"Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, this town awaits your holy army!"
The message to the leader of the Islamic State (IS) militant group is scrawled in Russian across a rectangular scrap of paper, in careful script that evokes a high-school love note. It was photographed outside the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque in the Chechen capital, Grozny, and shared widely on pro-IS social media this week.
The photograph is part of a trend among pro-IS Chechens of sharing images of handwritten messages to the militants.
Another such message, photographed on an unidentifiable street purportedly in the Chechen Republic, is dated June 2 and addresses the "warriors of the Islamic State."
"I swear by Allah, we are waiting for you in Chechnya!" it reads.
While Baghdadi himself has not acknowledged the messages, Chechen militants in Syria and Iraq have responded.
On June 7, a photo response was posted on the pro-IS "Cyber Djihad" page on VKontakte. The picture shows a balaclava-clad militant holding aloft a ring-bound notepad with a message written in Russian.
"Be patient, o brothers and sisters," the message begins. "Inshallah [God willing] the day is not far off when the banner of Islam will hang in Dzhokhar and Shari'a law will be on the streets," it continues, using an alternative name for Grozny that was adopted by rebels in 1997 and is still used by certain factions, including the Caucasus Emirate militant group.
The IS response also threatened violence and beheadings in Chechnya. "Heads will fly from those who tear off the hijabs of the sisters and pluck the beards of the brothers," it warns.
It is tempting to see these Chechen messages and the IS threats of violence as a sign of a dangerous new development, in which IS militants in Syria and Iraq are actively seeking to carry out attacks inside Chechnya.
And on the surface at least, these messages -- particularly the threats made by Chechen IS militants in Iraq -- echo calls by IS fighters from other countries who have threatened to carry out attacks in their home countries and called on local Muslims to do so.
But rather than being a novel threat from IS, these messages and threats are really just the latest development in an ongoing conflict between the authorities and Islamist rebels in Chechnya.
Part of that conflict has now been displaced to Syria and Iraq, even though IS's Chechen militants are supposed to eschew the conflict in the Caucasus and instead fight to maintain Baghdadi's self-declared "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq. According to IS's ideology, militants should fight for the good of the "ummah" or global Muslim community of believers, not for local, "nationalist" causes.
But as these messages show, while IS's Chechen militants are no longer in the Caucasus, many have retained an emotional connection with the struggle to overthrow Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed strongman who heads Chechnya, and establish an "Islamic state" in his stead.
Hitting Out At Kadyrov
The Chechen messages calling for IS to take over Grozny are a direct challenge to Kadyrov's control of the Chechen Republic. So it is no coincidence that one of the messages was photographed in front of a powerful symbol of that rule.
The inclusion of the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque in a message calling on IS to invade Grozny is an attack on Kadyrov himself, his pro-Kremlin stance, and his attempts to legitimize his rule by promoting traditionalist, Sufi Islam, a branch of religion that IS and other Salafist Islamist groups despise.
Dubbed the "heart of Chechnya," the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque's minarets dominate the center of Grozny.
It is named for Ramzan Kadyrov's father, the pro-Moscow first president of the Chechen Republic, who was assassinated by Islamist militants in May 2004 in what was seen as a tremendous blow to the Kremlin's Chechen policy. Vladimir Putin was present at the mosque's opening ceremony in October 2008, when Kadyrov said that the Chechen people had "defended the integrity of Russia and the purity of Islam."
The Chechen messages to IS have been heavily promoted on social media by the extremist group's Russian-language media activists, particularly by Murad Atajev, a Daghestani preacher based in Berlin.
The promotion can also be seen as part of wider efforts by IS's Russian-speaking faction in Syria and Iraq to gain support for IS in the North Caucasus and usurp its rival, the Caucasus Emirate.
Rather than criticize the Caucasus Emirate as it has in the past, IS's strategy in the past few weeks has been to portray itself as a powerful force that supports the militant struggle in the North Caucasus.
Battling IS In Russia
Kadyrov has not -- yet -- responded directly to the messages from IS. But two weeks ago, he warned that IS posed a threat to Russia, particularly because young people were being recruited to the group.
However, the Chechen strongman accused "enemies of Russia" of trying to stir up fears of danger in Chechnya. Russia's enemies "want to see a war-torn Chechnya," Kadyrov said. "They want there to be thunderous explosions and gunshots heard here every day. And when they see peace and order here in Chechnya, they pull information out of nowhere and talk about some kind of mythical danger and aggravation of the situation."
Previously, Kadyrov has insisted that Chechnya does not have an IS problem, saying that Chechens fighting in Syria and Iraq were from the European diaspora and claiming that the West had recruited Chechen youth to fight alongside IS.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk