Islamic extremism in former Soviet Countries, Case of Abu Omar Al Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili) and ISIL threats to Vladimir Putin

Introduction

Terrorist group ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), sometimes referred to as ISIS or simply IS, is now controlling a huge amount of land both in Iraq and Syria. Their influence is growing and their numbers are increasing on a daily basis. However, recruits of ISIL do not come only from the Middle East but also from Western nations. Many also come from former Soviet countries, mostly from Central Asia and the Caucasus region with huge numbers coming from the Russian North Caucasus, mainly Chechnya and Dagestan.

Central Asia

According to Erlan Karin, an expert on the Middle East from Kazakhstan, there are large numbers of Central Asians fighting for the Islamic state with around 250 Kazakh citizens, 100 Kyrgyz, 190 Tajiks, 360 Turkmens and more than 500 Uzbeks. Reports say that military units are created with fighters only of Uzbek ethnicity; those units are called Imam Bukhari Jamaat. Other sources estimate that there are anywhere between 1000 to 5000 jihadists from Central Asia in ISIS, with Central Asians from Russia and Turkey also joining the Terrorist group. New members from this region are recruited mostly through Russian speaking social media (Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki) and in mosques (Uznews, 2014).

ISIL represents a serious threat to Central Asian regimes, with many fighters already returning home and in increasing numbers. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (a terrorist group known as IMU) has already declared their allegiance to ISIL. Other disturbing elements for Central Asian countries have also occurred such as the appearance of ISIL symbols on Tashkent Bridge in Uzbekistan and the appointment of an ethnic Tajik as an Amir of Raqqa province in Syria (Stobdan, 2014)

Overall, the threat of Islamic extremism to Central Asia is very real. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are the most vulnerable countries while Kazakhstan seems to be more stable.

North Caucasus (Russia)

The vast majority of fighters that join the Islamic State group from former Soviet countries are from the Russian North Caucasus, the Muslim majority republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygea. The North Caucasus and Chechnya in particular have a long history of religious extremism and terrorism (First Chechen war, Second Chechen war, Insurgency in the North Caucasus). Arab mujahedeens used to send their fighters and Amirs to support the Caucasus Emirate movement, a terrorist group with strong ties with Al-Qaeda led by Dokka Umarov (killed in 2013).  But now the movement of fighters has reversed. Mujahedeens from Chechnya and other republics have joined ISIL fighters in Iraq and Syria in big numbers.

Militants from the Caucasus might not be the most numerous units in ISIL but they are some of the most successful. Chechens and others have occupied high ranks in ISIL and conducted successful operations. There has been a slight quietness in the north Caucasus itself after the two Chechen wars, however experts believe it might not take much time until the fighters will return from Syria and Iraq to continue jihad against Russia. The Islamic State group members made numerous videos with threats towards Putin’s regime. But among the Chechen Islamists there is confusion over ISIL, due to the Caucasus Emirate’s long-time affiliation with Al-Qaeda which has ended any connection it had with ISIL. (Ekkel, M.; Tlisova F.; and Kalandadze A; 2014)

South Caucasus

ISIL is a big problem not only for the North Caucasian republics but also for countries in the South Caucasus. Armenia is not mentioned often in news because there are almost no Armenian citizens involved in terrorist activities abroad. However, Armenians are often victims of ISIL. There is a large Armenian minority in Syria and because they are Christian, Islamic State fighters in Kessab and elsewhere have prosecuted them. Armenians were killed and expelled, while Armenian churches were destroyed during the Syrian civil war. (Brown, 2014)

According to unofficial sources hundreds of Georgians are fighting under the ISIL flag. Georgia has a large Muslim minority (around 10 percent), half of them are Sunni (ethnic Georgians in Ajara region; Kists and Chechens from Pankisi valley), and half of them are Shia (Azeri minority). Two Georgian nationals are listed among 21 individuals on the US sanctions list, including one of the key military leaders of ISIL. Georgia wants to cooperate with Western allies to combat ISIL and its authorities had planned to help moderate Syrian rebels but were afraid of the Russian response, a long-time ally of Assad regime. (Mdzinarishvili, 2014)

One of the most notorious and influential Georgian jihadists, Abu Omar (Tarkhan Batirashvili), comes from a village called Birkiani in the Pankisi Valley. He was born into a mixed Georgian-Chechen family, with his father a practicing orthodox Christian. However, Omar chose a different path and has become one of the key military leaders of ISIL. It was his units that captured Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul and he is now currently involved in the siege of Kobane, a Kurdish city on the Turkey-Syrian border. He is considered a hero for many young radicalized Muslims in the Pankisi valley and elsewhere in the Caucasus. (Akhmeteli, 2014).

Azerbaijanis are fighting for both sides in the Syrian civil war, some Azeri Shias are going to assist the Assad regime while Azeri Sunnis are fighting with ISIL members. Foreign jihadists from Azerbaijan come mostly from the capital Baku and from northern regions, where many Sunni Azeris and north Caucasians live. It is believed that hundreds of Azeris went to Syria and Iraq. ISIL has also included Azerbaijan in its maps and issued threats towards the Azeri government (North Caucasus Caucus, 2014)

Conclusion

ISIL is a major threat not only for Syria and Iraq but also for the wider Middle East, primarily countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and the whole world. The threat is also particularly high for Russia and other former soviet countries; ISIL terrorists have included the Caucasus into their ‘maps’ and have promised to start a jihad against Russia. The North Caucasus and Central Asia might be the next hot spots after Iraq and Syria.

About the Author

Giorgi Shengelia is a graduate of University College Dublin (UCD) with a bachelor’s degree in Politics and International Relations, and a master’s degree in Geopolitics and Global Economics. He has completed an internship in the Georgian Embassy to Ireland and is currently working in the Human Rights Committee in the Parliament of Georgia. His fields of interests include Geopolitics, Human Rights, European Union and Middle East Politics. Giorgi is part of GPPW’s internship programme.

You can find him on Facebook and Linkedin 

*Cover image ‘On both sides of the border between Syria and Iraq there are now 35.000 Squaremiles ‘Islamic State” by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann

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