Since the war in Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, the spotlight has been on the geopolitical aspect of the conflict and its impact on international relations. However, within that larger conflict, a hidden jihadi war is underway involving a range of jihadi groups, some of which have sided with Russia, while others have supported Ukraine. These developments have national security ramifications for countries worldwide, and are detailed in a major new MEMRI Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM) study that includes never-before-released information on the Russia-Ukraine war's impact within the global jihad movement.
Leading Muslim Clerics In Ukraine, Russia, And The Caucasus Address The Question Of Whether The Conflict Constitutes Jihad
Leading Muslim clerics and groups in Ukraine, Russia, and the Caucasus have addressed the issue of whether participating in the conflict constitutes jihad. Top Ukrainian mufti Sheikh Said Ismagilov called for Muslims to defend their homeland – without mentioning jihad – but Russian Chief Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin said in April 2022 that for Muslims, fighting against Ukraine constitutes jihad, and that those who died doing so were martyrs. He added that a fatwa by Russia's Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate said the same thing. Chechen Mufti Salakh Mezhiev said that Chechens who go to fight in Ukraine are "at jihad, there is no doubt about that," and are fighting for the Quran and Allah "so that this [NATO] dirt does not spread among us."
Uzbekistan's Muslim Board, however, said in a September 2022 statement that it was un-Islamic to go fight, and warned that "terrorist organizations" were recruiting Muslims to fight in the Ukraine conflict under the pretext of jihad. This followed the Uzbek government's warning to citizens not to join foreign armies in exchange for expedited citizenship, after Russia offered it to anyone coming to fight on its side, and after Ukraine said it had captured Uzbeks who did so.
Jihadis From The Middle East Come To Ukraine
Just as foreign fighters from the West have gone to Ukraine, so have jihadis who have spent years fighting in Iraq and Syria. Most recently, on May 9, 2023, pro-Ukraine Twitter user "AbidiMe52637338" shared a short video showing fighters from the Sheikh Mansour Battalion firing rockets towards Wagner PMC group positions near Bakhmout, Ukraine.
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One prominent jihadi in Ukraine is Abdul Hakim Al-Shishani, aka. Rustam Azhiev, former emir of the Syria-based Chechen jihadi group Ajnad Al-Kavkaz. On October 10, 2022, pro-jihadi Twitter accounts announced that he had arrived in Ukraine and would be overseeing the Separate Special Purpose Battalion (OBON) of the Armed Forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Other Chechen jihadis in Ukraine include the Sheikh Mansour Battalion, which, on February 13, 2023, posted a video on Telegram and YouTube in which its commander, Muslim Cheberloevsky, gives an update on the tactical situation in Bakhmut, Ukraine.
Criticizing Al-Shishani, the Jordan-based jihadi ideologue Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi tweeted, "What banner is he fighting under in Ukraine, and for whose interest is he dragging young Muslims to fight such battles?"
Albanian jihadis fighting in Syria have gone to fight alongside Ukrainian forces against Russia, under pressure from the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) in Syria, an HTS source said on January 10, 2023. According to the source, the group is encouraging all foreign fighters, especially those it considers "extreme," to leave Syria, for fear that such "uncontrolled" jihadi groups might hinder HTS efforts to implement its agendas and come to an agreement with Turkey, which is growing closer to the Assad regime.
Additionally, it was reported on May 16 that Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) has for years been recruiting former ISIS fighters to serve as their agents in Ukraine and other countries. According to the report, they are tasked with spying, bribing local residents of interest to Moscow, and even carrying out assassinations. One of them, a Russian native who served time in prison in Russia for his ISIS connection, was released early in exchange for working with te FSB in Ukraine, where he was told to infiltrate Chechen and Tatar battalions fighting alongside Ukraine and sent also to Turkey to gather information about fighters preparing to go to Ukraine. There are reportedly numerous such agents in Ukraine.
The former Russian ISIS fighter in Syria in 2014 (Source: Meduza.io, May 16, 2023)
Clerics In The West Discuss Fighting In Ukraine
At the same time, jihadi clerics in the West are discussing whether Muslims should be involved in the fight at all. For example, Michigan-based jihadi cleric Shaykh Ahmad Musa Jibril, known as a spiritual leader for Anglophone jihadis, tweeted: "Both Ukraine and Russia have Muslim blood on their hands, may Allah destroy both." Canada-based pro-Al-Qaeda cleric Tariq Abdul Haleem wrote on his Telegram channel that it is impermissible for Muslims to go fight the Russians in Ukraine because "Muslims have nothing to do with this war" and "waging war under the leadership of the unbelievers goes against the principles of monotheism and the [concept] of loyalty and enmity." Additionally, in a speech the day after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the London-based jihadi ideologue Hani Al-Siba'i cited a Quran verse according to which conflicts between the Muslims' opponents is one of Allah's ways to spare the Muslims from fighting.
