Note: This is part of a series. You can read part one here.

The first part of this series demonstrated that Russia does not shy away from using Islamist elements as puppets or proxy soldiers. As proxy soldiers, the jihadists can be deployed outside of Russia’s borders while providing plausible deniability for Moscow as it shores up its near abroad in places like Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Domestically, Islamists are manipulated by the Russian intelligence services to justify security crackdowns and the suppression of independence movements inspired by nationalism. By doing this, Russia is able to justify aggressive actions as being part of the fight against international terrorism, a narrative that plays quite well. That narrative has only been further legitimized by America’s Global War on Terror.

This article will take a closer look at the Chechen and Georgian Islamists who traveled to Syria and joined the Islamic State, some of them likely doing so under the direction of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

Chechen FSB assets enter the Syrian Civil War

Dokka Umarov fought in both of the Chechen Wars, was allied with Shamil Basayev, and rubbed shoulders with Ari Barayev. Those two were suspected FSB assets. Umarov has been reported dead numerous times, one time even calling in to Radio Free Europe from beyond the grave to let the world know that he was still kicking. In 2010, he took credit for the Moscow metro bombing that killed 40 Russian civilians. In 2014, then-leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, announced that Umarov was dead.  Prior to Umarov’s murder, the prime minister of Chechnya’s Ichkeria Republic, Akhmed Khalidovich Zakayev, went on the radio to say:

Syria witnessed confronting forces who not only fought for Assad or against Assad: they represent different influence areas—the Western world that wants to leave Russia without its last foothold in the Middle East, and Russia which understands that losing the influence in Syria means losing influence in the whole Middle East region. Therefore Russia is interested in delaying or overall preventing the process of Assad’s withdrawal. To do so, according to our information, the Kremlin made a decision to transfer Umarov to Syria. 

“(Umarov) is under full command of Russian special services.To this day he is (and will be, I’m sure) performing the tasks assigned to him by these structures,” Zakayev continued.  Umarov never made it to the Islamic State, but one of his right-hand men did. Omar al-Shishani has emerged within the Islamic State as one of their most competent and effective commanders. He has openly stated that he traveled to Syria under orders from Umarov before he died.

Dokka Umarov. Image courtesy of

Shishani, real name Tarkhan Batirashvili, is not Chechen but Georgian, and served in the Georgian Army with a recon unit during the conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008.  Thrown in prison for weapons smuggling after the war, he is said to have converted to Islam and radicalized while incarcerated, but some speculate that this is nothing more than the construction of a FSB operation. Recent information even alludes to Shashani having rolled with Ruslan Galeyev‘s crew of Chechen guerrillas when he was only 14 years old, which would be interesting if true considering Galeyev is another Chechen long suspected of being a GRU operative. The Georgian defense minister claimed that Galeyev was yet another Islamist proxy soldier leveraged by the Kremlin to fight an irregular war in Abkhazia.

Hitting the ground in Syria, Shishani must have had something going for him because he quickly created the Army of the Emirants and Partisans and began waging jihad against the Assad regime. He soon became one of the most popular and effective rebel commanders in Syria but was forced to choose allegiance between ISIS and al-Nusra. ISIS won out.