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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.

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.