Once More About Russia’s Caucasus Emirate and the US ‘War on Terrorism’

by Gordon M. Hahn

When I specialized in jihadism and Islamism in Russia and Eurasia, I wrote quite a bit about the Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) or IK based in Russia’s North Caucasus. In my last writings on the subject I traced the IK mujahedin’s exodus or hijra from the North Caucasus to Syria, and some of those moved onto Iraq and the Islamic State or ISIS. One such figure was Umar al-Shishani (born Tarkhan Batirashvili), who along with several other amirs had been sent to Syria to join the jihadi then Al Qa`ida-affiliated groups. I traced Shishani’s youth, early Georgian military career where he received U.S. military training, his turn to jihad, his dispatch to Syria with several other amirs and funding from IK amir Dokku Umarov, his lead role in the Syria-based and IK- and AQ-affiliated jihadi group Jeish al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar (JMA), and his move to, and rise within the ISIS hierarchy. On these issues see, for example: https://gordonhahn.com/2014/04/01/the-caucasus-emirate-and-other-north-caucasus-mujahedin-in-syria-implications-for-russia-eurasia-and-the-global-jihadi-revolutionary-movement/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2015/10/20/report-an-anatomy-of-north-caucasus-tied-jihadi-groups-in-syria-and-iraq/).

Shishani was the driving force behind ISIS’s major military conquests in northern and central Iraq leading to the declaration of the ISIS as, well, the Islamic State that was prophesied to emerge before a great armageddon established Islam as the worldwide religion. I was ‘absent’ in scholarly terms after Shishani’s ‘career’, having turned to Russian politics and writing a book on the making of the Ukraine crisis [Gordon M. Hahn, Ukraine Over the Edge (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2017)]. In 2015 Shishani was captured by US forces in whose hands he died apparently from battlefield wounds. However, a new book reveals that Shishani had some association with the US-backed ‘moderate’ anti-Assad opposition, the Free Syrian Army, and thus again benefitted from American largesse; this, even as he vowed to return to Russia’s North Caucasus and continue the IK or ISIS jihad there.

In August 2013 Syria, as ISIS was first emerging as a force in Iraq, the Free Syrian Army affiliated with Revolutionary Military Council of Aleppo (RMCA) were the officially US- and Western-sanctioned national and regional commands fighting the Syrian army of Bashar Assad. The RMCA was headed by FSA Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi (Oqaidi). Al-Okaidi and the RMCA were main recipients of US and Western aid (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10425001/Syria-rebel-quits-after-battlefield-defeat.html). Indeed, months earlier US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had visited none other than al-Okaidi. In May, “Ford met with the head of the Aleppo military council, Abdul Jabbar Okaidi, who thanked him for the shipment of nonlethal aid” (www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/05/09/182665171/top-u-s-official-meets-with-rebels-inside-syria?t=1530091759569). Ford and other Obama administration officials have since acknowledged that US State Department funding-recipients included both ISIS and Al-Qaeda fighters in its ranks. Ford had warned al-Okaidi (Oqaidi) to end his public cooperation with Shishani. McClatchy Newspapers reported:

“When the importance of the jihadis became undeniable, Obama administration officials were irate.

That was the case on Aug. 5, 2013, when a pair of suicide bombers rammed an armored personnel carrier through the gate at Syria’s Menagh airbase near the northern city of Aleppo. The blast devastated the regime’s defenses and allowed rebels to capture a prize they’d been besieging for a year.

Basking in their hard-won victory, the fighters filmed themselves showing off the weapons they’d captured and praising the rebel cooperation behind the attack.

Back in Washington, however, there was no such jubilation.

‘We were furious,’ recalled Ford. ‘I called Oqaidi myself.’

Ford was referring to Col. Abdel-Jabbar al Oqaidi, then-commander of the Aleppo branch of the Free Syrian Army. The problem was that the American-backed colonel had been filmed celebrating his men’s joint victory with al Qaida-affiliated fighters, creating a public relations nightmare for the Obama administration, which was trying to show Congress and the American public that it was boosting moderates and isolating extremists on the battlefield.

Although Oqaidi’s men were among several Syrian factions besieging the base, the suicide bombers were foreign fighters and the shock troops came from a contingent of Russian-speaking jihadists from Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus. Their leader, known as Omar Shishani, was part of the al Qaida offshoot known at the time as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; today he’s believed to be the military commander for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State.

Even though administration officials had been worried for months about the metastasizing jihadist presence among the rebels, Ford said, the Menagh incident was the Obama administration’s wake-up call that the extremists had become the backbone of the anti-Assad forces, the go-to guys for when the less-trained, poorly equipped Free Syrian Army units couldn’t carry out attacks alone.

