November 21, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: The Chechen Foreign Fighter Threat
• Chechen involvement in Syria was initially spearheaded by refugee populations from Europe, but the proportion of volunteers from inside Russia is trending up
• A combination of extreme Islamist ideology and the urge to strike against Russian interests motivates young Chechens to fight in Iraq and Syria
• The primary threat to Russia from the Islamic State is the prospect of North Caucasian volunteers who return from the battle fronts and rejoin local terrorist networks
• The current successes of the Islamic State’s purported military commander Abu Omar al-Shishani, a Georgian of renown from his time supporting Chechen rebels, stands to increase the number of North Caucasian volunteers who will fight under the group’s banner
• Intelligence sharing between the United States and Russia to defeat the Islamic State is likely to remain limited due to mistrust and competing motivations.
The latest generation of Chechens has grown up in a militarized society, as a result of 20 years of armed conflict, beginning with Russia’s battles with Chechen rebels in 1994. The conflict gradually widened from a nationalist Chechen struggle against Russia to a multi-ethnic Islamist insurgency across Russia’s North Caucasus. Shaped by these two ideas, politicized Islam and the quest for vengeance against Russia, many young men—and women—took up arms.
The constant warfare drove many to seek asylum in Europe, where the Chechen diaspora now numbers around 200,000. The youth from this community were shaped and radicalized by the same experiences of growing up in a war-torn environment, but had no outlet to fight against Russia because they could not safely return to Chechnya. The outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011 gave these Chechen refugees the perfect venue: the ability to wage war against Russian interests in the form of the Assad regime; an opportunity to fight against injustices done to Sunni Muslims; and the ability to return to their families once they fulfilled their jihad duty on the frontlines.
As a result, the majority of North Caucasian fighters in Syria came from the Chechen diaspora in Europe. However, the European security services have increasingly cracked down on returning fighters from Syria this year, amid concerns these zealous Islamists will use their newfound martial skills to conduct attacks back home in Europe. As such, fewer Chechens from Europe are volunteering or actually able to get to Syria prior to being intercepted by European security services. Meanwhile, Islamists in the North Caucasus are flocking to Syria because of the recent successes of extremist groups there. The result is an increasing proportion of North Caucasian volunteers coming directly from Russian territory.
While estimates vary considerably, there are currently up to 2,500 Chechens and other North Caucasians fighting in Syria and Iraq. 2012 estimates showed about half were with Jabhat al-Nusra and the other half with the Islamic State. Currently, reports indicate the majority is with the latter. The reputed military commander of the Islamic State in Syria, Abu Omar al-Shishani, an ethnic Georgian identified with the Chechen cause, is closely associated with its recent victories. In Sunni extremist circles, a certain euphoria surrounds both the Islamic State and al-Shishani: their “brands” are highly coveted among Islamists fighters. On top of a general rise in Islamic State recruitment, al-Shishani’s “Chechen roots” (his mother is ethnic Chechen) and senior position in the group make it more prestigious for recruits from the North Caucasus to join the ranks of the caliphate. With these recruits now coming mostly from Russian territory, the Islamic State represents a potential direct threat to Russia.
The risks this phenomenon poses to Russia are two-fold. The first is against Russia’s interests in the Middle East. If anti-government forces succeed in Syria and permanently unseat the Assad regime—and the status quo—Russia’s only foothold in the Middle East could be threatened. This includes both the naval facility in Tartus, as well as signals intelligence listening posts. The other risk, as more fighters come directly from Russian territory, is increased domestic attacks. The threat to Russia is similar to that of Western countries: returning fighters from the Middle East represent combat-hardened men who may rejoin local terror networks upon their return home and link up with established local terror cells. The prospect of Islamic State alumni sharing their battlefield knowledge with the local insurgents—spreading the tactics, techniques and lessons learned from fighting in the Middle East—could improve the effectiveness of the North Caucasus insurgency, though the death of leader Doku Umarov earlier this year has slowed it down. Moreover, the amount of fighters returning to Russia has so far been limited, likely because of continued successes in the Middle East and a well-placed fear of Russian state security services.
As more volunteers join the Islamic State, opportunities for cooperation between Russia and the United States stand to increase. However, it is likely to remain limited. In October, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced an intelligence-sharing agreement with the Russians, which the Russian foreign minister promptly denied. Even if the denial is just a face-saving measure, any intelligence coming from Russia is likely to be viewed with suspicion by the American intelligence community—the confusion over “shared information” about Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev serves as an example. Russia’s primary interest in Syria, after all, has always been bolstering a regime friendly to its national interests.
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