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memri
December 6, 2013 No.
1041

An In-Depth Look At Chechen Fighters in Syria – Part I: Sayfullah Al-Shishani and His Circle

By: I. Razafimbahiny*

Introduction

Among the foreign mujahideen fighting in Syria, who belong to a multitude of ethnicities and nationalities, fighters from the Caucasus, mainly Chechnya, have gained particular prominence. Some of these have chosen to join known jihad groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), while others have formed their own groups. Chechen operatives like Sayfullah Al-Shishani, emir of Jaysh Al-Khilafat Al-Islamiya ("The Islamic Caliphate Army"); 'Omar Al-Shishani, emir of Jaysh Al-Muhajireen Wal-Ansar ("The Army of Emigrants and Supporters"), and Muslim Abu Al-Walid Al-Shishani, emir of Junoud Al-Sham ("Armies of Al-Sham") have drawn attention and gained notoriety for their roles as field commanders or as military instructors and planners.

The following report focuses on Sayfullah Al-Shishani. It is based on exclusive material gathered from YouTube and from the Russian website "Classmates" (Odnoklassniki), which is popular among Russian-speakers worldwide.

Sayfullah Al-Shishani And The Split Among The Chechens In Syria

Sayfullah Meclikaev, aka Sayfullah Al-Shishani, was first seen in Syria in February 2013, alongside 'Omar Al-Shishani, in a video that documented their arrival in the country with a brigade of several dozen fighters called Katibat Al-Muhajireen ("The Emigrants' Brigade"). Since then Sayfullah has appeared in many other videos, acting as a spokesman of the Russian-speaking mujahideen in Syria and as their representative to their supporters at home.


Sayfullah Al-Shishani (rightmost, with folded arms) and 'Omar Al-Shishani (second from left) upon their arrival in Syria

The videos, many of which were distributed via Fisyria.com, indicate that he was initially close to 'Omar Al-Shishani and acted as his right-hand man in Jaysh Al-Muhajireen Wal-Ansar (henceforth JMA), which was founded in March 2013 and comprised Chechens, Dagestanis and others. Following the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), this organization pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and 'Omar Al-Shishani was appointed ISIS's military commander in the Aleppo area.

However, in early August 2013 a split occurred within the JMA. In a message posted August 3 on the JMA-affiliated website Fisyria.com, titled "Clarifications regarding the Fitna," 'Omar revealed that Sayfullah had split off from the group with some of his followers. The reason behind the split remains murky. In the message 'Omar accused Sayfullah and his men of sowing discord and of being takfiris (i.e., extremists who accuse other Muslims of apostasy without proper justification), but there is no explicit evidence that this was indeed the case.

The next day, Sayfullah released a video in which he reacted to 'Omar's message. Seated among some 30 of his followers, he admitted that he and his men had left the JMA but rejected the accusation that they had sowed discord.[1] In another video posted on YouTube on September 3, he announced that his brigade was called Mujahideen Kavkaz fi Sham ("The Caucasus Mujahideen in Syria") and that it comprises fighters from Chechnya, Dagestan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Russia and other countries.[2] In a video released about one month later, titled "A Shura Council of Emirs from the Islamic Caliphate Brigade," he announced that his group would now be known as Jaysh Al-Khilafat Al-Islamiya ("The Islamic Caliphate Army", henceforth JKA).[3]

In a video posted November 4, which showed his mujahideen undergoing training, he explained that the group already had one training camp and that an additional camp would be opened soon, and that "brothers" come to the camp to train his mujahideen.[4]

In addition to waging jihad in Syria, Sayfullah and his group express an interest in providing services to the local community. An October 29 video titled "The Leadership of the Islamic Caliphate Brigade Visits Schools in the Aleppo Area" shows Sayfullah visiting a school in the village of Kafr Naya near Aleppo and meeting with its principal. He explains that he and his men have come to Syria not only to fight but also to engage in da'wa and help the Islamic ummah, and that they are visiting this school, which has some 1750 pupils, to see how it is doing and how the children are learning. He states that the JKA wishes to print Islamic books and distribute them among the pupils, and also aims to donate one million Syrian pounds (about $7000) to the school. After this, he says, they will visit two more schools. He adds that his group plans to open many madrassas of its own, and has already begun to do so. Finally, he condemns the brutality of the Assad regime against the Syrian people and states that the mujahideen aim to protect the children and also teach them to live according to the shari'a.[5]

Some Of Sayfullah's Companions

Details on Sayfullah and his circle can be gleaned not only from his numerous videos, which are distributed via YouTube, but also from other sources, such as the Classmates social networking service. Many Russian-speaking jihad fighters in Syria use this website, which is intended to keep high-school graduates in touch, to communicate with their families and friends and share their experiences.

By crossing information from videos and Classmates accounts, MEMRI was able to collect data on some of the men close to Sayfullah, most of whom are probably with him in the Aleppo area. A video titled "Statement from the JKA Mujahideen before Going to Battle"[6] shows many of them. Four members of Sayfullah's circle, who will be discussed below, use the aliases Abu Islam Shishani, Abu Anas, Seifu Islam and Musafir. They have active Classmates accounts on which they post pictures and share information with fellow mujahideen, revealing much about their daily lives and their activities on the battlefield. They maintain an online group called Usudu Sham ("Lions of Syria"), administrated by Abu Anas.[7]

Their accounts indicate that they are not afraid to reveal their presence in Syria. Unlike many mujahideen they appear with their faces unmasked. The accounts also reveal that many of them are in Syria with their families. Abu Islam Shishani, for example, came with his son Abu Adnan, and Musafir came with his wife Hanifa and their daughters.

The following details, collated from the Classmates accounts of Russian-speaking jihad fighters, mainly Caucasian, provide a unique glimpse into the identities and everyday lives of these men on the Syrian front.

