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.
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.
Al-Baghdadi and al-Adnani are strategic and political animals occupied primarily with overall growth of their organization. Their responsibilities can be considered benign when compared to Omar al-Shishani, arguably the most dangerous of these key figures. Al-Shishani is at an operational level and controls a vitriolic brand of fighters that occupy a key role within ISIL. His fighters are exceptionally competent and are used as storm troopers or shock troops when assaulting urban areas in Iraq. They effectively execute sweep, clear, and hold operations. Once in hold phase, secondary elements of ISIL then further secure the target urban area with either greater numbers and technicals or mechanized units. This kind of operation route du jour for standing military indicates that ISIL has evolved over years of combat and retains at least enough operational military leadership to teach small unit tactics in conjunction with larger military elements. Not yet combined arms, but a step above “spray and pray” tactics followed by consecutive retrograde actions. -“The ISIS Solution“
As of 2014, al-Shashani has risen to become one of the senior ISIS commanders after al-Adnani was killed, and is said to be stationed somewhere inside Raqqa—the de-facto capital of the Islamic State. Whether or not the FSB has some malevolent influence over Shashani is difficult to discern, but the timing in his arrival in Syria is interesting. In 2013, the U.S. government was attempting to vet various rebel forces in Syria to decide which groups were secular nationalists. Once identified, these groups could then begin to receive lethal aid to help them remove the Assad regime.
The arrival of a second Chechen going by the name al-Shashani just makes things even stranger. Muslim al-Shashani, real name Murad Margoshvili, is another Georgian turned Chechen fighter. We’ll call him Murad so it is easier to distinguish the two, since he and Omar both use the Shashani war name. Murad started off in the Soviet Army, and then after the collapse of the USSR, traveled home to Chechnya. During the first Chechen war, he served under Ibn al-Khattab, who was Basayev’s right-hand man. Al-Khattab may have been a FSB asset; Basayev certainly was. Murad was arrested in 2007 by Russian authorities on terrorism charges, but was aquitted and released—leaving one to wonder why since he was such a hardcore mujahideen fighter. This raises the question as to whether he was flipped and became a FSB asset, if he wasn’t one already.
In 2012, Murad traveled to Syria to wage jihad. In a video, he explains that he has not abandoned the concept of an Islamic Emirate in the Caucasus, but was unable to travel to Chechnya with his group to link up with Dokka Umalov, presumably from Dagestan where he has been stirring up trouble since the Chechen conflict. He also stated in the video that he consulted with Omar al-Shashani to ask if his oath to Umalov was binding, meaning he would not have permission to travel to Syria. Shashani is reported to have said that it is only binding if he is in the same geographical location as his commander, thereby giving Murad de facto permission to wage jihad in Syria.
In his video clips filmed in Syria, Murad compares the situation in Syria to the early days of mujahideen warfare in Chechnya, warning his jihadi brothers against “fitna” or internal factional fighting between jihadi groups. The last we heard of Murad was in April of 2015 when he was commanding his Junud al-Sham faction alongside al-Nusra and another battalion of foreign fighters from Central Asia against a Syrian military position.
Also floating around this mess is a curious character named Isa Umarov, alleged to be Dokka Umarov’s ideological sidekick back home, and was forward deployed to Syria ahead of Dokka. Interestingly, Isa Umarov took Murad al-Shashani to sharia court inside their so-called Islamic State over the issue of “fitna.”
Russia shapes the geostrategic chessboard
The presence of Omar al-Shashani (Tarkhan), Muslim al-Shashani (Murad), and other Chechen, Uzbek, Tajiki, Georgian, and Dagestani militants on the Syrian battlefield escalated things to another level, especially as feuds broke out between the Chechens, ISIS, al-Nusra, and the Free Syrian Army. Over the last few years, it has not been uncommon to see ISIS and the FSA team up to fight the Kurdish YPG one day, then to see al-Nusra and the FSA team up to fight ISIS the next. The end result is chaos. All of this bares a remarkable resemblance to how the FSB inserted Wahhabi-inspired Islamists into the Chechen nationalist groups, recasting the conflict as one about terrorism rather than independence. In short, the Chechens were again used as a spoiler force to help turn the world against the rebels and in favor of Russia’s interests.
Russia had plenty of motives for doing exactly that.
When the Arab Spring cooked off in 2011, it swept through Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Everyone knew that Syria was next on the chopping block. The protests began in a town called Deraa and started off as populist and pro-democractic. However, despite Assad being seen as a liberal reformer, security states run by overlapping intelligence services (15 in total in this case) which are charged with keeping the elite class in power don’t take kindly to anti-regime protests. Syrian police shut down electricity, water, Internet, and phone networks as they cracked down on protests in Deraa, killing around 15 civilians (Lesch, 57).
The situation escalated quickly in Syria, with pro-democracy Syrians ready to do away with the mukhabarat state. Assad quickly blamed nefarious outside interlopers in a speech saying, “You all know that Syria is facing a great conspiracy whose tentacles extend to some nearby countries and some faraway countries,” (Lesch, 78) referencing Israel and the United States. At that time, there was probably little outside influence in the protest and following rebel movement, but this would all change quickly.
Russia has diplomatic and military ties with Syria going back to the Cold War, has billions of dollars invested in Syria, and sells billions more in arms to the Syrian government. With arms shipments being one of Russia’s main exports, it needed Syria as a buyer even more after their client in Libya—Gaddafi—was ousted in 2011. Furthermore, Russia’s last port in the Mediterranean is located in Tartous, Syria. Losing it would be a geostrategic blow to Russian naval power. Beyond these practical concerns, Syria is also the Russians’ only real foothold in the Middle East, a country in which they wish to exert greater influence and project themselves into the rest of the region.
For these reasons, Russia had plenty of motivation to order Chechen FSB assets to join the rebellion in Syria in order to discredit opposition to Assad. This repeated the same template that the FSB used in Chechnya and made Assad’s conspiracy theories about external powers meddling in Syrian affairs something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The truth is that ISIS is the best thing that possibly could have happened to Assad.
Lesch, David W. Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.
(Featured image courtesy of brunchnews.com)