Iran's Role In The War – Sending Drones and Other Ammunition To Its Jihadi Proxies To Fight There
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As the new MEMRI study details, it is well known that Iran is also playing a major role in supporting Russia, especially by providing it with suicide drones, which have killed hundreds and perhaps thousands of Ukrainians. What is not so well known is that Iran may have also been pushing, through its proxies, for fighters to be sent from its terror groups to support Russia in Ukraine.
According to a March 2022 report, 800 Lebanese Hizbullah operatives would go to fight for Russia in Ukraine, with some already there. News sites that oppose the Syrian regime and Lebanese Hizbullah reported that Russian forces in Syria have been recruiting fighters from militias loyal to the Syrian regime, including Hizbullah fighters, and that Syrian fighters from Hizbullah and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have already been recruited.
It should also come as no surprise that Hamas, which receives significant support from Iran, is backing Russia. Hamas leaders have made multiple trips to Moscow since the war began, most recently in March 2023. Hamas leader Isma'il Haniyeh, who is a U.S. State Department specially designated global terrorist, visited Russia in September 2022. Additionally, Hamas political bureau member Mahmoud Al-Zahar said at a December 8, 2022 conference organized by the Al-Quds International Institution in Gaza that "America is unable to defend Ukraine, that big Jewish country bordering Eastern Europe."
Iran is also reportedly responsible for sending other militias that it backs to the region. The Afghan Taliban Minister for Government Refugees And Repatriation, Khalil Rahman Haqqani, claimed in December 2022 that Iran is sending former Afghan soldiers to fight in Ukraine. This was corroborated by earlier media reports stating that Iran has an ongoing policy of using Afghan fighters in the militias it backs.
Iran's terror group proxies, including Iraqi Shi'ite groups, have thrown their support behind Russia. This is reflected, inter alia, by online posts in support of Russia by the Iran-backed militias in Iraq. For example, on March 31, a Telegram channel linked to these militias promoted a new music video praising the Russia-backed Wagner Group. It shared a post in Russian from a Telegram channel called "Wagner Group" stating that the video had been produced "in recognition of the sacrifices your company has made to confront the NATO dogs in Ukraine." There have also been reports of these Shi'ite militias visiting Moscow for meetings with Russian officials.
Pro-Russia disinformation is also emanating from Iran. For example, an Arabic-language pro-Russia Telegram channel affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) published what it described as photos and Associated Press footage of a Danish DR TV interview with Ukrainian forces. This interview, it claimed, proves that the Islamic State (ISIS) is fighting alongside Ukrainian forces because it shows Ukrainian fighters wearing insignia featuring the ISIS emblem. The channel also cited a Russian intelligence report stating that ISIS operatives are fighting alongside Ukrainian forces.
ISIS And Al-Qaeda Media Discuss Ukraine
While Iran and its jihadi militia across the Middle East have been involved on the ground in Ukraine, daily monitoring of jihadi websites yields no other reports or evidence that ISIS has an on-the-ground presence in Ukraine. However, ISIS supporters have been very active on social media expressing their views on the war; inter alia, their media and supporters are calling the war "divine punishment for the unbelievers" and hoping that both sides "continue to destroy each other."
Additionally, a lengthy article in the 24th issue of the ISIS-affiliated Al-Asaim Media Foundation's Voice of Khurasan English-language monthly, which was published in late March 2023, urged Muslims fighting in Ukraine to join ISIS's Caucasus Province instead of fighting alongside forces commanded by unbelievers. The article, titled "A Message From The Heart To Our Muslim Brothers in Ukraine," penned by "a sincere mujahid from the European Dar Al-Kufr [land of unbelief]," condemned Russian Muslim officials for siding with Russia and called the Chechen Muslims fighting alongside Ukrainian forces "misguided."
Al-Qaeda media, supporters, and affiliates have also come out with statements about the war, claiming that the ongoing fighting is good for jihadis. They have prayed: "Oh Allah, ignite the flame of war among the nations of unbelief," and said that the war "has hindered the international community from providing any help to the Somali government" in its fight against the Al-Qaeda branch in Somalia, Al-Shabab.
Why The Jihadis Involved In Ukraine Could Spell Trouble For Counter-Terror Efforts In The West
As the new MEMRI study shows, jihadis are following developments in Ukraine, especially regarding what weapons are being used, how they are used, and to what effect, and considering their potential in their own future strategy. A video posted on a pro-ISIS Telegram channel showed a soldier in Ukraine unpacking a sniper rifle and posing with it, stating "Even with long-range sniper rifles, we were the first [to bring to the battlefield]!" In late March 2023, several pro-ISIS Telegram channels shared videos and posts documenting and discussing the use of drones to destroy tanks as part of the war in Ukraine. One channel called on ISIS operatives to learn from and make use of the same techniques.
