Grozny, Chechnya, April 2013. 
Maxim Shemetov / REUTERS

Before the Syrian conflict, there was little talk outside of the former Soviet Union about the fighting prowess of Chechens. But with the advent of the Islamic State (ISIS), Chechens, or shishani in Arabic, have developed an international reputation as some of the toughest fighters in the world. The rise of one, Abu Omar al-Shishani, to ISIS’ highest military position reinforced this public image, and according to recent interviews in Mosul, Chechens in ISIS were among the foreign fighters most feared by civilians. But those who fight with ISIS are just one group of Chechen forces currently operating in Syria.

Politically and militarily active Chechens are divided into three groups—all of which have sent foot soldiers to Syria. The first group is made up of supporters of the current head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. They are known as the Kadyrovtsy. As the official armed forces in Chechnya, they have the best military training and the most experienced fighters. Their main opponents are the Ichkeriysy, from the Independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, and the Emiratovsy, of the Islamist Emirate Caucasus.

Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov delivering a speech in Grozny, September 2017. 
Said Tsarnayev / REUTERS

The Ichkeriysy are mainly nationalist followers of Sufi Islam. They fought during the first and second Chechen wars for an independent state of Ichkeria, which existed from 1991 until 2000 and was recognized only by the Taliban government of Afghanistan. Although these fighters have extensive military experience, there are few left. Many of them have emigrated to Western Europe.

The Emiratovsy are Salafists and support implementing Islamic rule in the North Caucasus. They were a dominant opposition force within Chechnya. Although the group fought in the second Chechen war, its current members have the least amount of military experience. Even before the war in Syria, many were forced to leave Russia and resettle in Turkey.

Although these three forces no longer collide in Russia (open conflict between them has been mostly waged online), the Syrian war has proved ample ground for them to clash again.

First, displaced Emiratovsy left Turkey and formed the Jaish Muhajireen wal Ansar, among other groups, to fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Eventually, they ran out of money and merged with ISIS. They, along with other Chechens in ISIS, consider the Kadyrovtsy their main enemy. According to a Russian-speaking ISIS fighter, “ISIS Chechens hate Kadyrov for how he treats his people and because of his attitude toward religion.”

Meanwhile, with Russia backing Assad and Kadryov in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pocket, the Kadyrovtsy have been tasked with fighting in Syria on the pro-regime side, which includes battling both ISIS and the opposition. According to Daniel Martinov, an adviser to Kadyrov, “Fighters were being trained by the best Russian forces and all have previous combat deployments.”

The AaK see the Syrian war as a crucial training center for future operations inside Chechnya.

Finally, the Ichkeriysy have organized a militia called Ajnad al-Kavkaz (AaK), which joined the opposition against Assad. It cooperates with the moderate Syrian opposition and Tahrir al-Sham, the successor to the former Syrian al Qaeda-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra. But according to Abu Bakar, an AaK leader, the group’s main goal is “to inflict as much damage to Russian troops and, in particular, on Kadyrovtsy as possible.” Not surprisingly, about 200 AaK fighters are currently stationed near a Russian military base in Tartus.

Next to Russia, AaK members see ISIS as only their second-biggest enemy, and they express no interest in fighting ISIS head-on, preferring instead to let their enemies destroy each other. For example, during a battle between Russian forces and ISIS in Palmyra, AaK refrained from getting involved. The group particularly dislikes the Chechens who fight with ISIS. “Those people did not do anything for Chechnya,” said Abu Bakar. “They did not fight there [in Chechnya], but they joined ISIS for fame, publicity, and money.”

The feeling of animosity is mutual. At the beginning of the war, in an operation against ISIS, the AaK took an ISIS-affiliated Chechen prisoner. One member asked him, “Did you really want to kill us? We have the same homeland.” The prisoner laughed and replied, “Of course! You are infidels.” There are even rumors circulating among Chechens in ISIS that after successful operations, the Ichkeriysy howl like wolves. Although the animal is a symbol of Ichkeria, the story is meant to further dehumanize members of the group.

Whatever the intentions of the Chechens fighting with ISIS may be, however, their lack of military experience is holding them back. One ex-ISIS fighter who had been stationed with the main Chechen group said that his commander, Saifullah al-Shishani, was rather inept. “He was mostly on the group’s videos,” the ex-fighter reported, “asking for money.” The ex-fighter also confirmed that the “public image of Chechens in ISIS is based on the military achievements of people who fought in the first and second Chechen wars against Russia [people supporting Ichkeria], and now Chechens in ISIS capitalize on it.” The most respected field commander from the Chechen war, and whose nom de guerre has been thus widely adopted by local ISIS fighters, is Khattab. But he is not a Chechen. He is a Saudi.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other officials at Hmeymim Air Base, Syria, June 2016.
Vadim Savitsky / Russian Defense Ministry via Reuters

Even the highest-ranked ISIS Chechen commander, Abu Omar al-Shishani, had little real military experience. According to his pre-Syria biography, he was a sergeant in the Georgian Army during the Russian-Georgian war, which only lasted for six days, after which he tried to reenlist but failed. He got a top position in ISIS for his success in the Syrian battlefield, but it came at a very high cost. According to an ex-ISIS member familiar with Shishani’s record, “In battles, he had enormous causalities, which he cared little about.” During an operation near Tabqa, as the ex-ISIS member explained, “One experienced fighter offered to advise Abu Omar on tactics and intelligence, but he dismissed his advice saying that they came here to shaheed [die] so they did not care about that information.”

Still, despite the disparities in military training before arriving in Syria, Chechens in Syria will now leave with significant experience. Right now, the Kadyrovtsy that remain in Chechnya have the upper hand because most of the main opposition has left for Syria. But that could change as the bulk of foreign fighters trickle back home.

For its part, the AaK see the Syrian war as a crucial training center for future operations inside Chechnya and, more generally, Russia. But it does not plan to return home anytime soon—not before “Putin or Kadyrov die,” at least, because, according to them, given the current situation in Russia, they are not in a position to change anything. In the meantime, according to Timur Mahauri, who was involved in the founding of AaK, “when war in Syria will be over we will find another war…we will chase the Kadyrovtsy anywhere in the world.”

Even the highest-ranked ISIS Chechen commander, Abu Omar al-Shishani, had little real military experience.

Chechen members of ISIS have announced their intention to build an Islamic province in North Caucasus, but it seems unlikely they will succeed. The majority of them will not survive Syria and Iraq. It is also not clear which side ISIS’ supporters will take after the terrorist group falls. Kadyrov, meanwhile, is trying to win their hearts and minds by organizing the evacuation of families of killed Chechen ISIS fighters from Iraq and Syria. Chechens in Syrian opposition groups have also helped smuggle Chechen ISIS fighters and their families out of Syria. Those arrangements are often made by their relatives back in the Caucasus Mountains. Of course, money is exchanged in those deals, but traditional tribal relations also play a crucial role.

For now, members of AaK and, more broadly, the Ichkeriysy, have yet to decide which is better for Chechnya: adat (traditional customary law) or sharia (Islamic law). The only political future that all the opposition forces do agree on, however, is that Kadyrov should play no part in it.

*Timur Mahauri was assassinated in Kiev on September 8. His inner circle has no unified opinion about the perpetrator. Some of his friends and associates think that his death was ordered by Kadyrov, others believe that ISIS was involved.