Rise of Saudi-funded Caucasian Salafist fighters in West Asia - I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 03 Apr 2015 0 Comment

The role of ethnic Caucasian fighters in Syria, and their   subsequent contribution in helping the other Islamic State (IS) fighters to secure and control a large swath of Syrian and Iraqi land under Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been documented. A large number of analysts, experts and observers have reported on their superior fighting abilities. Ilya Rogachev, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for New Challenges and Threats, in an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station on January 16, said about 800 Caucasian militants were now fighting with the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.


However, Rogachev claimed that they are not Russian citizens but Kists from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, a breeding ground of Caucasian Jihadi fighters. He noted that Georgian Kists - ethnic Chechens from the Pankisi Gorge - were “among the most prominent warlords who have already proved themselves in IS.” IS’s military emir in Syria, Omar al-Shishani is from the Pankisi Gorge and a former conscript in the Georgian Army. Rogachev said some news reports have emphasized that al-Shishani, among others, was possibly trained by officers who may have been trained by Americans.


The presence of such a large and well-organized and well-trained group of fighters who have left their homes to fight for the Jihadi cause to establish a Caliphate in the Levant, poses a serious threat to a wider region. In essence, the roving Caucasians, who are different from the Arabs in their looks and converse in a different language, are more like Jihadi-mercenaries on hire for all Salafi-Wahaabi outfits. Beside their role in Syria described here, these Caucasian Jihadis had long been engaged in Afghanistan and Central Asia under the Saudi and the Pakistani guidance.


Both India and China must make note that these Jihad-mercenaries could pose serious security threats in future in India’s Jammu and Kashmir, as well as in Xinjiang province in western China. Central Asian countries have already been victims of this menace but they are too weak and disunited and it is highly unlikely that they will be able to put up a common front in the short or middle-term to decisively defeat this menace.


However, not all these Caucasian fighters are tuned to the same ideology and as a result, quite a few of them have not pledged their allegiance to the IS flag.  Some of them have remained loyal to the al-Qaeda-led Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria. Those Caucasians who have remained loyal to al-Qaeda have also remained loyal to the Caucasus Emirate, whose objective is to help North Caucasus secede from Russia. However, notwithstanding these differences within the Caucasian fighters that have showed up later, they all had earlier combined together to join the campaign that began almost four years ago to dislodge the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, those who have joined the IS have not turned anti-al-Qaeda, but they claim that the al-Qaeda has become outdated.


All these Caucasian fighters had responded to the clarion call sent out by the anti-Syria, anti-Iran and anti-Russia western nations such as Britain, France and the United States. While Russia diplomatically fought that irregular warfare, China and India, among others expressed their disapproval in the international forums. These Caucasian fighters received funds distributed by the Saudi-Qatari-Kuwaiti governments and wealthy individuals of the Gulf-Sunni Shiekhdoms. These individuals had long been involved actively spreading Salafism and Wahhabism, providing finances to commit violence, whenever necessary. The Caucasian fighters transited into Syria through all those Sunni benefactor-nations, including Turkey.


Like many other Jihadis coming in to Syria from Arabia, Europe and from North Africa’s Maghreb nations, these Caucasians had earlier also received necessary on-the-ground training in irregular warfare. They received such training in Central Asia as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While they were in Syria, much of their arms came in from the West transiting into Syria through mostly Turkey. During their fight against the Kurds led by PKK-linked People’s Protection Units, or YPG, for the control of Kobane, a Syrian town bordering Turkey and considered a plum prize for the IS, these distinctive-looking Caucasian Jihadis, most of whom belonged to a group loyal to Omar al Shishani, a senior military leader in the IS, issued a video that came to establish their ethnic credentials.


A regional threat


According to Joanna Paraszczuk of From Chechnya to Syria, a website that tracks Russian-speaking fighters in Syria, this group is known as the al Aqsa Brigade. The group comprises those fighters who left the Chechen Jaysh al Muhajireen wal Ansar (Muhajireen Army) with Omar al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvilic, after he swore allegiance to the Islamic State.


The Muhajireen Army is a Chechen-led group that considers themselves to be the Syrian branch of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate. The US State Department has added the Muhajireen Army to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations on Sept. 24 2014. (Chechen unit from Islamic State reportedly fighting at Kobane: The Long War Journal:  Bill Roggio & Caleb Weiss: October 2, 2014). Roggio and Weiss pointed out that Shishani’s al Aqsa Brigade has often spearheaded the Islamic State’s advance in key areas of Syria. Hence, it was no surprise that this experienced fighting unit was on the front line of the Islamic State’s offensive in Kobane.


Although the media in general club all those Caucasian fighters who have come out of Russia and adjoining countries to fight in Syria as Chechens, many of them have not lived in Chechnya but lived in a landmass that stretches from Russia’s Georgia borders to the Middle Volga region. According to Dr. Theodore Karasik, in his Sep 21, 2014 Azeri Daily article, The Chechen factor in the Islamic State: The immediate threat to the Russian Federation, 3000 or more Russian Federation citizens serve in Islamic State combat forces within the Islamic State. Some of these fighters may be part of the Chechen diaspora from Georgia, Turkey, and Europe. 