Frustrated by the turn of events and under pressure for an explanation, Ford called Oqaidi for what he called “a very unhappy phone conversation.”

“I said, ‘This is extremely unhelpful, extra unhelpful.’ And he said, ‘You gave us nothing to fight with,’” Ford recalled. “All I could say to him is: when you do stuff like that, you make it even harder. And he said, ‘Mr. Ambassador we have a war to fight’” (www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/national-security/article31018362.html).

More importantly, Shishani’s JMA and its ally AQ-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra were often allied and fought alongside each other, at times under joint command, against Assad’s Syrian army, in particular at Menagh. After the fall of Menagh to the Syrian rebels, the New York Times reported on 8 August 2013: After the battle, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, the head of the United States-backed opposition’s Aleppo military council, appeared in a video alongside Abu Jandal, a leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In camouflage, Colonel Okaidi offered thanks to ‘our brothers al-Muhajireen wal Ansar and others,’ adding: ‘We’re here to kiss every hand pressed on the trigger.’ He then ceded the floor to Abu Jandal and a mix of jihadist and Free Syrian Army leaders, who stood together, each praising his men, like members of a victorious basketball team” (www.nytimes.com/2013/08/09/world/middleeast/as-foreign-fighters-flood-syria-fears-of-a-new-extremist-haven.html?_r=0).

Colonel Okaidi and AQ’s Abu Jandal side-by-side

(https://dissidentvoice.org/2014/10/u-s-alliance-with-fsa-and-isil-in-six-photographs/)

In other words, we have a US-funded, jihadi-affiliated commander praising Shishani and the JMA.  The problem is that al-Okaidi appeared in a videotape with AQ-affiliated fighters praising in Arabic both Allah and the herioc mujahedin for the victory at Menagh and had stated in several Arab-language interviews that he communicated daily with ISIS fighters (https://youtu.be/yGaSghFK0nI). The NYT article cited above emphasized the decisive role Shishani’s JMA and its fighters suicide car-bombing raids had at the battle for Menagh, citing IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center analyst Charles Lister, who credited “the relentless suicide vehicle bombings on the walls of the base — five or six times in the past two weeks” — as turning the tide of battle (www.nytimes.com/2013/08/09/world/middleeast/as-foreign-fighters-flood-syria-fears-of-a-new-extremist-haven.html?_r=0).

Benjamin Hall’s book, Inside ISIS: The Brutal Rise of a Terrorist Army, a journalistic study that examines ISIS activity in Northern Syria during the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) 2012–2013 siege of Menagh, confirms Lister’s conclusion making the connection to Shishani (https://medium.com/@BradRHoff/islamic-state-leader-omar-al-shishani-fought-under-u-s-umbrella-as-late-as-2013-147354ea1b7f). Hall was embedded with FSA fighters, even staying in FSA camps around the Menagh base during the fighting. Hall describes the FSA being an ineffective and feckless fighting force, that is, until Shishani and his JaM arrived on the scene. He credits the Shishani and the JMA with the taking of Menagh: “That day in Minnah [or alternately Menagh], I was reminded that nothing happens on time in the Middle East. It took ten months for the rebels to finally capture that base, but it only fell when the FSA were joined by the ISIS leader Abu Omar Shishani and his brutal gang of Chechens. When we had been there, it had been under the sole control of badly funded, badly armed rebels with little knowledge of tactical warfare–but when Shishani arrived, he took control of the operation, and the base fell soon after” (Hall Inside ISIS, p. 74). Shishani and the JMA “systematically obliterated Menagh defenses by sacrificing as many men as it took” in suicide car-bombing raids. Noting that Shishani developed a certain mystique among the FSA fighters, Hall concludes that, “it is no exaggeration to say that Shishani and other battle hardened members of ISIS are the ones who brought the early military success” (Hall, Inside ISIS, p. 76). It needs to be pointed out that Shishani at this point had still not defected from the JMA, then allied with the AQ-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra to ISIS, as Hall’s characterization of Shishani indicates.

However, Shishani was nevertheless an uncompromising jihadist linked with both the IK and Jabhat al-Nusra, two AQ-allied groups. He was also linked to the US under the Obama administration and its Syrian ally, the FSA. In an August 2013 Al-Jazeera broadcast, Shishani can be seen after the Menagh fighting giving a brief interview in which talks about expelling the infidels from Syria standing next to the same Abu Jandal, mentioned in the NYT article, standing next to Okaidi in the photograph further above, and who is Okaidi’s second in command (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wt4ScAOo5BU). In at least one video we have Shishani praising in Russian the FSA’s long siege of the Menagh airbase (www.youtube.com/watch?t=259&v=t83DxOsh9pY), and in a statement from December 2013, when Shishani was already an ISIS member, we have him acknowledging that there were groups within the FSA that did not oppose his and ISIS’s aims and that the IK’s amir at that time, ‘Abu Usman’ Doku Umarov, had financed his ventures in Syria (http://eaworldview.com/2013/12/syria-spotlight-interview-isis-chechen-leader-abu-umar-al-shishani/).

