May 31, 2015 / /
The other day we were discussing the Islamic State’s (IS) expansion into the Caucasus region with our good friends at American Jihad Watch, who pointed out that the al-Hayat Media Center (HMC) had established a Russian language magazine titled “ISTOK” or “the Source.” The first big shout out IS gave to the Caucasus was in Dabiq #7, but ISTOK is important because its specifically catering to the people in that region. None of this is surprising since the best fighters in the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra ranks are Chechens. Chechen fighters are so prized for their fighting prowess that the IS Military OPs Emir is a Chechen (Omar al-Shishani aka “the Ginger Jihadist”). We assess that this is the first phase of IS’ engagement strategy to establish a permanent presence in the Caucasus and fill the void being left by Imarat Kavkaz (IK), a jihadist organization that represents Russia’s primary terror threat – but has been in decline since 2013. In this piece we’ll take a look at why the intelligence community may want to take a closer look into what these guys are about, and why IS’ interest in the region is significant.
Cover of ISTOK Magazine
Source: American Jihad Watch
Screen shot taken from Dabiq #7
Source: Dabiq #7
Another screen shot of ISTOK Magazine
Source: American Jihad Watch
So what exactly is IK, anyway? IK is a jihadist organization that was established in 2007 by Doku Umarov, who the Russians had dubbed the “Osama bin Laden of the Caucasus.” The group’s goal is to expel the Russians from the North Caucasus and establish an “Islamic Emirate.” For years IK had been causing trouble in Russia executing attacks throughout Chechnya, Ingushtia, Dagestan – even Moscow itself.
Profile: Caucasus Emirates
Six North Caucasus Insurgency Commanders Transfer Allegiance To Islamic State
Pro-Rebel Website Posts Transcript of Interview with Doku Umarov
Source: The Fine Report
Here’s the highlights from the more recent attacks:
– DEC 2014 Grozny fighting.
– DEC 2013 Volgograd Bombings.
– OCT 2013 Volgograd Bus Bombing.
– The Boston Bombers were inspired by IK. Other reporting suggests that they had received training at a camp run by IK’s Dagestan Viliyat. Its worth noting that this same IK faction has since pledged allegiance to IS.
– 2012 Makhachkala Attack – 13 people killed.
-Domodedovo International Airport Bombing that killed 36 people.
– 2010 Moscow Metro Bombings that resulted in 39 people dead and over 100 wounded.
– 2009 Nevsky Express Bombing. A second bomb was detonated the following day near the site of the first attack.
North Caucasus group in Russia train bomb web claim
Top detective hurt in second blast at train crash site
Chechen rebel claims Moscow attacks
Moscow bombing: Carnage at Russia’s Domodedovo airport
Twin bomb attacks kill 12 in Russia’s Dagestan
Female suicide bomber attacks Russian bus, kills six
Dead Boston bomb suspect posted video of jihadist, analysis shows
Terrorism in the Caucasus and the Threat to the US Homeland
Assessing Terrorism in the Caucasus and the Threat to the Homeland
Female suicide bomber attack in Volgograd, Russia, as Sochi Winter Olympics approach
Gun battles erupt in Chechnya’s capital after militants launch attack
Indeed the group was a serious threat to Russian security for several years. However, the tide began to turn in favor of Putin when a major crackdown on IK was launched in 2011. Since the start of the campaign (which remains ongoing) attacks inside Russia have declined by 30%. When Umarov made it clear that he intended to crash the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin unleashed the Spetznaz for what would become a massive surge in counter-terror operations with Chechen terrorists either being killed or “disappeared.” One of the casualties was Umarov himself. Aliaskhab Kebekov aka “Ali Abu Muhammad” would replace him as leader of IK. Kebekov would continue the group’s allegiance to al-Qaida (AQ) that was first established with Umarov.