Another major concern for the West is the possibility of spillover into Europe after the war is over, including from Western fighters who have made their way to the Ukraine battlefront, where they are now learning combat skills and mingling with other extremists, including jihadis, as described in the report.
* Steven Stalinsky Ph.D. is Executive Director of MEMRI.
Click here to read The Global Jihadi Movement – Divided Over The Russia-Ukraine War, Possible Implications For The West.
 MEMRI JTTM report The Global Jihadi Movement – Divided Over The Russia-Ukraine War, Possible Implications For The West, March 29, 2023.
 MEMRI JTTM report HTS Cleric Calls On Ukrainian Muslims To Form Political Body To Fight Russia, Safeguard Muslim Interests In Post-War Ukraine, March 7, 2022.
 MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9953, Chief Mufti Of Russia Talgat Tadzhuddin: A Fatwa Has Been Issued Obligating Muslims To Fight Alongside Russia In Ukraine; This Is A Holy Jihad, Those Who Die Fighting Are Martyrs, May 9, 2022.
 Eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/58364, February 27, 2022.
 Newarab.com/news/muslim-clerics-warn-uzbeks-against-joining-russia-ukraine-war, September 23, 2022.
 Newarab.com/news/uzbekistan-warns-citizens-not-join-foreign-armies, September 22, 2022.
 See MEMRI JTTM report: Russian-Language Jihadi Telegram Channel: Source Affiliated With Syria-Based 'Ajnad Al-Kavkaz' Confirms Arrival Of Chechen Jihadi Commander To Ukraine; Local Media: Commander Will Fight Alongside Ichkerian Separate Special-Purpose Battalion, October 13, 2022.
 Twitter.com/tuwheed1/status/1611836145758883840, January 7, 2023.
 MEMRI JTTM report Reports: Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Pressuring French Jihadi Group To Join Its Operations Room Or Disband, Albanian Jihadis Left Syria For Ukraine, January 23, 2023.
 I24news.tv/en/news/ukraine-conflict/1684317620-russia-s-security-service-recruits-former-isis-fighters-as-agents-in-ukraine-report, Meduza.io/feature/2023/05/16/ty-zhe-i-pravda-terrorist-prosto-skazhi-im-chto-rossiyu-ne-lyubish?fbclid=IwAR0GAUbsYVXPK8Q2ll2xuCxfbaQ1c0yu6vDksE5rXjmsiMHisAfQ1HK27_Q, May 16, 2023.
 Facebook.com/watch/?v=5136897733000735, February 25, 2022.
 See MEMRI JTTM report Saudi TV Report: Despite Nasrallah's Denial, 800 Hizbullah Fighters Were Recruited to Fight in Ukraine Alongside Russian Forces, March 30, 2022.
 Eyeofeuphrates.com/ar/news/2022/03/20/4702, March 20, 2022.
 MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 10536, Senior Hamas Official On Hamas Delegation Russia Visit: Russia Is 'One Of The Most Important Supporters' Of Palestinian Rights; The U.S. Seeks Calm In The Middle East So It Can Turn Its Attention To Its Disputes With China And Russia, March 23, 2023.
 Middleeasteye.net/news/hamas-haniyeh-visits-russia-high-level-delegation, September 11, 2022.
 Reuters.com/article/us-usa-palestinians-hamas-idUSKBN1FK2IA, January 31, 2018.
 MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 10358, Afghan Taliban Government Minister For Refugees And Repatriation Khalil Rahman Haqqani: Iran Is Sending Former Afghan Soldiers To Fight In Ukraine, December 6, 2022.
 T.me/sabreenMS/1074, T.me/wagnernew/6832, March 31, 2023; T.me/sabreenMS/1079, April 1, 2023.
 MEMRI JTTM report Citing Danish TV Report, Telegram Channel Linked To IRGC Claims ISIS Operatives Are Fighting Alongside Ukrainian Forces, As Orchestrated By The U.S., February 16, 2023.
 MEMRI JTTM report Issue 24 Of ISKP Magazine 'Voice Of Khurasan' Criticizes Arab Leaders For Ignoring Assad's Crimes, Criticizes Indian Islamic Scholars For Abandoning Jihad Against Hindus, Urges Jihadis In Ukraine To Join ISIS, April 21, 2023.
 MEMRI JTTM report Pro-ISIS Telegram Channels: Operatives Should Emulate Use Of Drones In Ukraine, April 5, 2023.