A court in Nalchik, the capital of the Russian republic of Karbardino-Balkaria, jailed a resident of the republic on February 25 for 18 months for fighting in Syria with the Caucasus Emirate, a North Caucasus-based militant Islamist group.
The Kabardino-Balkaria man convicted in Nalchik was not named. According to the Caucasian Knot news website, the defendant, a Nalchik native, joined the Caucasus Emirate in Syria in 2014. The Nalchik man was tasked with carrying an automatic weapon and guarding the house where the militants lived.
The Nalchik court ruling is unprecedented in that it is the first case involving a Russian national fighting in Syria that has explicitly referred to the Caucasus Emirate's Syrian branch. Cases in which Russian nationals from elsewhere in the North Caucasus, specifically the Chechen Republic, have avoided referring to the Caucasus Emirate in Syria at all. The court did not, however, refer to the Caucasus Emirate's branch in Syria by its name, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), although it did name the group's leader, Salakhaddin al-Shishani.
The defendant pleaded guilty to the charges and was convicted of counts of participating in fighting in Syria in an armed formation not permitted by Syrian law and in a manner contrary to the interests of the Russian Federation.
The court did not reveal where the Nalchik resident was in Syria, but it is possible to surmise this from details provided by reports of the court case. JMA's base is in Haritan in Aleppo Province, north of Aleppo city, and it is likely therefore that the defendant was based there.
According to the Republic Information Agency of Kabardino-Balkaria, the Nalchik Prosecutor's Office said that the defendant traveled to Syria in February 2014 from Egypt via Turkey.
However, just a few short weeks after arriving in Syria and joining JMA, the defendant left that armed group in March 2014 and joined the Islamic State group, after which he spent a month fighting Syrian government forces.
The defections by militants from JMA to the Islamic State group in March 2014 exacerbated what had been a growing split between JMA and North Caucasian fighters in the IS group and were documented on Russian-language forums run by pro-JMA and pro-IS factions. The defections came after the previous leader of JMA, Umar al-Shishani, left that faction to join the IS group in late November 2013. Those members of JMA who did not want to switch their oath of allegiance from the Caucasus Emirate to IS group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remained in JMA.
However, the IS group publicized the defections by having the defectors release a video in which they spoke about the reasons why they left JMA for IS, saying that they had made the move because JMA was in an alliance with "democratic" forces from the Free Syrian Army.
The court case also sheds light on what happens to North Caucasian IS militants who are wounded in battle.
The court said that the defendant had been wounded in an accident in May 2014, when he was transporting ammunition. The defendant was no longer able to take part in fighting and in August, after a course of medical treatment, he left Syria for Azerbaijan and then Belarus. In Belarus, however, he was deported to Russia and arrested.
The court did not specify where the defendant was treated after his accident, but it is likely to have been Turkey. It is also not clear why he was arrested in Belarus and whether the arrest was because the defendant's name had been on a wanted list.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk