News / Middle East

    Battle-Tested Chechens Drive Islamic State Gains

    Tarkan Bartirashvili, a.k.a. Omar al-Shishani, is credited with some of the so-called Islamic State's battlefield gains.
    Tarkan Bartirashvili, a.k.a. Omar al-Shishani, is credited with some of the so-called Islamic State's battlefield gains.
    Mike Eckel

    Among the legions of foreign fighters who have turned the Islamic State into the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization, the Chechens stand out.

    They crow on YouTube videos about battlefield successes, wave Arabic language flags referencing the war-torn Russian region, and in some cases, sport striking red beards.

    In all, hundreds of fighters from Russia’s North Caucasus, where Chechnya is located, and other Russian-speaking regions are believed to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, alongside the Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked groups like the Al-Nusra Front.

    The Chechens aren’t the largest group among the thousands of foreigners in Syria, but they may be playing an outsized role, as many, battle-hardened by years fighting Russian forces, help spearhead the Islamic State’s sweeping successes through Syria and Iraq, experts said.  

    This bodes poorly not only for U.S. efforts to roll back the Islamic State in the near term, but also could mean a new cycle of violence is looming for Russia’s long-troubled North Caucasus.

    And this may be an indication why the U.S. State and Treasury departments on Wednesday slapped new financial sanctions on several top Chechens, and the military units they lead.

    “I think that’s a reason why the Islamic State has been as successful as they’ve been,” said Bill Roggio, founder of the Long War Journal, a website that tracks jihadi groups.

    “The fighters from the Caucasus, they have experience in fighting professional militaries, the Russians, they’ve been doing guerrilla warfare for decades and this experience is translating to the battlefield," he said. "They tend to be tactically proficient.”

    “These aren’t the guys that go around occupying someone’s villa then sitting around by the swimming pool eating Snickers bars. They are hard fighters,” said Richard Barrett, senior vice president at the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting group.

    Caucasus calm

    After two wars waged by Russia since 1994, the North Caucasus has become relatively stable, free of all-out war and major terrorist attacks.

    Poverty, unemployment, corruption and rights abuses still plague the region.

    Despite Russian successes in killing the leading militants of the Chechen wars— Shamil Basayev, Ibn al-Khattab, Abu Hafs al-Hudani, Abu al-Walid, Doku Umarov— the insurgents have not given up, regrouping under a new leader reportedly based in Dagestan, immediately to the east of Chechnya.

    Many of those fighters joined the fight in Syria early on, as the uprising that began in 2011 morphed into a chaotic civil war.

    Some of the less experienced ones may have been encouraged to gain battlefield experience in Syria by the then-head of the Chechen insurgent network, Doku Umarov, according to Barrett.

    Umarov, who founded an organization known as the Caucasus Emirate in 2007, died in August 2013, possibly after being poisoned.

    Omar the Chechen

    Among those experienced fighters traveling to Syria was Tarkhan Batirashvili, whose nom de guerre is Omar al Shishani.

    Batirashvili, an ethnic Chechen, grew up in a remote part of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and served in the Georgian army, even reportedly battling the Russian armed forces during the August 2008 war.

    According to the Treasury Department, Batirashvili this year became a senior military commander for the Islamic State and a member of the Shura Council— a top consultative body to the Islamic State leadership,  including al-Baghdadi.

    The group Batriashvili used to lead, the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Supporters), or the Muhajireen Brigade, was among two groups sanctioned by the Treasury Department on Wednesday.

    Batirashvili “has assumed a very prominent military command role within IS’ Syria-based operations, with him likely being the most senior operational military commander in Syria,” said Charles Lister, a well-regarded analyst and a visiting analyst with the Brookings Doha Center think-tank, said in an email interview.

    “The large majority of IS’ most high-profile offensives on the Syrian side of the border have been connected in some way or another with (his) leadership,” he said.

    Among the successes Batriashvili has been credited with, or claimed credit for, was the Aug. 2013 seizure of the Minigh airport near Aleppo, which reportedly featured multiple suicide bombers.

    Then there’s Murad Margoshvili, known as Muslim al Shishani, who reportedly served in the air defense division of the Soviet army in Moldova and fought alongside a key leader in the Chechen terrorist circles more than a decade ago.

    Margoshvili, who heads a Chechen regiment called Junud al Sham, was one of a dozen individuals hit with State Department sanctions Wednesday. Like Batirashvili, he is notable for having a long red beard.

    Elaborately produced videos showing Margoshvili training fighters have been circulating in recent weeks on some YouTube channels.

    Another video published Sept. 2 showed Arabic-speaking fighters standing near a Russian fighter jet seized at a Syrian airbase, threatening to liberate the Caucasus from Russian control. The video is subtitled in Russian.

    Chechen rifts

    The Chechen cause in Syria is not monolithic; different groups have different loyalties, experts said.

    And Chechens traditionally have strong identification with their clans or extended family networks, which makes rivalries and turf wars common, at home or abroad.

    In Syria, Batirashvili’s decision to pledge allegiance to the head of the Islamic State created a rift among Chechen units, experts said.

    Fighters with his former unit, the Muhajireen Brigade, retained their loyalties to the Caucasus Emirate, which had ties to Al-Qaida dating back more than a decade. Lister argued that could strengthen the Caucasus Emirates’ links to Al-Qaida in the long-term.

    “I’m sure the Russians are as worried about that as anybody,” Barnett said. “Blowback is always possible. As the Islamic State gets knocked back by the U.S., there’s more of a likelihood that these fighters will be pushed back into other regions” like the Caucasus.

    “If history is any judge, you don’t take threats from a group like this, that has shown the capacity to do major attacks in the past, you don’t take these threats lightly,” Roggio said.

    VOA’s Fatima Tlisova and Anna Kalandadze contributed to this report.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments page of 2
    by: Anonymous from: Dawer
    September 27, 2014 5:12 AM
    If Chechens rise up their heads and organize uprising in Chechnya it would be very dangerous for Russia. Putin will shift his focus from Ukraine to domestic war. Russia is aggressor and it must be punished!
    In Response

    by: Dr.Lexus from: USA
    September 29, 2014 8:00 PM
    Chechens will not rise up against Russia. Chechnya is Spain of WWII, which makes future Europe, USA, and Russia new wasteland. Good luck at killing each other in unholy war.
    In Response

    by: tony from: Texas
    September 27, 2014 4:58 PM
    Amen Bro. I hope the Chechens start kickin' butt in the Caucasus against the Russians. Putin deserves a good war inside Russia. That will teach him to leave Ukraine alone.

    by: tom from: central europe
    September 27, 2014 5:11 AM
    Inconsistency - Chechens + foreigners fighting vs Russia

    Chechens fighting for Russia in Ukraine (claim by MSM)

    Al Qaeda + ISIS = Sunni, Iran, Iraq, Syria leadership mostly Shia.

    Of course the MSM in the west after series of coup d états including in EU only says stuff when all sits well with US version of events.

    It seems US wants to take Russia and China into war in Syria. Currently neither Rus nor CHN possess dollar-equivalent money printing press, so US seems only willing to intimidate/fearmonger these states to drag themselves into a war, while US will keep training 15k terrorists from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and US-axis.

    What is evident US says one thing, does another = fight terrorism by supporting it ? That would be fueling it.

    Regime change is still the thing US still wants because they want Russia out of Tartus.Remember back in the day, US called these terrorists freedom fighters and rebels, the same goes to 'moderate rebels'.

    Maybe Turkey Saudis will provide chemicals and make a false flag, then all media goes kaboom with accusing Assad for using chemical weapons which he no longer has - especially as a deterrent vs expansionist Israel. Funny thing is ISIS and other terrorists are friendly towards the fascist state Israel. When Syria bombs terrorists and upon returning Israelis shoot down the plane, they basically provide air cover for ISIS-affliliated terrorists, thus being on their side. Same for Turkey. Media are veeery silent ... ? Why ? Dont stick your nose there, thats not the part of oofficial western narrative = lie.
    In Response

    by: Andrei Bilderburger from: USA
    September 28, 2014 10:26 AM
    Yes, Chechens do fight for the Russians in the Russian army. Just like most of the barbarian leaders who successfully fought Roman legions had earlier served in the Roman army and knew its tactics well.
    In Response

    by: Cringe from: Texas
    September 27, 2014 5:20 PM
    don'tspread dumb assery, the chechens fighting for russia aren't the of the muslim militant ilk fighting in syria and iraq they are the other idiots that side with russia or russian sympathizers different idiots from the same make the stupid mistake of grouping all into one

    by: Dr.Lexus from: USA
    September 27, 2014 3:45 AM
    Behind ISIS battle hardened Chechens. gee why would they fight the USA? I mean we always helped them, right? Those ungrateful Chechens.
    "Dzhokar Dudayev, the moderate Chechen leader, was assassinated in April, 1996 by the Russian FSB thanks to technology reportedly supplied by the US National Security Agency. All the moderate Chechen leaders were assassinated, leaving only a handful of extreme militants. The US largely financed Yeltsin’s war." Eric Margolis.
    "This operation was carried out during one day – February 23, 1944. 20% died en route. Ironically, the Chechen families were transported in the American-made Studebaker trucks, provided by the allied U.S."

    Now imagine for a second what would the USA do if Chechens directly aided Al-Qaeda with weapons which killed 20% of Americans for less than 1 month, and the president of the USA?

    by: Tom Murphy from: Heartland America
    September 27, 2014 2:32 AM
    An American-born convert to Islam committed a beheading in a food processing plant in Oklahoma after he was fired from his job at that plant. Another plant employee, who was armed with a personal handgun, confronted the murderer and shot him dead. The right to bear arms must be completely implemented for all law-abiding US citizens to protect the country and eliminate terrorists and rampant criminals within the USA.
    In Response

    by: Tom Murphy from: Heartland America
    September 30, 2014 12:28 AM
    If you prefer to live in a high crime state, like the state where I was born, just pick a state with lots of restrictive laws on guns. If you prefer to have a longer life expectancy, pick a state with no restrictive laws relating to guns.
    In Response

    by: Tom Murphy from: Heartland America
    September 29, 2014 10:16 PM
    al schroeder:
    Most states, like Virginia, have no registration and no limit on magazine size. States like New York and New Jersey are in the minority. There is a background check to eliminate felons and mental cases when you buy your gun and you have to be a state resident. But the checks are not more elaborate than that. Virginia is an "open carry" state, so any gun owner can walk around with a pistol worn openly on his/her belt, but few do this because its an invitation to being attacked. "Concealed Carry" is the more popular choice and a judge issues that permit without a court appearance. If a terrorist jihadist approached you with a machete, would you want him to know? If there were 10 jihadists approaching you, would you want to be holding a weapon with a 6 or 7 round magazine?
    In Response

    by: al schroeder from: buffalo, ny
    September 28, 2014 1:04 AM
    Nothing wrong with Americans having guns. But you should be registered and your weapon a common pistol or shotgun.
    In Response

    by: Alex from: Brooklyn
    September 27, 2014 11:50 PM
    100% AGREE

    by: Seljuk from: Turkey
    September 27, 2014 1:59 AM
    That's OK, CIA, USA, Mossad etc are behind of ISIL. But, all the fighters are Muslims known where they born in differend Islamic places. Same Takfiri groups killed Imam Ali, Imam Husein as soon as Prophet Mohammed (SAV) die. Those Takfiri groups killed son in law of Prophet and his grandsons when there were not CIA, USA, Mossad etc.

    When they kill relations of prophet Mohammed (SAV), you ask abrusd questions "Why they behead and kill muslims"
    In Response

    by: tony from: Texas
    September 27, 2014 5:11 PM
    Come on. You need to get over all those prophets and their relative. Wake up and smell the coffee of the present.

    by: Mark Markiewicz from: So. Cal.
    September 27, 2014 12:47 AM
    Awww gee! And where do the Boston Marathon bombers come from? Awww gee! Isn't one of Putin's close friend and military advisor a former Chechen General. Chechnya has supplied thousands of jihadists since Iraq. Coincidence maybe?
    In Response

    by: Dr.Lexus from: USA
    September 28, 2014 9:26 AM
    Oh, no. Those are just half-Chechens who never lived in Chechnya. I can only imagine what will our brave soldiers do if they fight real Chechens. Oh, that's right they will run from them like those 2.500 US advisers in Georgia 2008 war.

    by: overblown from: Portland, Or.
    September 26, 2014 11:16 PM
    I was wondering if there was some sort of Russian tie within, what some say, this ever developing WWIII. Russia's second largest religion is Islam. Russia is slowly becoming heavily populated by Muslims. So many and so few mosques that their buts get cold while prostrating outside.
    Would the Chech rebels have some muslim recruits? I might be barking up the wrong tree. Still as the main goal for IS is to have the whole world Islam dominated then why wouldn't Islam rebel's in Russia not want to put their two cents in? If Syria and Russia are comrades as I've read then something even darker and much more ruthless than beheading is on the way.
    In Response

    by: Dr.Lexus from: USA
    September 29, 2014 7:58 PM
    You are not too bright. Russia always had Islam as 2d religion. Even Leo Tolstoy was a Muslim

    by: meanbill from: USA
    September 26, 2014 8:02 PM
    WHY won't "Voice of America" report the truth;.. [That being], the US is to totally responsible for this (ISIL) beheader army, [by recruiting, arming and training the tens of thousands of "foreign" Sunni Muslim ultra-extremists from all over the world, to wage war on the Shia Muslim government of Assad], and naïvely thinking they'd continue do that.....

    The Imam Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi came to Syria, and recruited those same "foreign" Sunni Muslim ultra-extremists from all over the world, [that the US had recruited, armed and trained], into his (ISIL) beheader army, the cornerstone of the Caliphate government he created...... [the (ISIL) beheader army, the Caliph al-Baghdadi, and his Caliphate, would never have ever existed if the US hadn't recruited, armed and trained the tens of thousands of "foreign" Sunni Muslim ultra-extremists from all over the world, to wage war on the Shia Muslim government of Assad]..... and that's an undeniable fact !!!!
    In Response

    by: Anonymous
    September 27, 2014 1:38 PM
    this is the first time I have ever heard of voice of America. They are not Americas voice. They have only taken such a name to use. America is too large and diverse. We have many voices. We are not all Republican or Democrat. We also have a communist party here and we have many independent groups. But most of America swallow the lies of the two largest political groups here in America. They follow them like sheep to slaughter. When you offer them truth and freedom; They reject it. They only know the constant social engineered lies of the loudest media (fox news, cnn, msnbc, yahoo,). All of these are influence heavily by the powers which run Washington and ultimately the U.S. and parts of the world. And I did not train a single muslim. It was not done with my consent. Our government does what it will on its own accord. Then it makes up stories to justify it. Although i do call for the death of Islam and the destruction of every Koran and the death of every muslim who refuses to repent of this evil. At the same time I call for the death of christianity and all its versions. Both Islam and Christianity are lies that bear the responsibility for millions of murders. I call for the death of christianity and the destruction of all their various books that are not Torah aligned. Any one who will not repent of the lie should be killed. And every other false religion out there. I call for their end in the same manner as I have called for the end of the lie which is Christianity and which is Islam. And I also call for an end to the Republican party and the Democratic party. They are two peas in a pod. Liars, Thieves, and extremely Selfish. I call for the end of these 2 parties in America and for the people in them 2 parties to repent of themselves and their union ties with one another in their parties. Any one who will not repent of their evil should be killed.
    In Response

    by: conlan from: Montana
    September 26, 2014 11:12 PM
    I could not have said it better. Just remember it is the pipe line they really want.
    In Response

    by: Mr A from: new York
    September 26, 2014 8:48 PM
    The united state policy maker do not have the knowledge of Islam. The united State policy maker do not the History of Islamic empire. What the Islamic empire did in the past is identical to what happen now. The united policy maker are divided to democrat and republic. Both parties are taking their decision according the lobby said. The Islamic lobby convinced the American policy maker that they are freedom fighter and they are fighting a dictator. the united state policy maker does not understand that they are replacing dictator with the devil. mistake has already made . I keep writing to senators and hoping that this terrible mistake will not be repeated in future

    by: meanbill from: USA
    September 26, 2014 6:36 PM
    The Wise Man said the US can't defeat Imam al-Baghdadi [if they believe he is a terrorist], and can't defeat the (ISIL) beheader army if they believe them to be only terrorists, [because the US wages a war on terrorists], when they are fighting a war against an ultra-extremist religious Sunni Muslim (ISIL) beheader army, [the cornerstone of the Imam al-Baghdadi Caliphate], and the Caliphate government was expertly planed and has already been put in action, and could be a model to follow for third world countries..... [And denying the Caliph and the Caliphate only hinders the US fight to defeat them].... [The US is wasting time and money, waging another losing anti-terrorist war?]....

    The Caliphate is a symbolic position and is a unifying enmity for Imam Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to use for the [Ummah] that represents a universal world order, ruled by a Caliph in accordance with the "Law of God" [the Sharia, Islamic religious Law], and gives the Caliph or Imam all the political authority regarding the Caliphate, and no authority can be delegated unless by him..... [It's a working structured Caliphate government with all the departments working, and [not] a terrorist organization].... doesn't anybody listen?

    PS;.. The only way to defeat the (ISIL) beheader army and the Caliphate of all Islam is to remember; [the Caliph or Imam has all political authority, and no authority can be delegated unless by him]..... [It now stands to reason], that if the Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has all the political authority and nothing can be delegated without him, [it only stands to reason], that if he is killed, would there be a qualified Sunni Muslim Imam successor to succeed him as the Caliph?..... [his death will end his reign as Caliph, and will the Caliphate end when he dies, or does he have a successor to replace him?]..... THE HUNT IS ON?

    by: mr a from: new york
    September 26, 2014 6:30 PM
    Fighting radical state is extended to Europe ,USA ,Australia. The cancer of Islam has spread all over the world. In new York times today ,an articles about Afghan refuges who turn to be jihadist . he was killed when he tried to stab police officer . the west has made a huge mistake by allowing afghan ,Chechen ,Somalian to resettle in the west. we do not forget the Chechen who set a bomb in Boston marathon We have to get tougher of Muslim community which become radical and pose threat to the nation. We have to stop Muslim to move in the west
    In Response

    by: FirstMan from: Boston
    September 27, 2014 3:58 AM
    You create a spiritual vacuum in the west, and something will fill it. Islam replacing the faithless west. You deny christianity that emancipated the world, you invite Islam to enslave humanity. Nature abhors a vacuum. Period.
    In Response

    by: from: usa
    September 27, 2014 12:29 AM
    Usa nor CIA nor any Western country Made ISIL to be what it is. Of course our Arming Sunni and training other Jihadists who we thought would be a help in different wars WAS STUPID. But we do it again and again because "at the time" they might have fought beside us. But this people are always and only loyal to Islam and Islam doesn't like 'Others' or the West, so sooner or later, they Use what we did against us. US did not Make those groups to be what they Qaeda, ISIL, al Nusra, Muslim Brotherhood, even FSA, all of them. Only the Kurds seem to be ok. This is another reason we should have had Russia as a partner and not Muslim Countries. Russia Knows Chechnya and even WARNED US ABOUT THE BOSTON BOMBERS a years ahead. We should never have trained al Qaeda to fight Russia. Lots of this is Corporate profit ideas and not Security ideas. We picked the wrong partners. We train the wrong people. (for Corporate profits)
    In Response

    by: hakam from: jordan
    September 26, 2014 11:52 PM
    yes as a muslim arabic, personally i am against that muslim to move into the west, and to settle their forever. but you have to remember that the policy makers in the west are not crazies to do this, because there are trillions of Dollars in the west banks are for arabic investors, and they are not crazy to let those trillions to go back to the arab countries
    Comments page of 2

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