Caucasus Emirate Leader Calls On Insurgents To Thwart Sochi Winter Olympics
Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov ‘dead’
Source: The Fine Report
However, major fracturing within the organization began in DEC 14 when elements began defecting to IS. Problems first emerged as far back as 2012, which Umarov had addressed in NOV 12 rebuking those who had “weakened the jihad in the North Caucasus” by leaving to fight in Syria. Despite his public denouncement, he would later change his tune when it became clear that Syria was “the new Afghanistan.” In 2013, a Chechen commander known as Emir Salahuddin was appointed to the position of “official representative of the Caucasus Emirate in Syria.” This individual would later replace Omar al-Shishani as leader of Jaysh al-Mujahirin when he left the group to join IS. Under Shishani’s command, Jaysh al-Mujahirin developed a reputation for their combat efficiency and viciousness adjacent the “Kufar” or “non-believer.” Shishani and the group was instrumental in al-Nusra’s attack on the Syrian military’s Sheik Suleiman Base located in Western Aleppo and also served as the lead element in the offensive that overran Menagh Airbase. Following Kebekov’s appointment as new leader of the Jaysh al-Mujahirin, he ensured that the group remained an independent entity (much like Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah), although he was still voicing support for AQ. The interesting thing about this Jaysh al-Mujahirin is that Salahuddin has been using the group to “maintain the peace” between IS and al-Nusra – or attempted to anyways. Unfortunately, the influx of Chechen fighters arriving in Syria and Iraq, regardless what faction they served under, also meant that the organization lost a lot of their most competent personnel.
(Check out “Islamic State Military Operations Emir Possibly KIA” and “IS Organizational Breakdown” for additional info on Shishani)
Chechen Militants Fighting in Middle East Remain Split in Their Loyalties
Jaysh al-Mujahirin wal Ansar Leader accuses Islamic State of Creating “Fitna” Between Jihadist Groups
Islamic State Military Operations Emir Possibly KIA
IS Organizational Breakdown
Source: The Long War Journal
Source: The ISIS Study Group
Kebekov himself was regarded as a weak leader who contributed to IK’s decline. Syria-based jihadists feuded with him because they thought he wasn’t “hardcore enough.” The result was 50% of the group defecting to IS by APR 15 to include at least 10 Jamaat (or local/mid-level) commanders. One of the bigger names that pledged allegiance to Baghdadi was IK Dagestan Emir Rustam Asilderov, who made the announcement in late-DEC 14. Asilderov is currently serving as IS’ point-man for the North Caucasus region with two more representatives operating in the Republic of Georgia – which is a traditional IK facilitation hub. When Kebekov was killed last month with no real replacement capable of preventing any further fracturing, it opened the door for IS – through Asilderov – to begin laying the groundwork for establishing a permanent presence in the region.
Whither Caucasus Emirate?
Dagestani Jihadist Swears Allegiance to Islamic State, Invoking Backlash
New leader of “Imarat Kavkaz” not to be loyal to IS
Russian special forces kill North Caucasus rebel leader
Source: The Counter Jihad Report
Putin’s regime is concerned about Chechen fighters returning from Syria and Iraq giving the guys on the home front a “shot in the arm.” Not surprisingly, Putin blames the Obama administration for the rise of IS. The sad thing is he’s 100% correct. The thing that we should be concerned about on our end is that all Putin’s crackdown has done is purge the most influential AQ-aligned elements from the ranks, which gives IS a “blank slate” to influence with the guys who’ve been networking with the structural leadership in the Middle East. Aside from the fact that IS would want to have a larger presence in the region that the best fighters in their ranks are from, a permanent presence there would enable IS to directly target Russia in retaliation for Putin’s support to the both the Assad and Iranian regimes.
Another factor that makes such an endeavor so attractive to them is the fact that a lot of the Chechen fighters have been traveling to Syria and Iraq through Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan – many with Russian and European passports. This also presents IS with an alternative method of inserting jihadists into Europe for the purpose of conducting attacks. We assess that IS has been forced into trying to balance resources between establishing a solid presence in the region and competing requirements elsewhere – like Yemen, for instance. Meanwhile, the pro-AQ factions of IK have been reaching out to the structural AQ leadership in Pakistan in the hopes of being granted official affiliate status. From what we understand Dr. Zawahiri approves of the idea. So the race is on to see who can establish a permanent presence there first. Keep in mind that both IS and AQ’s efforts will be slowed considerably as a result of Russia’s ongoing counter-terror campaign. Still, this is something that the intelligence community would do well to keep close watch of since those Chechens fighting in the Middle East will eventually start returning home at some point…