Daghestani militants from Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate have accused the Islamic State (IS) group of conning new recruits with misleading hype and spin.
IS claims to have established a "state" in the vast swaths of land it has captured in Iraq and Syria are nothing more than "a mirage and illusion in HD format on the screens of your gadgets," a group of Daghestani militants from Jabhat al-Nusra said.
"We started to understand that the IS that is propagandized via the Internet is one thing, but the real IS is a different thing altogether," they said in a recent interview with Nusra's new Russian-language media wing, White Minaret.
They warned would-be recruits not to be taken in by IS's slick propaganda campaign, which both governments and rival militant groups are struggling to neutralize.
"We advise you to get less information from YouTube videos and learn the fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] and listen to the opinion of genuine scholars," they said.
The Daghestani militants fight alongside an Uzbek-led group within Nusra, Katiba Sayfullah. Its members include Chechens and Daghestanis as well as Arabic-speaking fighters. Nusra has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The White Minaret interview offers important insights onto how militants are being recruited in the North Caucasus, and the power of IS propaganda to attract them.
It is also part of a new wave of counterpropaganda by Russian-speaking Islamist militants in Syria who are pushing back against an aggressive recruitment campaign waged by IS, particularly in Daghestan.
The militants claim to be veteran fighters who "waged jihad" in Daghestan against "the Russian infidels and their puppets." They said IS propagandists then recruited them to go to Syria.
It was easy for them to travel to IS-controlled territories in Syria via Turkey, from where -- like many foreign recruits -- IS had arranged for them to be taken straight from Turkey to Raqqa, its de facto capital in Syria, they said.
But they never reached Raqqa. During the trip, they said, the new recruits met a group of Daghestani militants who had arrived earlier and who "know how to leave IS territory."
Al-Qaeda vs. IS
The Daghestani militants appear primarily to object to IS's brutality and what they claimed is its misinterpretation of Islamic law and its rejection of Al-Qaeda scholars.
As an example of IS brutality, they talked about the "cold-blooded murder of a Muslim from among the Ansars [local Syrian fighters]."
The Syrian militant reportedly asked IS to allow him to read a prayer and make the Muslim declaration of faith before his execution-style slaying. But IS not only refused but also "carried out the execution themselves without any Shari'a court," the militants said.
IS also sent suicide bombers to "undermine Shari'a scholars" in Idlib province by blowing up mosques there, the Daghestanis claim. Nusra controls much of Idlib province following a large-scale offensive against Syrian government forces earlier this year.
"It's interesting that there isn't a word about the suicide bombings on any Russian-language site. Many brothers from the Caucasus and Russia simply don't know what these Kharijites are doing," the Daghestanis said, using a derogatory term for IS militants.
That these Al-Qaeda-aligned militants are concerned about IS recruitment in Daghestan is clear from their comments about the recent influx into IS of Dagestani preachers and Salafist ideologues including Nadir Abu Khalid, Kamil Abu Sultan, and Akhmad Medinsky.
These individuals are "very popular among the young people in the Caucasus, they listen to their lectures and share them," the Daghestanis said.
The interview also promotes Al-Qaeda as the "correct" alternative for would-be "jihadis" who want to fight in Syria.
The Dagestanis said they had joined Al-Qaeda in Syria because the group are "veterans of jihad who have fought with the infidels for 25 years already" and which has branches in a number of countries.
New Concerns, New Trends
The interview is part of a new trend among Russian-speaking militants fighting alongside Islamist groups aligned with, or part of, Nusra who are criticizing IS propaganda and accusing the group of atrocities.
It comes as IS is emerging as the dominant recruiting force in the North Caucasus, threatening the recruitment abilities of the smaller groups from the North Caucasus in Syria.
This situation is likely to persist given IS's increased efforts -- led by the ethnic Karachay ideologue Abu Jihad in Iraq -- to push Russian-language propaganda efforts, including via the group's new Russian media wing, Furat.
Nusra, which has crushed Syrian rebel groups that have received Western training and last week claimed to have kidnapped the leader of the Western-aligned Division 30 group, has been blacklisted by the United States as a terrorist organization. U.S.-led raids have targeted the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria on numerous occasions.