Chechen al Qaeda Commander Spotted on Front Lines in Latakia
A prominent Saudi cleric and a Chechen military commander in a unit of the Al Nusrah Front for the People in the Levant, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, celebrated together after recent heavy fighting against Syrian government forces in a mountainous area in the coastal province of Latakia. The leader of Ahrar al Sham is also seen in the video.
Muslim al Shishani, a Chechen jihadist and Al Nusrah military commander, is seen in a video with Dr. Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, an al Qaeda-linked Saudi cleric, after the Al Nusrah Front overran a Syrian military position in the eastern province. The video was posted on YouTube on March 26.
In the video, hundreds of jihadists are shown walking around the captured outpost as fires, presumably caused by the the fighting, are still burning. A tank and a pickup truck with a machine gun mounted in the bed are seen in the background. Gunfire is heard, but it sounds celebratory.
The camera follows the red-bearded Muslim as he praises the jihadists for defeating Syrian forces. At 0:58, the video pauses as Muslim is pictured with another Chechen commander, Abu Tarab al Shishani. The video then pauses again at 1:02 as Muslim and Muhaysini embrace.
The video again pauses at 1:53 and Abu Tarab al Shishani is seen embracing with Hassan Aboud, the emir of Ahrar al Sham, one of the leading groups in the Islamic Front. Senior al Qaeda leaders are known to have served in the top leadership circles of Ahrar al Sham.
The Al Nusrah Front has allied with Ahrar al Sham and a Salafist group known as Ansar al Sham, in an offensive to take control of areas in Latakia. The jihadist groups have seized a coastal village, “the Armenian Christian village of Kasab,” and a border crossing with Turkey, according to Reuters.
Muhaysini, the Saudi cleric who moved to Syria in 2013 and has more than 240,000 followers on Twitter, has publicly supported the position of the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic Front in their dispute with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham. When he launched an initiative in January to reconcile the groups by creating a sharia court to settle disputes, Muhaysini cited al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. In February, after the ISIS rejected his plan, Muhaysini called on ISIS fighters and leaders to defect and join the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic Front. [See LWJ reports, Popular Saudi cleric endorses Islamic Front, calls for cooperation with al Qaeda; Saudi cleric’s reconciliation initiative for jihadists draws wide support, then a rejection; and Pro-al Qaeda Saudi cleric calls on ISIS members to defect.]
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 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 and led a group known as Jund al Sham, or the Army of Syria. His group, along with those under the command of Saifullah al Shishani and another Chechen known as Abu Walid al Shishani, merged with the Al Nusrah Front.
Chechen-led jihadist groups have been some of the fiercest units in the Syrian civil war. Chechens and others from the Russian Caucasus and even from the Ukraine hold prominent positions in jihadist units fighting in Syria. Omar al Shishani commands fighters in the ISIS and his fighters are routinely in the forefront of the fighting. Another Chechen, Salahuddin al Shishani, serves as the emir of the Muhajireen Army; his deputy is Abdul Karim Krymsky, a Crimean Tatar from the Ukraine. Hundreds of fighters from the Caucasus and Russia are known to fight in the ranks of the jihadist groups in Syria that are commanded by Chechen leaders.
Two senior Chechen commanders, Saifullah al Shishani and Muhammad al Shishani, have been killed so far this year while fighting Syrian government forces in Aleppo.
THE LONG WAR JOURNAL