Again, it must be remembered that Shishani had stated while in Syria that he intended to return to Russia to continue the jihad there and that he had been sent to Syria and financed by the IK (https://gordonhahn.com/2014/04/01/the-caucasus-emirate-and-other-north-caucasus-mujahedin-in-syria-implications-for-russia-eurasia-and-the-global-jihadi-revolutionary-movement/). Indeed, the same NYT piece cited above interviewed an apparent FSA commander in Raqqa, named Abu Umar, who threatened Russia: “Russia is killing Muslims in southern Muslim republics and sends arms and money to kill Muslims in Syria as well…. I swear by God that Russia will pay a big price for its dirty role in the Syrian war”“Russia is killing Muslims in southern Muslim republics and sends arms and money to kill Muslims in Syria as well,” he said. “I swear by God that Russia will pay a big price for its dirty role in the Syrian war” (www.nytimes.com/2013/08/09/world/middleeast/as-foreign-fighters-flood-syria-fears-of-a-new-extremist-haven.html?_r=0).

This means that intentionally or not, Washington was aiding and abetting a jihadi terrorist targeting Russia with ties to the IK based inside Russia. Shishani’s biography and his role within ISIS and ties to the US-backed FSA and RMCA in Syria were well-known to Russian intelligence and the Kremlin. It is likely that this knowledge played a role in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the beleaguered regime of Bashar Assad.

SELECTED WORKS BY GORDON M. HAHN ON THE CAUCASUS EMIRATE’S TIES TO AL QA`IDA AND ISIS:

BOOK: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014).

CE Mujahedin Book Cover

BOOK: Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Islamic Threat (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007).

WHITE PAPER: The Caucasus Emirate and Other North Caucasus Mujahedin in Syria and the Implications for Russia, Eurasia, and the Global Jihadi Revolutionary Movement,” Russian and Eurasian Politics White Paper, 1 April 2014, https://gordonhahn.com/2014/04/01/the-caucasus-emirate-and-other-north-caucasus-mujahedin-in-syria-implications-for-russia-eurasia-and-the-global-jihadi-revolutionary-movement/

REPORTThe Islamic State-Al Qa`ida Tussle Over the Caucasus Emirate Continues,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 10 March 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/03/10/the-islamic-state-al-qaida-tussle-over-the-caucasus-emirate-continues/

REPORT: The Caucasus Emirate in the Levant and the IS-AQ Fitna, Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 25 February 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/02/25/the-caucasus-emirate-in-the-levant-and-the-is-aq-fitna-complete-parts-1-and-2/

REPORT: Caucasus Jihadism Through Western Eyes: The Failure of American Rusology to Understand the North Caucasus Mujahedin, Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 18 February 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/02/18/caucasus-jihadism-through-western-eyes-the-failure-of-american-rusology-to-understand-the-north-caucasus-mujahedin/

The Islamic State Splits the Caucasus Emirate,” Fair Observer, 23 January 2015, http://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/the-islamic-state-splits-the-caucasus-emirate-18941/

Leading Global Jihadi Authority Maqdisi Issues Fatwa to Shore Up Struggling Caucasus Emirate,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 28 May 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/05/28/leading-global-jihadi-authority-maqdisi-issues-fatwa-to-shore-up-struggling-caucasus-emirate/.

Changes in Caucasus Emirate’s Leadership and Structure After Defections to the Islamic State,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 20 April 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/04/20/changes-in-the-caucasus-emirates-leadership-and-structure-after-the-defections-to-the-islamic-state/

The Caucasus Vilaiyat of the Islamic State,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 3 July 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/07/03/the-caucasus-vilaiyat-of-the-islamic-state/

Between Al-Nusra and ISIS: The Caucasus Emirate in Syria (Sham) Survives,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 7 August 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/08/07/between-al-nusra-and-isis-the-caucasus-emirate-in-sham-syria-survives/

The Imarat Kavkaz Shows Some Life in Its Dagestan Vilaiyat,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 2 August 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/08/02/the-imarat-kavkaz-caucasus-emirate-shows-some-life-in-its-dagestan-vilaiyat/

