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“What is the story of Abdul Hakim Al-Shishani and the anti-Russian groups?”
January 2023 Propaganda
In January 2023, the propaganda of jihadist groups that are ideologically and militarily anti-Russian or that target Russia for tactical and strategic reasons (in some cases also military) continued to be produced regularly. In some cases, it directly concerns Russia, such as the operation of some jihadists in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, in other cases, it concerns groups composed of Russian fighters (Chechens, Dagestani, Ingush, Tatars, Circassians, Georgians), but also from former Soviet areas such as Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, who fight and make propaganda in other theatres of operation, such as Syria. In other cases, Russia is indirectly affected, as it is attacked by Syrian jihadist groups who see it as a target because it is an ally of Bashar al-Assad, or in Africa where they target Russian contractors Wagner, or finally in Afghanistan because it is seen by the Islamic State as an ally or supporter of the Taliban.
Jihadist presence in the conflict in Ukraine
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One of the most interesting stories to report for the current month is the one related to Abdul Hakim al-Shishani.
Abdul Hakim al-Shishani left the Latakia countryside in Syria with about 30 of his men to fight the Russians, which was the group's main target, when they went to Syria to fight.
Rustam Azhiev, better known as Abdul Hakim al-Shishani, is first and foremost a veteran of the Chechen wars. Born in 1981 in a small settlement near Grozny, he joined the Chechen resistance as a special soldier shortly after the start of the Second Chechen War in 1999, and soon rose through the ranks to become military supervisor of the central sector of the Chechen region, which was under the control of the Caucasus Emirate in 2007, and then became the Emir of Grozny. Wounded in battle in 2009 with explosives, he was treated in Poland. Once discharged, he moved first to Georgia and then to Turkey. He arrived in Syria in late 2012 with a group of Chechen veterans and loyalists. In 2015, with the beginning of the Russian intervention in Syria, Abdul Hakim al-Shishani formed Ajnad al Kavkaz, which actively operated in the countryside, mountains, and forests of Latakia and the northern areas of Hama.
After the problems with HTS, Abdul Hakim Al-Shishani decided to move to other theatres of operation. He arrived in Ukraine via Turkey, in coordination with the Sheikh Mansour Brigade's leadership and the Chechen government-in-exile leadership in the Republic of Ichkeria in October 2022. Ahmed Zakayev, who leads the Chechen government-in-exile in the Republic of Ichkeria, appointed Abdul Hakim Al-Shishani as his deputy, Colonel of the “Separate Special Battalion”, responsible for the supervision of the Chechen forces currently fighting alongside the Ukrainian army.
Since the end of 2022 and throughout 2023, jihadist channels, of supporters and sympathizers, in Russian, Uzbek, Tajik, and Tajik languages, have started to relaunch photos and videos posted on Zakayev's channels or by the battalions fighting in Ukraine, to glorify the work of Abdul Hakim al-Shishani and his activities on numerous social networks and messaging apps. His figure was the focus of numerous photo and video publications in January 2023. The first video was published by the official page of the Ukrainian Defence Intelligence Agency, which shows the jihadist commander taking part in one of the most important battles against the Russians in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, that of Bakhmut.
A frame of the video showing jihadist Abdul Hakim al-Shishani.
Later, official Telegram channels of the “Separate Special Battalion of the Ministry of Defence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria” started to spread numerous videos showing the Chechen jihadist commander Abdul Hakim actively participating in a clash with Russian forces in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
A few frames of video footage published by OBON was relayed by numerous Russian-language jihadist channels.
Numerous photos of the jihadist commander were also published in the city of Kryvyi Rih and in “public appearances” in Dnipropetrovsk.
Some of the photos were published by OBON channels and relayed by numerous Russian-language jihadist channels.
In the last days of January, Abdul Hakim al-Shishani appeared in a short video with the Crimean Mufti Ayder Rustemov talking to Kadyrovtsy prisoners. The jihadist commander addressing them claims to have killed some “Chechen brothers” in battle and says referring to Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters: “they came here as slaves and forced them to come”.
The video circulated in numerous jihadist channels, which described Abdul-Hakim as the hero of Ichkeria, who fought against the Russians in Ichkeria, Syria and now fights them in Ukraine.
Several statements of the Chechen jihadist commander made at different times in January circulated on Russian-language jihadist channels. Some of his statements have opened a debate among various supporters and sympathizers, but also among jihadists and their leaders on Syrian territory.
One of al-Shishani’s statements: “the war in Ukraine is on a larger scale, but it is not very different from the war in Syria, with the presence of heavy artillery and tanks, but the fighters in Ukraine have planes and drones, which makes it easier. The fighters in Syria did not have anything similar, or even adequate anti-aircraft weapons, including Stinger missiles”. Al-Shishani also recounted the experience in Syria: “the regime and the Russians cannot be fought in the open, as this would cause heavy casualties, rather a war of attrition is needed, operations must be fought in small groups. The Mujahideen did not count on so many people in the beginning. We divided into small, mobile groups. We attacked in one place, then another, and sometimes simultaneously in several directions. A war of attrition. A lot of operations, but on a relatively small scale using small groups of fighters: a precise sniper strike, an artillery attack, a missile attack and hit, kill, retreat”. Then in some statements, he referred to the Wagner group: “the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner group I fought in Syria and now here on the front line. They do not think like people. They are totally crazy. When they fight, you get the impression that they have lost their sense of fear. They come out of the trenches, they go to attack in the open. You cannot stop them. You can only kill them”.
