they would travel to the North Caucasus to join the insurgency.

The fourth category is young Chechens from the Chechen Republic who either abandoned their studies at Middle Eastern universities to fight in Syria or managed to leave Chechnya with the explicit aim of joining the Syrian opposition forces.

Kadyrov categorically denied last summer that any "Russian citizens from the Chechen Republic" were fighting in Syria. But over the past two months he has admitted on several occasions that Chechens from both Chechnya and the émigré community in Europe and Turkey had traveled to Syria to fight.

On May 6, Kadyrov implied that the latter category far outnumber the former: he said "a few" Chechens from Chechnya were fighting in Syria, and that "hundreds" from Europe and Turkey had been killed. Two weeks later, however, Kadyrov said "just a few" Chechens from Europe had been killed in the fighting.

The exodus of young men from Chechnya intent on fighting in Syria was discussed at a session of Chechnya's Economic and Social Security Council on June 6. The website Kavkaz-Uzel quoted an unnamed member of that body as saying 29 Chechens have left Chechnya for Syria, seven of whom have been killed. That source did not specify a time frame. He did say, however, that those who left were mostly aged between 25 and 30, which contradicts Kadyrov’s repeated claims that the men in question are immature adolescents seduced by recruitment videos posted on the Internet.

The true number of Chechens who have headed to Syria to fight may be even larger. Kavkaz-Uzel quoted a representative of a local NGO as saying he knows of some 30 who have left, while an unnamed cleric suggested the true figure could run into dozens, or even hundreds. Predictably, the Chechen authorities are reportedly exerting pressure on the parents of those young men to persuade them to return to Chechnya.

Federal Security Service head Aleksandr Bortnikov told journalists earlier this month that some 200 militants from the Russian Federation are fighting on the side of the "terrorists" in Syria. He did not, unfortunately, give any indication how many are from which republic.

Last fall, the insurgency website Kavkaz Center reported that there were 150 fighters from the "Caucasus Emirate" in Syria, divided into four brigades. One of those brigades is from Kabardino-Balkaria.

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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