Why the Caucasus Matter


Why the Caucasus Matter

Milo Comerford and Osama Filali-Naji

09 Jun 2015

The heavy presence of Caucasians as foreign fighters in Syria's civil war can be traced directly to the rise of jihadism in Chechnya's resistance to Russia, write Osama Filali-Naji and Milo Comerford. 

Throughout the Western world, the importance of the Caucasus region is too often underestimated. The region is strategically positioned between the European and Asian oil export markets. The Caucasus also bridges East with West and NATO with Russia's sphere of influence. The oil-rich region also acts as a space through which Chechen-trained fighters, along with their financial networks, are now assisting jihadi groups fighting in and around Syria.

A History of Resistance

The strategic importance of the Caucasus spans back to the Russian Empire, where a need was identified to expand Russia's territories as a bulwark against Ottoman power. Russia moved its capital from the key port city of St Petersburg to inland Moscow. Then in the early 19th century, the Russian Empire invaded the North Caucasus region, directly south, to establish a huge buffer zone between Moscow and the Ottoman Empire. In spite of the atrocities committed in this campaign, its apparent exoticness caught the imagination of Russian writers such as Mikhail Lermontov and Leo Tolstoy.

For years, Russians and Western Europeans have been trying to define a Caucasian identity in an extremely diverse and structurally distinct region. In this milieu, and especially in a volatile empire that fell and then later reformed along a communist model, serious sectarian conflict between various ethnic groups was a recurring feature.

Regional conflict re-emerged in 1991. Soviet troops withdrew from the North Caucasus following the fall of the Soviet Union, and new nations sought to assert their own territorial definitions on one-another in a highly contested power vacuum. North and South Ossetia, Ingushetia and even Azerbaijan and Georgia became plagued by the sort of regional conflict and disorder that these nations had previously experienced during the clash of the Persian, Russian and Ottoman Empires.

Global financial support distanced fighters from dependency on state services.

Boris Yeltsin pursued an intervention in Chechnya to attempt to restore constitutional order. In the mid-90s, what had begun as an issue of national, political identity was transformed into a narrative that sought aid from the global Muslim community. A Jordanian-born radical, Fathi Mohammed Habib, invited Arab jihadis to Chechnya. These included the notorious Saudi Arabian foreign fighter, Ibn al-Khattab, who began to mobilise violent resistance through his radical gatherings and militant training camps. Ibn al-Khattab had a global financial support network that distanced the radical Islamists in Chechnya and Dagestan from dependency on state services.

A catastrophic battle for Chechnya's capital Grozny resulted in a ceasefire with Russia in 1996, with various actors claiming victory. However, a series of bombings in and around Russia, including Moscow, led to a second intervention in Chechnya by the Russian state in October 1999. Russia eventually responded to the national threat posed by Chechnya's foreign fighters with constitutional and structural changes that still stand today. A peace commitment with Chechnya was revoked and non-elected appointees displaced the elected, regional executives of Russia's Federation Council. Another layer of non-democratic authority could then be imposed over Russia's eighty-nine administrative units in order to dissipate power away from the Caucasian republics. This exclusionary politics, alongside worsening inequality and corruption, forced resistance underground.

Rise of Radical Islamism in the Caucasus

The period from 1996-1999 had seen a shift in the narrative of religious separatism towards jihadism. There were many opposition actors in the region who had campaigned for a peaceful transition towards a Sharia-ruled state. Despite this, the advent of Salafi-jihadi rhetoric into the cause saw the conflict increasingly framed within a global narrative of Muslim persecution.

Although most Muslims from the Caucasus follow the Shafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, the radical Islamist fighters did not consider themselves bound by any established school of thought. Harking back to the Ottoman Empire before them, the radical foreign fighters in Chechnya and the surrounding Caucasus hence found a sense of purpose uniting Chechens and Dagestanis under a global Islamic identity, finding their immediate cause in Chechnya's conflict with Russia.

In the 1990s the narrative shifted from religious separatism to jihadism.

Abu Qutaybah and Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti, two other foreign nationals, reacted by providing huge financial support for the jihadi resistance in Chechnya and the surrounding Caucasus, alongside the financial assistance flowing from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Conflict persisted despite the immense amount of institutional pressure from the Russian state on the Caucasus, with the Second Chechen War eventually ending in April 2009.

The Caucasus Today

Today, six years on from the end of the second Chechen war, many Chechens still stand against radicalism. However, many fighters from Chechnya are now fighting alongside various extremist organisations in Syria. The influence of Chechen fighters in ISIS' battle for Kobane epitomises the internationalisation of ideological conflict and the relevance that foreign fighters who have trained in the Caucasus – as well as their vast financial networks – have today in the Middle East.

Up to 3,000 fighters (accused by some analysts of being an overblown Russian estimate) are thought to have travelled to Syria. The Chechen diaspora is also particularly vulnerable to recruitment. Several thousand Central Asian migrants have reportedly joined ISIS in Syria after being recruited by Chechen gangs whilst working as labourers at Moscow construction sites. ISIS' calls for teachers, nurses and engineers, rather than mere fighters, attract vulnerable families to seek a new life in the 'caliphate.'

The Caucasus jihadi landscape emphasises 'true' jihad.

The most notable Caucasian fighter to have migrated to Syria is Abu Omar al-Shishani. Abu Omar is a Georgian-born Chechen who was initially enrolled into the Georgian Army, where he was said to have been trained by the United States and fought in Georgia's war with Russia in 2008. He was then recruited to fight in Syria where, after joining the Muhajireen Brigade, he became a high level military commander for ISIS in Syria. It is not uncommon for Caucasians and Russians to pass through the Muhajireen Brigade before eventually joining other militant organisations in Syria and Iraq. In addition to ISIS, many of these transfers have benefitted Syria's al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra, a tendency seen in al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's recent praise for Chechen fighters.

The Syrian civil war has also had a ideological impact on the domestic insurgency, with many militants conflating Russia's support for Assad with a wider 'Shia-Zionist-Crusader' conspiracy. However, the Syria conflict has now led to a loss of fighters for domestic jihadi groups. One such group is the Caucasus Emirate, an organisation formed in October 2007 with the general aim of establishing an independent Islamic state and expelling Russian presence from the North Caucasus.

The group's former-leader Dokku Umarov, who later died from poisoning, released a video in November 2012 expressing solidarity with those fighting in Syria, but said that those travelling there from the North Caucasus were weakening the local jihad. This fact particularly concerns Russia, which fears returning militants fighting a reinvigorated jihad on Russian soil. Scaled-up counter terror operations have targeted domestic jihadism, with Russian forces killing Ali Abu Muhammad al-Dagestani, emir of the 'Caucasus Emirate,' in April 2015.

At a conference on jihadi insurgencies in Central Asia, Dr Domitilla Sagramoso of King's College London an expert on the Caucasian jihadi insurgency, said that the current jihadi landscape in the Caucasus is permeated by a theological debate concerning the 'true' jihad. For ISIS, jihad requires fighting for its expansionist 'caliphate' in Iraq and Syria, casting off more local disputes further afield as 'parochial' and 'provincial.' The contest for Chechen hearts and minds in part reflects the growing rift in global jihadism between al-Qaeda's franchise-based system and ISIS' call for hijrah (migration) to their 'caliphate.' It remains to be seen which will be a more effective galviniser for support in the region.


Sign up to receive the Roundup

Sign up to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.