In another statement, the one that created the most reaction, Abdul Hakim said: “When I was in Syria, my number one goal was to inflict as much damage on the Russians as possible. The brothers came, studied and left, but I knew they were already determined to go back to the Caucasus - to Chechnya and fight. I would like to gather about a thousand fighters by the summer. Here they will train and prepare for combat. When we fought at home, in Chechnya or Syria, they called us terrorists. I hope that will change soon. Now that I am here it is the same. I believe that one day I will return to Chechnya. I prepare for this day and ask my brothers if they are ready for this if this door opens for us. I want to live in my Muslim state, just as the Taliban and others have the right to do. I am a soldier and I know that power in Chechnya can only be changed by force. There is no other way. It never has been. The Russians could then be on the Ukrainian front, or at least most of the valuable soldiers. So if they are not in Chechnya, if we can get into the country (200-300 people) we will conquer our country and it won’t take more than six months. Others will join us. The Kadyrovtsy are slaves. They obey. They want to survive. However, they will follow us when they see that Kadyrov is gone and there is an alternative. They will come with weapons and a desire for revenge for all the humiliation and evil they have suffered from Kadyrov. We are prepared for this. Many are already taking their families out of the country. They understand that the end of Putin is near and will also be Kadyrov’s end. If there are no Russians in the country and the nation feels its chance, then many will go to the forest to fight”.
Many jihadists, after these statements, then wondered if it was time to leave for Ukraine to fight the Russians and arm themselves and then move the jihadist fight to the Caucasus. One of the most interesting answers, which also shows the division within the anti-Russian jihadist world, was the answer given by the Chechen commander and jihadist leader, military emir of Liwa al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (LMA), Al-Bara al-Shishani, who stated: “It is not worth fighting for Zakayev (leader of the exiled Chechen Republic of Ichkeria) and OBON, with whom there is now also Abdul Hakim, for two reasons: the first is that they are fighting for the Ukrainians, as their soldiers; the second is that Zakayev is unreliable, has committed many actions contrary to Islam, and has told lies in the past in large quantities”.
Propaganda and operations of anti-Russian jihadist groups in Syria
In January 2023, propaganda also came from jihadist groups composed of Russian fighters (Chechens, Dagestani, Ingush, Tatars, Circassians, Georgians), but also from former Soviet areas such as Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, who fight the Russians in other theatres of operation, such as Syria. Although they are in the Syrian theatre now, their goals are still to fight the Russians and in the medium to long term, if the opportunity arises, to return to their home areas to “liberate them from the Russian oppressor”.
Earlier this month, for example, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) published videos and photos of the Liwa “Muawiyahbin Abu Sufyan” and “al-Asaib al-Hamrah” parade. It was very interesting to note that one of the photos shows the leader of the Malhama Tactical, Ali al-Shishani, whose famous tactical group composed of Russians, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, was integrated into the HTS. In a statement he made a couple of years ago, Ali al-Shishani said: “I am Muslim, Chechen, born and raised in Chechnya. My childhood was spent under Russian shelling and rounding up. Before the start of the Syrian revolution, I lived in occupied Chechnya under a tyrannical regime. I dreamed of fighting it. However, due to the lack of opportunities to fight, I was forced to endure the oppression of the people. When the revolution started in Syria, I went to fight there. My homeland was conquered and occupied by Russia, the people were exposed to genocide, and then a repressive terrorist regime was established, which to this day is strangling our people. I miss Chechnya. It is necessary to unemployed our country, eliminate the tyrannical regime and establish a fair state in Chechnya according to Shari’a”.
Image published in early January showing leader Ali al-Shishani.
Another anti-Russian jihadist group operating in Syria is Katibat Tavhid va Jihod Uzbek (KTJ), integrated into HTS as “Liwa Abu Obeida al-Jirrah” but with independent propaganda. The group is almost exclusively composed of Uzbeks and often publishes propaganda against Russia and has as one of its goals is to create an Islamic State in Central Asia and free Uzbekistan from Russian influence.
In January, it conducted several military operations against the Syrian government army and published Uzbek language statements claiming military operations conducted by its fighters in coordination with the 'al-Fateh al-Mubin Operations Room' in the Jabal Zawiya area, Idlib.
Tavhid media, the official media of KTJ also published two photo reports, again with Uzbek or Russian language indications, of the military operations with mortars and ASG-17s conducted in Jabal al-Zawiya.
One of the photos published by KTJ.
