Chechens: Sochi or Syria?

Belief that the Chechens are focused on Sochi has been strengthened by a July 30, 2013 video address by Syrian radicals who called upon North Caucasus Muslims to stay out of Syria and fight instead in Russia in an effort to disrupt the Sochi Winter Olympic games.

By Stephen R. Bowers | September 17, 2013

In June of 2013, Doku Umarov, who considers himself leader of the Caucasus Emirate and is regarded as Russia’s most recent version of Osama bin Laden, resurfaced after a long period of self-imposed obscurity. The main purpose of his short video statement, which appeared on YouTube, was to offer condolences to the families of Islamic insurgents who died in a series of unsuccessful operations. Because he had not been seen since November 2012, there was speculation that he was dead or, at a minimum, irrelevant as Russia prepared to host the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

As is generally the case with such proclamations by Islamist radicals, the statement is not direct nor is its meaning clear. Yet, certain assumptions are apparent from what Umarov said as well as from other events taking place within the region. Umarov acknowledged that his umma or worldwide Islamist community is weak and not ready to wage a successful campaign against Russia. He suggested that for tactical and logistical reasons, it is not appropriate to maintain a large base of fighters in Chechnya. The activities of Chechen fighters are better focused on jihadi targets in Syria, Pakistan, or Afghanistan.

Given the recent focus on the Syrian conflict, many North Caucasus Islamic militants express interest in joining the “jihad” in Syria. Radicals in Syria claim that a “huge influx of volunteers” from that region has joined their fight. An EU-based representative for a Chechen separatist group, by contrast, recently stated that no more than one hundred Chechens have gone to Syria, while Russian authorities say that as many as 200 Daghestani volunteers are fighting alongside the Chechens. One Syrian rebel group, the Army of Emigrants and Helpers, which has a force of one thousand soldiers, is actually led by the ethnic Chechen Abu Omar and is regarded as the most brutal wing of the al-Qaeda movement.

The impact of the Syrian-based contingent of North Caucasus jihadists was demonstrated in August when Abu Omar’s force captured Minakh air base in northern Syria. Suicide bombers took the gate in order to provide an entry point for the main body of terrorists. In accordance with al-Qaeda tradition, North Caucasus militants took no prisoners and beheaded the defeated Syrian soldiers. Because of Omar’s victory, government forces had to suspend air strikes against rebel positions. According to foreign observers, the Chechens are among the best fighters in Syria, they are “older, taller, and stronger” than other combatants, and they carry their weapons with confidence.

Although their number is small, the Russian-speaking jihadists intend to expand their operations in such a way as to confront Israel and Jordan. In addition, Abu Omar and the other North Caucasus militant leaders have long stated that they intend to kill Americans, wherever they may find them.

The Syrian conflict is having a decisive impact on Chechen society, one that goes beyond the interests of jihadi groups hoping to attract Chechens who will travel to Syria to fight against Assad. Since the late 19th century, Syria has been a haven for Chechens as well as others in the North Caucasus Diaspora. Because of the recent Syrian violence, these Diasporas have been targeted by both the government and opposition forces working to topple Assad. Consequently, peaceful Chechens have been forced to flee their new homeland and seek refuge in either Turkey or Jordan. Flight to Turkey has meant that the Chechens were forced into refugee camps and faced brutal living conditions. As a result, the refugees now turn to Jordan where there is a cohesive ethnic community and a prospect of living in relative comfort in private housing. More importantly, Ramzan Kadyrov’s pro-Kremlin Chechen government has made the plight of the Diaspora an important concern. Not only do refugees enjoy assistance in securing housing, jobs, and food, the Chechen government is working to repatriate ethnic Chechens for whom Syria had long been home. Kadyrov’s efforts advance both humanitarian and political interests. Ethnic Chechens are given vital support, while Kadyrov makes a case that Chechens should not travel to Syria and make war against the Assad regime.

It is likely that Umarov’s statements about not maintaining a large local contingent are sincere. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that Umarov, who is now rejecting most of those who volunteer for service in Chechnya, may have deployed his forces in Kabardino-Balkaria and Stavropol Krai, a convenient location for staging action against the upcoming Sochi Olympics. The Olympic Games, Umarov has insisted, are “devilish” and an affront to Islamic law and every militant must work to disrupt the “Satanic dances on the bones of our fathers.”

