State Department adds Chechen, Moroccan-led jihadist groups to terrorist list

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Salahuddin al Shishani (left), a Chechen commander who leads the Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, and Abdul Karim al Ukrani (center), a Ukrainian, sitting behind an Imarat Kavkaz flag while in Syria.

The US State Department added ten individuals and two organizations to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists today.

The designated parties include the Chechen-led Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar and the Moroccan-led Harakat Sham al Islam, as well as Murad Margoshvilli, the leader of the Junud al Sham. The two groups and the jihadist leader are closely allied with the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, and other jihadist organizations in the region. Harakat Sham al Islam was founded by three former Guantanamo Bay detainees.

The additions to the State Department’s list of terrorists is part of a series of designations that includes four al Qaeda leaders, a Shabaab leader, and three Islamic State leaders and operatives. [See LWJ report, US government designations target al Qaeda’s international network and Threat Matrix report Islamic State, Shabaab leaders added to US terrorism list.]

Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar

Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, or the Army of the Emigrants and Helpers or Muhajireen Army, is an al Qaeda and Islamic State-allied jihadist group that is populated by commanders and fighters from the Islamic Caucasus Emirate as well as a large number of Syrians. The group is considered to be the Islamic Caucasus’ branch in Syria. After the death of Islamic Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov, the Muhajireen Army swore allegiance to his replacement, Ali Abu Mukhammad.

The Muhajireen Army was founded by Omar al Shishani, a Chechen leader who joined the Islamic State in the fall of of 2013. Salahuddin al Shishani is the current emir of the Muhajireen Army.

The State Department described the Muhajireen Army as “a Chechen-led terrorist organization based in Syria that consists primarily of foreign fighters.” However, the group is known to have integrated Syrian rebel brigades into its ranks. [See LWJ report, Chechen commander forms ‘Army of Emigrants,’ integrates Syrian groups ].

The tactical prowess of the fighters from the Caucasus, who have battled Russian troops for three decades, is evident on the Syrian battlefield. The Muhajireen Army has been instrumental in helping jihadists achieve key victories against Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces. The group has spearheaded operations against key Syrian bases, including the operation to take Minnigh Airport in Aleppo.

The Muhajireen Army has deployed suicide bombers and launched suicide assaults as part of their offensives. Additionally, the group is know to run training camps inside Syria. [See LWJ report, Muhajireen Army releases video of Syrian training camp.]

The Muhajireen Army has attempted to remain neutral in the dispute between the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State. But the group has gravitated toward the Al Nusrah Front and its ally, Ahrar al Sham, over the past year.

Harakat Sham al Islam

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Ibrahim Bin Shakaran, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who co-founded Harakat Sham al Islam.

State described Harakat Sham al Islam as “a Moroccan-led terrorist organization operating in Syria principally composed of foreign fighters.” Additionally, the terrorist group “has carried out terrorist attacks and engaged in kidnappings against civilians with other violent extremist organizations in Syria, including the Al Nusrah Front.”

Sham al Islam was one of several rebel groups that fought in another offensive in Latakia in August 2013 in which major human rights abuses were committed. While Human Rights Watch noted that Sham al Islam was present during the offensive, it could not confirm if the group was involved in the atrocities committed. The group’s allies, the Al Nusrah Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, Ahrar al Sham, the Muhajireen Army, and Suquor al Izz, were directly implicated. [See Report highlights al Qaeda affiliates’ role in Syrian atrocities, from LWJ.]

Harakat Sham al Islam was founded in 2013 by Ibrahim bin Shakran, Ahmed Mizouz, and Mohammed Alami, three Moroccans who were captured in Afghanistan after the US invasion in 2001, detained at Guantanamo Bay, and then released to the custody of the Moroccan government in 2004. Bin Shakran was released despite an assessment by Joint Task Force Guantanamo that identified him as a “high-ranking member” of the theological commission of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization.

The Moroccan government inexplicably released the three jihadist leaders sometime in late 2004. Bin Shakran and Mizouz immediately retuned to jihadist activities, were arrested and convicted of supporting terrorism in 2007, and then freed from prison after serving short sentences.

Bin Shakran, who is also known as Abu Ahmad al Maghribi, Abu Ahmad al Muhajir, and Brahim Benchekroune, led Harakat Sham al Islam up until he was killed while fighting alongside the Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham, and Muhajireen Army during offensive against Syrian forces in the coastal province of Latakia earlier this year. [See LWJ report, Former Guantanamo detainee killed while leading jihadist group in Syria, for more details on Bin Shakran.]

Alami, one of the group’s cofounders, was killed in Syria in August 2013.

Mizouz is still active within Harakat Sham al Islam.

Murad Margoshvili

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Murad Margoshvili, the emir of Junud al Sham who is also known as Muslim al Shishani, celebrating with al Qaeda and Ahrar al Sham leaders in Latakia in the spring of 2014.

Murad Margoshvili, who is better known as Muslim al Shishani, is the Chechen commander of Junud al Sham, or Soldiers of Syria.

State described him as “a well-known Chechen leader in Syria who built a terrorist training base in Syria near the Turkish border, where newly arrived foreign fighters received combat training.”

“He is also the leader of Junud al-Sham, a militant group that fights alongside other extremist groups in Syria,” State continued in its designation.

Junud al Sham conducts joint operations with the Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham and its parent organization, the Islamic Front, and the Muhajireen Army. Muslim was captured on video celebrating a jihadist victory in Latakia in March 2014. Also seen in the video is Dr. Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, an al Qaeda-linked Saudi cleric; Hassan Abboud, the slain emir of Ahrar al Sham who was close to Ayman al Zawahiri’s personal emissary to Syria; and a Chechen commander know and Abu Tarib al Shishani. [See LWJ report, Chechen al Qaeda commander, popular Saudi cleric, and an Ahrar al Sham leader spotted on front lines in Latakia.]

Muslim al Shishani has been waging jihad for three decades, according to a video biography that was released in November 2013 and translated by MEMRI.

Muslim “served in the air defense division of the Soviet army in Moldova” before the collapse of the Soviet Union, MEMRI reported. Afterwards he joined the jihad in Chechnya and fought alongside Ibn Khattab, a Saudi who led al Qaeda’s International Islamic Brigade in Chechnya before he was assassinated by Russian forces in 2002.

“He worked with many leading figures in the Chechen-Arab units, including Abu Jafar and Ibn Khattab’s successor Abu al Walid, and was eventually promoted to the position of field commander,” according to MEMRI. He was captured by Russian forces in 2003 and released after two-and-a-half years in detention. In 2008, he formed a fighting unit in the Russian Caucasus’ Republic of Dagestan. He had sworn allegiance to Doku Umarov, the slain emir of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Caucasus Emirate.

In 2012, Muslim left the Caucasus to wage jihad in Syria.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal.

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1 Comment

  • abdallaha92 says:

    Actually Jaish al Muhajreen wal ansar fought against IS for a time. They used to be part of IS, but left it and Omar al shishani. Now they and Harakat al sham are part of Ansar al Dine.

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