A group of Chechen insurgents seized control of buildings in the Chechen capital city of Grozny on Wednesday night, then engaged in a gun battle with police that appears to have killed at least 19, 9 fighters and 10 police officers (nobody with the Chechen Republic seems prepared to say whether there were any civilian casualties). This was the worst terrorist attack in Chechnya since 2010, when Chechen suicide bombers attacked the parliament building in Grozny and at least 20 people were killed. The attackers claimed affiliation with the Caucasus Emirate, the most cohesive jihadist group in the north Caucasus region, and specifically with that group’s “Brigade of Martyrs.”
While this may well be a one-off attack without any long-term implications, it could also be the start of a renewed jihadi campaign in Chechnya and the surrounding area, and it may have something to do with ISIS. The man who is probably ISIS’s top battlefield commander, and certainly its most successful battlefield commander, is a Georgian (though ethnically he’s half-Chechen on his mother’s side) fellow named Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili, who calls himself Abu Umar al-Shishani (“Abu Umar the Chechen”). Lately, he’s been leading ISIS’s conquest of Iraq’s Anbar Province. You could argue that this could be ISIS’s easiest command assignment, at least in Iraq, since Anbar has been more or less out of government control since last December, if not since the Iraq War, there’s no denying that Shishani has done an brilliant job of (re)taking and holding the province. He seems from all outward appearances to be a formidable commander. He’s been thought killed a couple of times, most recently last month when he was declared dead by the Head of the Chechen Republic himself, Ramzan Kadyrov, but it’s probably safe to assume he’s still kicking at the moment.
Shishani was once a promising sergeant in the Georgian Army before he was discharged (under protest it seems) in 2010 for medical reasons and then arrested on weapons charges. By the time he got out of prison in 2012 he had gone full jihadi, and made his way to Syria to join the fight against Assad. He fought in a group called Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa-al-Ansar (“Army of Migrants and Supporters”), a group made up of Russian-speaking jihadis, and during a period when JMA was affiliated with ISIS he pledged his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. That kind of queered his deal with JMA, most of whom had taken loyalty oaths to the Caucasus Emirate’s leader, Dokka Umarov (EDIT: who, I should note — because I didn’t originally — died last September). So, he became a high-ranking ISIS commander instead.
But he’s also still a foreign fighter, and foreign fighters eventually like to return home. Sometimes that can be kind of hilarious (more on this in my next post), but usually they want to go home and carry the fight with them. Shishani appears to be no exception; he’s reportedly told his father that “we’ll have our revenge against Russia.” He could put together a pretty decent cohort of fighters; there could be upwards of a thousand or more Chechens fighting in Syria, to say nothing of other Caucasian Muslims fighting in the region, and while many of those have probably declared allegiance to the Caucasus Emirate, as Shishani’s reputation grows more of them could decide to join him instead.
This raises the stakes for both Kadyrov and
Umarov Ali Abu Muhammad (Umarov’s successor as head of the Caucasus Emirate) then; Kadyrov because Shishani at the head of a thousand plus fighters could be a real force to be reckoned with, and Muhammad because Shishani could be a legitimate rival for dominance in the Chechen jihadi movement. It’s entirely possible that last night’s attack was an attempt by Umarov’s group to boost its profile, to say “hey, we’re still here, forget about that ISIS guy,” but whether that kind of statement requires only a single attack or a sustained campaign is unclear. At any rate, assuming Shishani does survive his time on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, Russia is likely in for renewed problems with respect to Chechnya, sooner or later.