Belief that the Chechens are focused on Sochi has been strengthened by a July 30, 2013 video address by Syrian radicals who called upon North Caucasus Muslims to stay out of Syria and fight instead in Russia in an effort to disrupt the Sochi games. Muslims in the North Caucasus, the Syrians insist, have an obligation to stay in the Russian Federation and carry the fight to the Russians. Moreover, the Syrians maintained, “it is not quite right” to leave one jihad zone – such as the Caucasus – for another. In their July statement, the Syrians fighters quoted the late Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, who insisted that because of modern technology, small groups of no more than three fighters could devastate their enemy’s critical infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the German Minister of Interior, expressing fears that the Federal Republic may be used as a staging area for attacks on the Olympics, recently reported a dramatic increase in the number of Chechen refugees legally entering the Federal Republic. Even more troubling is the fact that the number of illegal Chechen immigrants coming into Germany has doubled in the first part of 2013 in comparison with the figure for 2012.

Chechen authorities deny that there is significant Chechen involvement in the Syrian war. Since the 1994 Chechen war, 250,000 Chechens have fled their homeland and settled elsewhere. This large group is an important recruitment base for possible jihadists, although it is beyond the reach of Russian authorities attempting to estimate the Chechen presence in Syria. There is also no way to account for the Kists, ethnic Chechens who live in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge.

In 2012, Ramzan Kadyrov asserted that there were no Chechens fighting in Syria. More recently, he admitted that there “…are several people from Chechnya in Syria” and that “five or six nationals of our republic died there.” Nevertheless, he maintains that the number of Chechens fighting in Syria is small. Moreover, Kadyrov argues that according to “…our Muslim theologians… there [is no] jihad in Syria” so there is no reason for Chechen Muslims to join the fight. Those Chechens who might have joined the Syrian rebels are, according to Kadyrov, mercenaries and criminals who will be “hunted down” should they return to Chechnya.

There is speculation that Umarov may not have the resources to disrupt the Winter Olympics. His admission that the Chechen wing of the insurgency has comparatively few fighters under arms encourages such speculation. Yet, a relatively small number of terrorists can have a greater impact in Sochi than in Syria and such an operation helps build Umarov’s to regional credibility.

The continuing dispute over Umarov’s rejection of Chechen independence in favor of establishment of a Caucasus Emirate has reduced his capabilities to affect either the Sochi Olympics or broader developments in the North Caucasus. Umarov enjoyed a brief flurry of attention after Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was identified as an Umarov enthusiast. However, there is little doubt that his 2007 declaration that Muslims should work to create a Caucasus Emirate rather than an independent Chechnya and that those who work for independence are not good Muslims has ruptured the community of Chechen militants.

Thus, Umarov has diminished influence at home and extremely limited control over Chechen communities in Syria. In fact, Ramzan Kadyrov’s efforts to aid Chechens in Syria threatens to further reduce Umarov’s influence among that country’s Chechen Diaspora. At home, Kadyrov has initiated an education campaign to persuade local youth to reject efforts by the “foreign services” to have them join the Syrian opposition. Beginning in 2013, a wide variety of officials, clerics and public figures joined the campaign to educate young Chechens about the “true nature” of the Syrian conflict.

Therefore, Umarov’s best option, if he wishes to maintain a prominent role as a jihadist, is to direct the attentions of his forces toward disruption of the Sochi Olympics. While the Syrian war may demonstrate the military prowess of Chechen fighters, it does not give Umarov any opportunity to enhance his reputation. By contrast, Ramzan Kadyrov can benefit from the Syrian tragedy by alleviating the sufferings of Chechens caught up in the war, marshaling Chechen resources to combat the spread of violent radical Islam, and raising his standing in Moscow by discouraging young Chechens from involvement with Syrian opposition forces.

Stephen R. Bowers, Ph.D. is a professor of government in the Helms School of Government at Liberty University. Professor Bowers is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.