The leader of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate’s branch in Syria, who has attempted to remain neutral in and mediate the fued between the Islamic State and the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, accused the Islamic State of creating “fitna,” or civil strife, amongst the jihadist and rebel groups in the country.
Salahuddin al Shishani, the emir of the Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, or the Army of the Emigrants and Helpers or Muhajireen Army, also accused the Islamic State of attempting to assassinate him after he and others tried to mediate a truce between the Islamic State and the Al Nusrah Front. Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar is listed by the US as Specially Designated Global Terrorist organization. The jihadist group has sworn loyalty to the Islamic Caucasus Emirate, an al Qaeda-linked group that operates in the Russian Caucasus.
Salahuddin made the accusations against the Islamic State in an interview with Al Jazeera Turk on May 26. The interview was translated by a jihadist and posted online.
In the interview, Salahuddin said that the Syrian people initially “welcomed us [the muhajireen or foreign fighters] warmly” but many turned on them after the Islamic State turned on fellow jihadist groups.
“What happened afterwards is literally a fitna,” Salahuddin claimed. The Islamic State “declared war against all Mujahideen groups and created a new front.”
He also noted that many fighters from the Caucasus joined the Islamic State due to the group’s “strong propaganda which they use very well and which needs to be taken seriously.”
“[M]any of our (Caucasian) youth believed in the deceptive propaganda of ISIS and joined them,” he stated. “Unfortunately, there are still young people who join them firstly because of their name and then because of the attraction of their propaganda.”
Many of the Caucasian jihadists who joined the Islamic State serve under Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili, a Georgian national who is better known as Omar al Shishani. Omar, who is listed by the US as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, is a top military commander for the Islamic State. He is credited with some of the jihadist group’s more brazen victories in both Iraq and Syria. Omar previously served as the emir for the Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar before defecting to the Islamic State.
Despite the divisions amongst jihadist and other rebel groups that the Islamic State created, Salahuddin and his Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar remained neutral and attempted to facilitate a truce between the Islamic State and the Al Nusrah Front. The two groups have been at odds since Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared the Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham (Syria) in early 2014 and attempted to absorb Al Nusrah. Al Qaeda ultimately expelled the Islamic State from its network as Baghdadi refused to obey the order of Ayman al Zawahiri to confine its fighting to Iraq.
Salahuddin said that he was chosen to mediate the dispute and obtain a temporary ceasefire to support the fighting in Aleppo (the “Muhajideen” were hoping to obtain a cease fire “for at least 3 to 6 months, so that we first could expel the regime” from Handarat). But the negotiations never got off the ground as the Islamic State mediators continuously insulted Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of the Al Nusrah Front.
“I went to Raqqah,” the Islamic State controlled city in Western Syria, “and met with high-ranking commanders of [the Islamic State] and Omar al Shishani was among them,” he claimed. “Actually, the meeting ended before it really started because it didn’t come to a basis for any dialogue. Just when we started talking about the issue, they began to insult the Emir of Jabhat al Nusrah and so I interfered. They didn’t stop with that. It was a hopeless attempt and while I knew that this would be the result, I wasn’t able to reject the requests of the fighting groups.”
Salahuddin said that he left the meeting unharmed but shortly afterward the Islamic State attempted to assassinate him.
“One of our brothers became Shaheed [a martyr] in this attack,” Salahuddin told Al Jazeera Turk. “They intimidate us to give Bayah [oath of loyalty] to them.”
An assassination attempt was carried out on Salahuddin on Jan. 19, according to freelance reporter Ibn Nabih. Salahuddin’s driver was reported to have been killed in the bombing.
Despite the attempt at intimidation, Salahuddin said he would remain loyal to the Islamic Caucasus Emirate.
“Me and my group gave Bayah to the Emir of the Caucasus (Abu Usman) [or Doku Umarov, the previous emir of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate] and even though we said many times that we won’t break our pledge, they [the Islamic State] didn’t give up,” he said.
Salahuddin also disclosed some other interesting details. He said that he fought alongside “Hamza Gelayev,” or Ruslan Gelayev, the Chechen military commander who fought in the First and Second Chechen Wars and was killed by Russian forces in 2004. Ruslan’s son, Rustam Gelayev, was killed in August 2013 in Aleppo while fighting alongside Chechen fighters, according to Kavkaz Center, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate.
“I came to Syria by the order of the Caucasus Emirate,” Salahuddin claimed.
He also claimed that his group does not receive support from foreign governments and survives by capturing Syrian military equipment and supplies.
“We trust in our warfare and we use the war booty we capture to resist the injustice,” he said. “Currently we are in the possession of tanks and countless Ghanima [spoils of war] which we captured from the Assad regime… Only in our operation to the mountain in Maara we received financial support from a Arab Shaykh.”
Additionally, Salahuddin said that fighters from the Caucasus excel on the Syrian battlefields “due to their experience in war.”
“Our Chechen fighers had a great influence in these four years of war. And this influence still does exist. We are proud to fight alongside our Syrian Ansar brothers and for the same goal,” he stated.
The tactical prowess of the fighters from the Caucasus, who have battled Russian troops for three decades, has been evident on the Syrian battlefield for some time. Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar 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 in June 2013.
Most recently, Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar played a key role in the Syrian Army’s defeat at Jisr al Shughur, Idlib city, and the Al Mastoumah military camp in Idlib province, as Salahuddin admitted in the interview. Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar fought alongside Jaysh al Fateh, the coalition of jihadist and rebel groups that is heavily influenced by the Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front leader preaches jihadist unity in Idlib.]
“And we fight in the surrounding areas of Aleppo in the battlefronts Mallah, Layramon, Abu Duhur, Jabali Azzam and Kantuman,” he noted.
The Muhajireen Army uses the same tactics as al Qaeda. The group 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.]
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.