Between al-Nusra and ISIS: The Caucasus Emirate in Sham (Syria) Survives

photo JMA amir Salahuddin

by Gordon M. Hahn

Amir Salahuddin al-Shishani and those North Caucasus and perhaps several other mujahedin remaining loyal to him continue to survive as the Caucasus Emirate in Sham (CES – Imarat Kavkaz v Shame) after their expulsion from Jeish al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar (JMA), which Salahuddin alse headed as amir and which is allied with Jabhat al-Nusra.

As noted in a previous post, Salahuddin al-Shishani – the Caucasus Emirate’s envoy to the mujahedin in Syria, amir of the Caucasus Emirate in Sham (Levant-Syria), and former amir of the Jeish al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar (JMA or Army of the Emigres and Helpers) – has given the ‘bayat‘ or Islamic loyalty oath the new amir of the Caucasus Emirate (CE) mujahedin, Abu Urman al-Gimravii (Gimiriskii), born Magomed Suleiman(ov). Surrounded by some 50 mujahedin Caucasus Emirate in Sham (CES) mujahedin, Salahuddin also called on all of the mujahedin of Russia’s North Caucasus (and presumably elsewhere in Russia) to follow his example and refers to himself as “the representative of the Caucasus Emirate in Sham” (the Levant) (www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2015/07/09/109598/sham–mudzhakhidy-imarata-kavkaz-v-shame-dali-bajat-amiru-ik-abu-usmanu-gimrinskomu-video.shtml). One source that reported Salahuddin’s bayat to the CE includes a photograph seemingly suggesting that the red-bearded mujahed in the photograph is Salahuddin. He is not. He is Umar al-Shishani (born Tarkhan Batirashvili) who is an ethnic Chechen Kist from Georgia, amir of the Islamic State’s northern front and perhaps IS’s overall military amir (www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2015/07/12/the_islamic_caucasus_emirate_in_syria_108216.html). So be careful out there, my friends. Salahiddin is shown in the photograph above standing with an apparent Syrian local.

A more recent jihadi-posted photo appears to show a fighter from Salahuddin’s CES with an American-made BGM-71 anti-tank missile. As one report notes, it is unclear when or where the photograph was taken, but it was likely taken recently in northern Syria (www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/07/caucasus-emirate-in-syria-photographs-us-made-anti-tank-missile.php).

As noted in a previous posting, CES amir and former JMA amir Salahuddin and his deputy or ‘naib‘, the Crimean Tatar Abdulkarim al-Krymskii, were expelled from the JMA two months ago. They were joined by some 50 mujahedin, most of them likely from the North Caucasus and perhaps elsewhere in Russia or the former USSR. They have continued to use the name ‘Caucasus Emirate’ and ‘Caucasus Emirate in Sham’, the latter of which was sometimes used instead of JMA when Salahuddin was JMA  amir.

In addition, the second edition of IS’s Russian-Language journal ‘Istok‘ (The Source) includes an article attacking Salahuddin, the JMA, the CES, the CE, and their ally, the Syrian Sheikh Abu Basyr al-Tartusi (“Zagovor Sakhavatov protiv Islamskogo Gosudarstva,” Istok, No. 2, https://ia801509.us.archive.org/27/items/istok2/istok2.pdf, pp. 10-15, specifically at pp. 11-13). The article refers to the JMA mujahedin as criminals (p. 13). The relationship between the CE and Tartusi goes back to at least 2010 as I discussed in IIPER (No. 26) and my book The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin. Oddly, one of the criticisms leveled against Tartusi is his criticism of Jabhat al-Nusra which has sided with Al Qa`ida against IS on the latter’s declaration of the caliphate and which has even been engaged against IS mujahedin in skirmishes (p. 11).

As I have detailed on this cite in detail, the CE increasingly became divided over the struggle for leadership of the global jihadi revolutionary movement between Al Qa`ida (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/02/25/the-caucasus-emirate-in-the-levant-and-the-is-aq-fitna-complete-parts-1-and-2/, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/03/10/the-islamic-state-al-qaida-tussle-over-the-caucasus-emirate-continues/, and https://gordonhahn.com/2015/05/28/leading-global-jihadi-authority-maqdisi-issues-fatwa-to-shore-up-struggling-caucasus-emirate/). This divide culminated in the recent defection of most CE amirs and mujahedin to IS and the formation of the Caucasus Governate (Vilaiyat Kavkaz) of the Islamic State (CGIS or VKIG) (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/06/19/the-caucasus-emirate-of-the-islamic-state-the-ces-full-integration-into-is-is-almost-complete/  and https://gordonhahn.com/2015/07/03/the-caucasus-vilaiyat-of-the-islamic-state/). Thus, in giving his bayat, Shishani also referred to the ‘fitna’ or dissension within the global jihadi revolutionary movement. (www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2015/07/09/109598/sham–mudzhakhidy-imarata-kavkaz-v-shame-dali-bajat-amiru-ik-abu-usmanu-gimrinskomu-video.shtml).

The CES bayat is a small boon to the disintegrating CE and helps maintain the jihadi group in the face of the IS/CGIS challenge, despite the fact that the CES mujahedin appear to have no intention of returning home. On the other hand, the Salahuddin and the CES had been loyal to the CE earlier, so this is merely the preservation of the CE’s position in Syria. However, that position is weaker now in the wake of Salahuddin’s ejection from the JMA last month. In that position Salahuddin – and through him the CE as well – was in a stronger position by virtue of the JMA’s thousand or more fighters and their international makeup, hailing from Afghanistan, Central Asia, Tatarstan, Crimea, Syria, Europe and elsewhere. This assisted the CE’s networking within the larger global jihadi revolutionary movement, especially the AQ-led alliance within it and with prominent groups in Syria such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the newly formed Jeish Shariah. On the other hand, the CE and AQ dodged a bullet in that Salahuddin and the Caucasus mujahedin who left the JMA with him did not join the IS and is even more unlikely to do so now.

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Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation. He is also Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View, a Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, and an Adjunct Professor at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics. Dr. Hahn has been a visiting scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. (2011-2013), the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. (1995 and 2005), and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, San Francisco State, and St. Petersburg State (Russia) Universities.

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About Gordon M. Hahn