Caucasus Emirate Amir Appoints Vet of Jihad in Syria as Dagestan’s Mountain Sector Amir,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 26 July 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/07/26/caucasus-emirate-amir-appoints-vet-of-jihad-in-syria-as-dagestan-mountain-sectors-amir/

IS North Caucasians Say West Supplied Jihadi Groups in Syria,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 17 July 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/07/17/is-north-caucasians-say-west-supplied-jihadi-groups-in-syria/

Former JMA Amir Seifullah Shishani Has Given the Bayat to New Caucasus Emirate Amir Gimravii,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 9 July 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/07/09/former-jma-amir-seifullah-shishani-has-given-the-bayat-to-new-caucasus-emirate-amir-gimravii/

Make It Stop: US Counter-Terrorism Still Gets the Caucasus Emirate Wrong,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 23 June 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/06/23/make-it-stop-us-counter-terrorism-still-gets-the-caucasus-emirate-mujahedin-wrong/

The Caucasus Emirate of the Islamic State: The CE’s Full Integration into IS is Almost Complete,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 19 June 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/06/19/the-caucasus-emirate-of-the-islamic-state-the-ces-full-integration-into-is-is-almost-complete/

Jihad Denial on the Potomac,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 3 June 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/06/18/jihad-denial-on-the-potomac/

Jihadi Target – ‘Eurasia’: The Islamic State’s New Russian-Language Journals,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 3 June 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/06/03/jihadi-target-eurasia-the-islamic-states-new-russian-language-journals/

Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin Sentenced to Prison in France,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 1 May 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/05/01/caucasus-emirate-mujahedin-sentenced-to-prison-in-france/

More Global Jihadi Groups Send Condolences to the Caucasus Emirate,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 27 April 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/04/27/more-global-jihad-groups-send-condolences-to-the-caucasus-emirate/

Crimean Tatar JMA Naib Slams the Islamic State,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 18 April 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/04/18/crimean-tatar-jma-naib-krymskii-slams-the-islamic-state/

JMA Message to the Caucasus Emirate’s Chechnya Network,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 14 April 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/04/14/jma-message-to-the-caucasus-emirates-chechnya-network/

Is JMA Amir Salahuddin the Most Influential Eurasian in the Global Jihad?,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 14 April 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/04/14/is-jma-amir-salahuddin-the-most-influential-eurasian-in-the-global-jihad/

JMA Message to the Caucasus Emirate’s Chechnya Network,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 14 April 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/04/14/jma-message-to-the-caucasus-emirates-chechnya-network/

How Many North Caucasus Mujahedin Are Fighting in Iraq and Syria,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 12 April 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/04/12/how-many-north-caucasian-mujahedin-are-fighting-in-iraq-and-syria/

Caucasus Emirate-tied Jeish al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar Makes Gains in Syria,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 11 April 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/04/11/caucasus-emirate-tied-jeish-al-muhajirin-wal-ansar-makes-gains-in-syria-march-2015/

The Expanding Globalization of the North Caucasus Jihadists,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 14 February 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/02/14/the-expanding-globalization-of-the-north-caucasus-jihadists/

The Nogai Steppe Vilaiyat of the Caucasus Emirate under Jeish al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 4 March 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/03/04/the-nogai-steppe-vilaiyat-of-the-caucasus-emirate-under-jeish-al-muhajirin-wal-ansar-in-syria/

Al Qa`ida-Caucasus Emirate Plot to Attack Azerbaijan: New Arrest Details, Implications,” Gordonhahn.com Russian and Eurasian Politics, 23 September 2015, https://gordonhahn.com/2015/09/23/2012-al-qaida-caucasus-emirate-plot-to-attack-azerbaijan-new-arrest-details/

Dr. Gordon M. Hahn’s Testimony Before the U.S. Congress Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence Hearing “Assessing Terrorism in the Caucasus and the Threat to the Homeland,” 3 April 2014, https://homeland.house.gov/hearing/subcommitte-hearing-assessing-terrorism-caucasus-and-threat-homeland/; http://docs.house.gov/meetings/HM/HM05/20140403/102041/HHRG-113-HM05-Wstate-HahnG-20140403.pdf; and https://gordonhahn.com/2017/06/02/gordon-m-hahns-congressional-testimony-before-the-united-states-house-of-representatives-committee-on-homeland-securitys-sub-committee-on-intelligence-and-security-u-s-congress-april-3/

A Profile of Jund al-Sham (Junoud al-Sham) Amir ‘Abu Walid’ Muslim Margoshvili,” Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, 19 December 2013, http://geostrategicforecasting.net/gordonhahn/2013/12/19/84/.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government. Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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About Gordon M. Hahn