The now-deceased Emir of the Caucasian Emirate, Dokku Abu Usman Umarov in October 2010 had addressed such intent when he issued a statement: “Today, I want to describe the situation in the world because, even if thousands of kilometers separate us, those mujahedin who are carrying out Jihad in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir and many, many other places, they are our brothers, and we today (with them) are insisting on the laws of Allah on this earth.” (The Caucasus Emirate Jihadists: The Security and Strategic Implications: Gordon M. Hahn: Strategic Studies Institute Monograph: Russia’s Homegrown Insurgency: Jihad in the North Caucasus: October 2012)


The Caucasus Emirate (CE) was formed by Dokku Umarov, a veteran of the Second Chechen War (1999) in October 2007 with the likely intent to bring under its umbrella a number of militant groups functioning independently in North Caucasus against Russia. Umarov was the president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI), a militant movement to separate Chechnya from Russia. The formation of the Caucasus Emirate by Umarov occurred at a time when the ChRI was fading and Umarov wanted to get it attached to the international Jihadi movement under virtual control of al-Qaeda. That, however, does not imply that Umarov had handed over control of his outfit to al-Qaeda. Instead, he associated ChRI with al-Qaeda because both were Salafi-Wahhabi preaching militant outfits seeking to set up an Islamic Caliphate and al-Qaeda had both money and the ability to supply fighters to keep the North Caucasian pot boiling. In other words, what we are observing now is reverse migration. It is the Caucasian Emirate / Chechen Republic of Ichkeria fighters who have come out of their hold to provide military support to al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State, to help attain the larger groups’ objectives.


The Levant region, where the IS wants to establish its Caliphate, is  a geographical region encompassing the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea from roughly the Isthmus of Suez to the Taurus Mountains, including present-day Israel, Lebanon, western Jordan, the Sinai in Egypt, and that part of Syria defined by the Orontes Valley and the region of Aleppo. Beyond the Levant, nations bordering it also have substantial Muslim populations. In some of those nations, Muslims are majority citizens while in nations like China and India, they are a minority but  some of them are involved in  disputes with  the non-Muslim majority that control those countries’ affairs over  seeking autonomy, if not outright secession.


It is not unlikely that these Caucasian fighters will be made available from time to time by their “spiritual” and financial protectors to stir up violent  movements in Afghanistan, Central Asian “stan” nations, China and India. In the majority-Muslim nations, such as those nations situated in Central Asia and in Afghanistan, threats are even greater since it is not unlikely that to become a part of the larger Islamic Caliphate could seem a highly-tempting option to some of their citizens.


The Jihad-fervor of these Caucasian fighters became evident in their continuing participation in the almost-four year old efforts by the Salafist Gulf nations, working hand-in-glove with the champions of democratic world - United States, Britain and France - to bring down the pro-Iran and pro-Russia Bashar al-Assad regime, in the distant land of Syria by engaging themselves in a long-drawn irregular warfare against Damascus and its allies, such as Lebanon. Many of these fighters had ignored the Caucasus Emirate’s diktat not to leave Caucasus fighting for others.


It is also evident that not all of these Caucasian fighters in Syria are steadfast any longer in their earlier goal, which was to dismantle the al-Assad regime. Many have shifted their focus towards establishing the IS Caliphate, defending its existence, expanding it in the future and making it their home. Although it continues to receive funds and arms from Salafist governments and individual allies in the region, these Caucasians are now battling a limited version of western military forces that exist in the region (often in the guise of ‘trainers’), and working towards toppling the Arab fiefs in the region in order to expand the Islamic States’ territory and secure oil and gas fields.


On the other hand, former colonial western nations and its principal ally and muscle, the United States, who had earlier acted as Godfather to these Caucasian Jihadis, continue to remain the major financial beneficiaries of various Sunni Arab fiefdoms in the region led by the House of Saud, House of Khalifa, House of Sabah and House of Thani. Having funded the anti-Syria rebels, many of whom were branded terrorists, to weaken Iran and strengthen the Sunni Arab fiefs to extract more benefits from them, the western powers have now come to realize that the monsters that they had bred and nurtured are going to dismantle the highly-profitable arrangement that they had set up with these fiefs almost seven decades ago.


Moreover, these Arab fiefdoms, in addition to establishing   a mutually-beneficial “protection-for-cash” arrangement with these western colonial powers and their trans-Atlantic ally, had also effectively handed over the geopolitical control of the area to their protectors. The area is particularly strategic because it contains a vast amount of oil and gas and leads up to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean - a major trade route to Asia. Colonials consider maintaining geopolitical control over this area would provide them with a huge geostrategic muscle against all other nations, including the emerging ones in Asia and Asia-Pacific.


(To be continued…)

This article appeared in the Jan-Mar 2015 issue of Agni, a Journal of the Forum for Strategic & Security Studies 

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