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The Chechen factor in the Islamic State: The immediate threat to the Russian Federation

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BY DR. THEODORE KARASIK

It is well known that there are 'Chechens' who are key leaders and tacticians in the Islamic State.  These Chechens are influential, cunning, and have long-term plans including a return to the Russian Federation.  Chechen fighters and field commanders have featured prominently in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, almost from its start over three years ago. While a number of them may have departed directly from the Russian republic, others are likely veterans or relatives of exiles from the two separatist Chechen wars that took place in the 1990s. The threat to the Russian Federation from the Islamic State is a clear and present danger.

The Chechens in the Islamic State

Before diving into this topic, we need to be alert to the term 'Chechen'.  Chechen is not necessarily in reference to the fighters from the Caucasus Emirate but is applied to the peoples of the Northern Caucasus and the Middle Volga region.  There are estimates that 3000 or more Russian Federation citizens serve in Islamic State combat forces in the Islamic State.  Some of these fighters may be part of the Chechen diaspora from Georgia, Turkey, and Europe.  Some claim that up to 80 per cent of ISIL groups in Syria are former residents of Russia’s North Caucasus and Middle Volga republics.

Chechen Islamic State fighters are involved in leadership and in many attacks.  Musa Abu Yusuf al-Shishani (Umar al-Shishani), whose original name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is an ethnic Chechen from Georgia’s Pankisi Valley and a senior military commander of the group Islamic State.  He is featured prominently in many Islamic State video productions.  Jamaat Ahadun Ahad or 'The Group of The One and Only,' has four Chechen Muhajir combat brigades in Syria in the vicinity of Latakia. Although described as 'an independent organisation, it does serve with the Islamic State. Furthermore, the initial attack on the Aleppo prison began with the use of two suicide bombers who were supposedly Chechens. Also, in the execution of Syrian and Iraqi soldiers, there are videos with fighters speaking Russian, so they are very likely to be 'Chechens.'  A major reason for the large number of Chechens in ISIL is that the group pays well. These fighters earn the high end of the pay grade from the Islamic State’s coffers, up to $5000 a month excluding room, board, and healthcare plus wives and slaves.

Recently, when Islamic State jihadists in Syria released a video threatening to bring the Russian republic of Chechnya into their self-proclaimed caliphate, after capturing Russian-made Sukhoi planes in Syria, there was concern about when the Russian Federation will be targeted specifically.  In the video, the speaker stated: 'This message is addressed to you, oh (Russian President) Vladimir Putin,' said an Islamic State fighter in the video. 'These are your aircraft which you sent to (Syrian President) Bashar (al-Assad), and with the help of Allah we’ll send them back to you. Remember this. And with the permission of Allah, we’ll liberate Chechnya and all the Caucasus.'  Clearly, this statement is a reminder of the threat harboured by the Islamic State towards the Russian Federation.

How Chechen battle techniques help the Islamic State

Chechen battlefield techniques are well proven by their fighting throughout the past 20 years.  Chechen clans, called taip, identify member descent from a common ancestor twelve generations removed. A particular taip might consist of two to three villages of 400 to 600 people each and supply 600 fighters. For combat purposes, these groups are broken down into units of 150 and further subdivided into squads of about 20 for combat operations that work one-week shifts, one after the other. The organisational structure and activity helps the Islamic State in their battle operations since many fighters in the group are based on tribal networks.

The Chechen’s tribal/clan structure provides an ideal organisational structure for the war the Islamic State is fighting. Their basic combat group consists of fifteen to twenty personnel, subdivided three or four-man fighting cells. These cells are deployed as anti-armour hunter-killer teams consisting of an antitank gunner, a machine or sub-machine gunner, and a sniper. The sniper and machine gunner pin down Iraqi supporting infantry, while the antitank gunners engage the armoured target. Normally, five or six hunter-killer teams are deployed.

The Chechens also contribute the Islamic State’s diverse psychological operations, such as deception, perception management and electronic warfare to a powerful effect. One proven tactic during the 1990s was to place Russian wounded and dead upside down in the windows of defended positions forcing the Russians to fire at their comrades in order to engage rebels.  That type of activity is now seen in the crucifixions and decapitations seen by the Islamic State.  It is important to point out that Russian soldiers were decapitated in an extremely graphic manner regularly in the 1990s, so this tactic is not new.  At a more technical level, the Chechens seem to have taught the Islamic State how to send false radio messages intended to be intercepted in order to confuse Russian forces. The Chechens also transmit their own, personal messages using social media.

Overall, Chechen social networks form the basis for their military organisational structures, imbuing the Islamic State  with much flexibility and the sort of durability required in their war with the Syrians, the Iraqis, and ultimately, the coalition led by the United States against the Islamic State.

Immediate threat to Russia

The implications for the Russian Federation are serious. A map issued recently by the Islamic State identified several caliphates it intends to establish within the next five years. One of these, the Qauqaz, sees a unified Northern and Southern Caucasus caliphate.   Clearly, the Russian Federation should be concerned as the Islamic State not only has significant influence on regional geopolitics, but serves as inspiration for extremist sympathisers in other parts of the world specifically in and around the Russian Federation.

In the near future, the Islamic State may begin to target the Russian Federation. A hydrocarbon energy distribution network that feeds much of Europe criss-crosses Caucasus, for which the Chechen Republic and Dagestan are a critical oil and gas transit corridor connecting Caspian Sea production fields and Russia’s Black Sea export terminals. Three major pipelines transit the Caucasus:

  • Baku–Novorossiysk oil pipeline (Northern Route Export or Northern Early Oil pipeline) that runs from Baku, Azerbaijan, northward through Dagestan along the Caspian Sea, turning west toward Grozny and across Chechnya to its terminus at Novorossiysk on Russia’s Black Sea coast. The pipeline also transports oil from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan that is delivered via tanker to the Caspian seaport of Makhachkala, Dagestan.
  • Mozdok–Makhachkala–Kazi Magomed, a natural gas pipeline running from Azerbaijan through Chechnya and Dagestan to Mozdok, Republic of North Ossetia–Alania, where it connects with North Caucasus–Moscow line.
  • Makat-North Caucasus, a natural gas pipeline transporting natural gas from Turkmenbashi to the Caucasus and Ukraine.

While some might think that destruction of these pipelines would be a natural to instill terror, but the Islamic State has learned that oil production is a valuable enterprise.  During the 1990s, Chechen rebels operated a black market in the Northern Caucasus; returning to this enterprise is not out of the question. Of course, other high profile attacks may be in the offering against transit infrastructure, theatres, hospitals, and other institutions.  There are plenty of precedents of these types of attacks in the Russian Federation.

Conclusion

If the Russian Federation future remains static, the Islamic State’s influence on Russia and global politics most likely will be marginal. But if a breakdown happens for whatever reasons, the extremists and jihadists will play an important role in shaping events, at least in the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga region. In addition, the longer it takes to destroy the Islamic State, the higher the likelihood that some of its battle-hardened militants will make their way back to the Russian Federation.  In this case, the terrorism risks in Russia will increase because they will possess considerable combat experience gained in Syria and Iraq—plus they will be seeking revenge through the concept of an 'eye for an eye'.

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