One of the insurgent factions that suddenly grabbed the attention of mainstream media, during the important victory at Menagh Airbase near Aleppo last week, was a previously little-discussed group called Jaish al-Muhajirin wa Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Helpers).
In the Daily Telegraph, Jaish were suddenly “Foreign Jihadists” who “spearheaded the capture” of Menagh, a line repeated by Israel National News. Charles Lister of Jane’s was “tracking the rise” of Jaish “since last year as it became one of the most effective fighting forces” in teh insurgency.
But who are these “Foreign Jihadists”?
The story of Jaish, away from the sensational headlines, is how the Syrian conflict has become linked to other seminal battlefields for insurgents crossing borders — in this case, Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus from the 1990s.
Syria is hardly the first conflict in recent years to attract foreign Jihadi fighters — Bosnia and Iraq, as well as Chechnya, followed the Afghanistan battle from the 1980s. But Jaish’s story is only part of a much bigger, complex dynamic, one which links the “local” of the Syrian political, military, and social contest to the involvement of groups from outside the country.
Formation of Jaish al-Muhajirin wa Ansar
A video posted on March 25, 2013 indicated that Jaish was formed earlier that month, when a unit of the Kataeb al-Muhajireen (Brigade of Emigrants) under the command of a man named Abu Omar al-Chechen — also known as Abu Omar al-Shishani — was joined by several other brigades, including Kataeb Khattab (Khattab Brigade) and the Jaish Muhammad (Army of Muhammad).
In the ceremony, Abu Omar Al Shishani, easily identifiable becase of his striking reddish beard and a black hat, is standing in the front row facing the camera as the group of fighters swear their allegiance to him. Next to Al Shishani is a man named as Emir Seyfullakh, Al Shishani’s second-in command and another Russian speaker.
The pro-Islamist website Kavkaz.org, which is run out of Chechnya, claims that the Jaish operates mostly in Aleppo Province and that it has Muslim volunteers from various countries, including the Caucasus region.
Abu Omar Al Shishani
There are several videos of Al Shishani — “The Chechen” — and Seyfullakh prior to the formation of Jaish. This footage from February shows Al Shishani as the leader of the Brigade of Emigrant.
Abu Omar speaks Russian, but with a strong accent that is somewhat unusual for a native of Chechnya of his age — one would more likely expect a person from that region to have a more fluent command of Russian. His Arabic nickname “the Chechen” could mean that he is from the Caucasus region but is not specifically a native of Chechnya, and/or that he fought in Chechnya.
The most likely explanation is that Abu Omar is of Chechen origin but is from one of the thousands of Chechen refugee families spread across Europe, as are many of the Chechen fighters in Syria. More than 190,000 Chechens (nearly 20% of the population) have applied for asylum in the West since 1999, and thousands more have been displaced throughout the former Soviet Union. There are even concerns within Chechnya about the plight of Syrian refugees of Chechen origin displaced to Jordan.
Abu Omar says:
Dear brothers and sisters. We have not participated in this war, as we should have participated in it, and we have missed many opportunities. Now we have a real chance of establishing Sharia Law on this land. And from here we can spread out to other countries… We are doing as much as we can. With weapons in our hands…. First and foremost, we need money. Today, Jihad really depends on money. If we don’t get that sort of support, there won’t be the desired outcome.
Apromotional video for the Brigade of Emigrants from early March features Seyfullakh and describes the brigade as consisting of fighters from the Caucasus, Crimea, Tatarstan and “other countries of the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States, the initial for former Soviet republics after the fall of the Soviet Union].
A more recent video shows Al Shishani and Seyfullakh together enjoying fruit picked directly from trees. The two speak Russian to each other:
March 2013 — Handarat Air Defense Base, Aleppo
The first major operation of the newly-formed Jaish was involvemen in the capture of Handarat Base in Aleppo Province, north of Aleppo city.
The footage — uploaded on March 25 to a Russian-language YouTube channel associated with Kataeb Mujahir, Jaish’s predecessor — shows Seyfullakh talking about the capture of the base, taken the previous week .
