The Chechen Component of Jaish al Muhajurun wal Ansar
Dr Farhan ZAHID & Mohammad SALMAN
Dr Farhan Zahid (Pakistan), Ph D, is a Counter Terrorism specialist.
Mohammad Salman (Syria) is a Doctoral Candidate at Vrije University Brussels.
Jaish al Muhajurun wal Ansar (JMA) or The Army of immigrants and supporters, is one of the strongest hardline Islamist violent non-state actors involved in Syrian Civil War. The group is composed of non-Syrian jihadists and was initially named as the Battalion of Immigrants. JMA has started working in tandem with the Nusrah Front as early as 2012 but later tilted towards Nusrah's rival Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). Another splintered faction of JMA led by Amir Abu Ansari joined hands with Jaish-e-Mohammad (Army of Mohammad) of Abu Ubaida al-Masri, becoming part of Mujahideen Shura Council, a conglomerate of Syrian Jihadist groups. As more and more foreign jiahdis flocked to Syria, the swelling size of JMA allowed it to independently select theatres of war and also renaming itself as Jaish al Muhajurun wal Ansar in Syria
Because of the significant presence of Chechen jihadists from Caucasus, the JMA started hosting far more trained, battle hardened and battle-tested jihadists than any other Syrian jihadist group. Many of the leaders and rank and file of JMA are seasoned jihadis both in terms of doctrinal and tactical perspectives. The Chechen jihadists belonging to JMA had fought against the Russians during two Chechen Wars (1994-96 and 1999-2006). Prominent leaders of JMA such as Salahuddin al Chechen and Saifullah al Chechen have proved their metal during Battle of Alleramoun, in Aleppo in 2013, and storming of Aleppo prison, which did not fall into the hands of Jihadist despite of dozens of attempts during 2013 and 2014.
Working alongside with the Nusrah Front, the JMA provided the platform for other organizations like Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (currently holding Mosul in Iraq) able fighters during raids and operations. With Nusrah Front and ISIL parted ways, the JMA was left with no option but to side with one of these two Al-Qaeda-linked groups active in Syria. Chechens like other foreign jihadists gave preference to ISIL mainly because of ISIL's more international perspective than Nusrah's regional and domestic one. Another reason of avoiding Nusrah was the losing credibility of Abu Mohammad al Joulani, the leader of Nusrah Front, as many Islamist and secular groups fighting against the Asad regime found Nusrah involved in looting, plundering historical sites in Syria and kidnapping and raping Syrian women, a blatant violation of Islamic laws of war.
In the early years of Syrian War, international media mostly paid heed to the activities of Free Syrian Army and Al-Qaeda linked Nusrah Front. Western media was obsessed with the rebel factions claiming to be part of secular and nationalistic Free Syrian Army. The local Syrian media called them ‘armed gangs' and, as a result, both foreign and local media remained unaware of the ideologies, composition, and orientation of many other groups involved in the conflict. Even Syrians did not have much information about the presence of foreign jihadis in such large numbers, operating and controlling large swaths of Syrian territories. During the first half of 2012, the JMA came to light with the emergence of Abu Omar al-Chechen, a highly effective commander. Furthermore he gained prominence because of his pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIL and his pivotal role in Menagh air base attack and capture in August 2013. Omar came to swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi after a dispute between the latter and the leader of the Nusrah Front Mohammad al-Joulani, also resulting in his appointment as commander of northern regions of Idlib, Aleppo and Latakia.
The internal structure of the Jaish al Mahajurun wal Ansar is highly secretive. Only few leaders are allowed to speak publicly about the organization's goals and ambitions, most probably to hide the identities of those came to join in the Syrian jihad from Western Europe and dictatorial Arab states. Naturally the jihadists would like to go back to their respective countries to inspire local Muslim youth, and disclosing the identities could also endanger their lives while landing back.
The JMA is not a monolithic organization in true sense as disputes have arisen amongst the commanders, mainly because of their very different perspectives of viewing the conflict. One dispute of such kind took place between followers of Abu Musab al-Algerian and the Chechens. Abu Musab was accused of being an agent of Turkish intelligence, resulting in his dismissal from the JMA that allowed him to form his own battalion. In a similar kind of a dispute, Saifullah al-Chechen founded his own unit called Battalion of the Mujahideen of Caucasus.
The issue of pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was another stumbling block that created differences between the top commanders, including Saifullah al Chechen, who was driving the legion of Chechens, which is considered one of the most effective and lethal faction of JMA. In contrast to Chechen contingent of JMA, who are more interested in preserving their independence as far as military operations are concerned, many non-Chechen commanders pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIL. Saifullah's departure did make an impact on the performance of JMA. Another group of Chechens chose a new leader, Abdul Karim Alqurma – alias Salahuddin al-Chechen – and in the end only a part of Chechen fighters swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi. In a very chain of events in Iraq, Omar al-Chechen also joined hands with ISIL, indicating that a large segment of the army of immigrants and supporters have begun to realize that the war in Syria is a futile effort and some of the fighters have started to think seriously of traveling back to home countries, specially those belonging to West European countries, in order to launch terrorist strikes in Europe and to disseminate terrorism in other parts of the world.
Salahuddin Chechen, in a recorded statement in May, marked the 70 years of displacement and deportation of Tatars from Crimea, a statement calling on the people of Tatar Muslim minority to wage jihad and resorting to armed resistance against Russia in Crimea, citing the example of Afghanistan and the Caucasus and Syria. Al-Qurama in his statement said that the Russians will only understand "the language of force," and warned of the displacement of the ‘new sons of the Crimean Muslims', calling for a "lack of trust" and the certainty that "Russia and the United States and all their supporters are enemies".
JMA has an estimated strength of 15,000. The figure includes a substantial number of European and North American Muslim citizen and some converts. Others are coming from neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Palestine, whereas from far flung regions, the JMA has lured in fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, and a substantial number from Maghreb countries. Recent events in Iraq and the establishment of ‘Islamic Caliphate' in Sunni parts of Iraq by ISIL may create an impact on JMA's fighters, who are more passionate and enthusiastic about the restoration of Caliphate. Most of them are Messianic by approach and ideology. The place they have landed to fight has historical significance in terms of Islamic prophecies are concerned. There may have been different interpretations in various sects of both Sunni and Shia Islam, but apocalyptic scenarios and "end of days times" have played a substantial part in Syria. Iraq and Syria are two most important lands in Muslim historical sense. It was from these two countries, many of the Islamists believe that the Islam had taken off, and once again the chain of events would allow history to repeat itself. Hence, we may conclude that events in Iraq and swift drive of ISIL may attract more foreign fighters under the banner of JMA to the region, paving the way for another prolonged fighting season to begin with new state actors getting involved.