Abu Islam Shishani and His Son Abu Adnan

Abu Islam Shishani is 47 years old and gives his current location as Damascus. The photos he posts show him with Sayfullah and Seifu Islam, and he also lists Abu Anas as one of his friends. The numerous videos that show him with Sayfullah, and participating in JKA meetings and operations, indicate that he is a prominent member of the group.[8]


Abu Islam Shishani's Classmates account


Abu Islam Shishani (rightmost) and Sayfullah (center)


Abu Islam Shishani (leftmost) and Seifu Islam (rightmost)


Abu Islam Shishani with his son Abu Adnan

Abu Adnan Shishani, Abu Islam's 23-year-old son, is also in Syria according to his Classmates account, and his personal photos show him with Sayfullah. He is married to "Speshu k Liku Allaha" ("Hastens to [see] the face of Allah") who, according to her own Classmates account, is 24 years old and lives in Russia. Abu Adnan was apparently killed in Syria in early October, since his account was shut down and his wife changed her Classmates name to "Vdova Black" ("Black Widow") for a few days.


Abu Adnan Shishani's account on Classmates


Classmates account of Abu Adnan Shishani's wife


Abu Adnan Shishani with Sayfullah (photo posted October 3, 2013)


Abu Adnan Shishani (second from left) and Sayfullah (second from right)
(photo posted October 3, 2013)

Abu Anas

Abu Anas, another of Sayfullah's companions, is 25 according to his Classmates account and is currently stationed in Kafr Hamra near Aleppo. He is a friend of Abu Islam Shishani, and he administrates the Classmates page of the Usudu Sham group, updating it regularly with videos and reports on JKA activities.


Abu Anas (left) with Sayfullah


Abu Anas' Classmates account


Classmates page of the Usudu Sham group

Abu Anas appears with Sayfullah in the video "Statement from the JKA Mujahideen before Going to Battle", which was posted on YouTube on October 17, 2013 and was also posted on Abu Anas's Classmates account and on the Usudu Sham page.[9]

Seifu Islam

Seifu Islam also appears to be a JKA fighter. According to his Classmates account (which he initially opened under the name "Ususdu Sham"), he attended the Gorskii Kadetskii Korpus ("Gorskii Cadet Corps") military school in Ingushetia, in 2000-2013. He gives his current location as "Magas–Syria" (Magas is the capital of Ingushetia). A message he posted on September 24, 2013 on his Classmates account says: "There is nothing to fear. [Allah] willing, the shari'a and the Muslim Caliphate [will be restored] and Allah's word will reign supreme across the world. Everyone must wage jihad. The least you can do on the path of Allah is to pray for the brothers and sisters who are currently waging jihad. If you can, help the families of the mujahideen. Allah willing, all will be well!!!" His photos show him with Abu Islam Shishani and Sayfullah.


Seifu Islam's Classmates account


Seifu Islam (left) in a USAID tent provided for Syrian refugees


Seifu Islam (second from left, in yellow shirt) with Sayfullah (center) and others

Musafir

Musafir ("Traveler"), previously known as "Muslim,"[10] is probably from Chechnya, since in many photos he is seen wearing a shirt and hat bearing the name of this country. According to his Classmates account he is 24 and is currently in Aleppo. A photo posted in December 2012 that shows him in the company of Sayfullah (see below) indicates that the two knew each other before coming to Syria. The landscape suggests that at that time the two were still in Chechnya, or someplace else in the Caucasus.


Musafir (second from left) and Sayfullah (third from left). The photo, dated December 12, 2012, was presumably taken before the group arrived in Syria

Musafir is married to Hanifa who also has an account on Classmates. According to her account, she is 22 and currently in Syria. Among the photos on her account are pictures of her husband Musafir and of Sayfullah. Musafir's account includes photos of their daughters (see below). In early November, 2013 both accounts disappeared from the Classmates.


Musafir's Classmates account


Hanifa's Classmates account


Musafir and Hanifa's daughters


Picture of Musafir on the account of his wife Hanifa (the Russian caption says "husband")


Musafir (right) and Sayfullah (center)


Photo on Hanifa's account shows woman, probably Hanifa herself, with Sayfullah

Life At The Villa

The photos below show the life of the mujahideen in the villa that apparently serves as their headquarters.


From Abu Anas's Classmates account


Fighter called "Mujahid of Sham" at the villa


Abu-Islam Shishani and Sayfullah eating at the villa (from Abu-Islam Shishani's account)

Conclusion

Sayfullah's YouTube videos, and the Classmates accounts of his men, show that he is popular emir surrounded by many mujahideen, many of them apparently Chechen. The video "Statement from the JKA Mujahideen before Going to Battle" indicates that they are fighting in the Aleppo area, and that they are well equipped, including with numerous vehicles. They live in a large villa and apparently eat well. The group carries out military operations and also engages in humanitarian work among the locals.

The phenomenon of the mujahideen sharing their experiences on social media like YouTube and Classmates allows us to trace the relationships between them and to get a glimpse of their lives in Syria.

*Irina Razafimbahiny is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] See MEMRI JTTM report "Split Among Caucasian Fighters in Syria", August 12, 2013.

[7] The page of the group recently disappeared from Classmates.

[8] See, for example, the video "Statement from the JKA Mujahideen before Going to Battle", http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lusgOMBjf4, October 17, 2013; interview with Sayfullah in Turkish, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYKmAc6RXYg, October 5, 2013; the video "A Shura Council of Emirs from the Islamic Caliphate Brigade", http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJFmlbRC-NM, October 10, 2013; and the video "Sayfullah's September 2, 2013 Appeal to the Muslims," http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF4LQ_TVpzc, September 3, 2013.

[10] He changed his nickname in late October 2013.