Also interesting is Muhojir Tactical, a jihadist tactical group that was formed by Chechen and Uzbeki fighters belonging to the jihadist groups Katibat Tavhid va Jihod (KTJ) and Liwa al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (LMA). The group trains fighters of the two groups in Syria but disseminates the material in Russian and Uzbek to disseminate military skills to anti-Russian fighters in other areas. In January, they released two videos, the first showing how tactical training is carried out, the second, lasting over 15 minutes, in which the instructor, a Chechen, explains the technical differences and the use of automatic AKMs.
The banner of one of the videos were published in January by Muhojir Tactical.
Also, in the Syrian theatre of operations, there is a local jihadist group, Ansar al-Tawhid, which has aligned itself with HTS over the past year and in recent months has frequently targeted the Russian military in Syria, accused of supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime and carrying out “criminal” bombings against civilians. Thus, its propaganda against Russia is to condemn its military actions and to show the attacks conducted against them.
In January, the group conducted several attacks against Syrian government army positions and against the Russian military. It later released three statements, two lengthy photo reports, and a 3:46-minute video to show the military operations conducted by its fighters in the Jabal al-Zawiya area in the southern Idlib countryside against the Syrian government army and Russian armed forces, with direct attacks by Inghimasi, snipers, and artillery.
One of the photos was published by Ansar al-Tawhid.
Finally, a photo report also came from As-Sabiqun, the Russian-language media of the Caucasian group (inside mainly Chechens, Dagestanians, Ingush, etc.) Liwa al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (LMA), integrated into HTS as “Liwa Said ibn Zayd”, whose photos show its military emir al-Bara al-Shishani, quoted before criticizing OBON, Zakayev and Abdul Hakim al-Shishani, inspecting Ribat points and his fighters on the front line.
One of the photos was published by As-Sabiqun.
Propaganda of jihadist groups in which the Russian presence is seen as a threat and an enemy to be fought.
Lastly, there are jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, which are not anti-Russian for ideological or geographical reasons, but for military reasons or linked to strategic opportunities.
In January, there was anti-Russian military and media activity in Africa by the Qaedist affiliate in the Sahel, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), which targeted Wagner's Russian mercenaries in three attacks in Mali.
JNIM attacked Wagner’s Russians once in the Segou region, and twice in the Mopti region of Mali. Following the attacks, it released claims via its official media az-Zallaqa.
One of the statements published by az-Zallaqa Media.
The Islamic State of Khurasan Province (ISKP), which operates in Afghanistan, has instead published several propaganda products, both magazines and videos, in which it criticizes Russia.
The first is a 47-minute video in which, among other topics, it criticizes Russia in several parts for its relations with the Taliban and recalls that it had already attacked it when they hit the Russian embassy in Kabul.
The banner of the ISKP video.
Later, in his Pashto-language magazine, “Khorasan Ghag”, from page 98 onwards, he harshly criticizes the relations between Russia and the Taliban. He accuses the Russians of being atheistic communists, of doing business with and controlling the Taliban, of helping the Taliban against ISKP as it helped Syria against the Islamic State in the Levant in the past.
Khorasan Ghag’s cover
Finally, the ISK also criticized Russia in its Arabic-language magazine 'Sawt Khorasan', in which in issue one it criticizes the Russians for having economic and trade relations with Saudi Arabia, and in issue three published at the end of January, on page 88 it again criticizes the Taliban and Muslim governments for having relations with atheistic Russia.
Issue 1 of ISK’s Arabic-language magazine, “Sawt Khorasan”.
The month of January saw a lot of material published by jihadist propaganda directed against Russia.
In analytical and security threat terms, that of the Islamic State, in particular, ISK, and that of JNIM, which also struck militarily, only indirectly hit Russia, since in the first case, criticism was directed at actors who have relations with Russia, and in the second case, Russian Wagners were targeted because they operate in collaboration with the Malian FAMa. So as specified above, they see Russia as a threat but are not the main target.
What should instead be monitored and security risks assessed are certainly the anti-Russian jihadist groups operating in Syria and the jihadist fighters who have moved into Ukraine.
In fact, their medium- to long-term goals are not to carry out terrorist attacks (which is why Abdul Hakim often states that he hopes the world no longer considers them terrorists) but to shift their military operations to their areas of origin, i.e. Central Asia and the Caucasian areas of the Russian Federation.
The jihadist propaganda in support of Abdul Hakim and the Russian and Uzbek propaganda in Syria, get thousands of views and shares and above all this month of January opened a huge debate among the Caucasian fighters about the need to leave to fight in Ukraine to increase the level of the clash and arm themselves (Abdul Hakim himself has repeatedly stated that the weapons present in Syria were not up to the level of the clash with the Russians, those in Ukraine were), and then move the war front to other areas, such as the Caucasus or Chechnya more specifically.
The analysis appeared on 6 March in ما هي قصة عبد الحكيم الشيشاني والجماعات المناهضة لروسيا؟ - أخبار الآن (akhbaralaan.net)
Daniele Garofalo is a researcher and analyst on Jihadist terrorism and an expert in monitoring Jihadist media channels.
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Daniele Garofalo Monitoring Jihadist Terrorism is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.