Seyfullakh explains that the aim of the group — with fighters from Syria, Iraq, Chechnya, and Afghanistan — is to establish Sharia law in the region. Seyfullakh points to the groups of men standing around and says that these are “all our brothers and they are all going to help”.
In a tour of the base, Seyfullakh points out various landmarks and sites of the battle:
Jaish, Al Shishani, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham
Jaish and its predecessor groups have collaborated with other factions on the battlefield.
This video shows Jaish training with Islamist faction Jabhat al Nusra:
Footage of the fighting for Menagh Airbase shows that Jaish closely cooperated with fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and As-Sham to a close degree.
There have been claims that the ISIS leader in Iraq, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, appointed Al Shishani as ISIS’s commander in the northern region of Syria in May 2013. Al Baghdadi made the appointment after he traveled to Aleppo in a power play, following the rejection by Jabhat Al Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani of ISIS’s attempted “merger” with JAN.
So far we have not been able to find a credible source for this rumor, which appears to have begun in May in a tweet and then a blog post by Syria watcher “Shami Witness”. That blog post was repeated as fact by an aspiring analyst, but again without reference to any specific, credible source.
Indeed, the original citation for the claim is a May 19 tweet from a Jihadist twitter account “@algehad300”:
الشيخ الامير ابوبكر البغدادي يعين الشيخ عمر الشيشاني قائد كتيبة المهاجرين اميرا عسكريا للمنطقه الشماليه للدوله حلب وادلب واللاذقيه
— الجهاد الشامي (@algehad300) May 19, 2013
[Note — we are still looking for a source to substantiate this, please contact us if you can help.]
The earliest video evidence showing Jaish taking part in the fight for the Menagh Airbase was posted in April. This promotional footage shows fighters from the faction bombing the airbase with a 130mm cannon. Jaish are shown to use a mix of weapons — it is not clear where these were foreign-supplied or whether they come from captured regime stocks — and home-made arms.
More footage from April shows the faction attacking Menagh with homemade mortars:
The Kavkaz Center website reported on April 23 that Jaish had managed to “take control of” high ground and fortified positions overlooking the airbase and capture regime weapons during a raid on a regime armored division.
Jaish seized 20 Russian-made APCs and tanks, as well as a large quantity of weapons and ammunition, according to Kavkaz.
Footage dated May shows a captured weapons cache:
Footage from early July showing a Jaish fighter attacking a tank with an anti-tank missile:
the end of the battle for Menagh, this video, again in Russian, showed a Jaish fighter explaining that the group has prepared a BMP vehicle to use as a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) in a suicide bomb attack. The speaker says, “Enshallah, today we will liberate the airport.”
Jaish leader Al Shishani gives a statement after the capture of the airbase:
Just before and following the capture of the airbase, another Jaish leader, Abu Jandal Al Masri (Abu Jandal The Egyptian) is prominent in videos.
Abu Jandal gives a message to Bashar al-Assad:
Abu Jandal in the airbase after its capture:
It is Abu Jandal who is present in the “victory video” shot immediately after the capture of the base, an informal conference led by Free Syrian Army Commander Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi:
There is video evidence that Jaish cooperated closely with the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham — as well as with brigades of the Free Syrian Army — during the offensive on the airbase, but it is not clear when the cooperation began.
Beyond the Menagh Airbase offensive, there is also some evidence that Jaish and ISIS have cooperated to train fighters:
The Lattakia Offensive
Jaish have been involved in the August 2013 offensive in Lattakia Province. The Kavkaz Center reported on August 14 that fighters from the group — mostly men from the Caucasus region — were transferred out of Aleppo to Lattakia and Homs:
Сирия. Спецкор КЦ. Подразделения Джейш Мухаджирин ва Ансар переброшены из Алеппо в Латакию и Хомс. В частности моджахеды с Кавказа
— Kavkaz Center (@kavkazcenter) August 14, 2013
This video, in Russian, shows a Jaish leader named as Abu Walid discussing Jaish operations in and around Durin in Latakia Province.
Abu Walid says that he will speak in Russian because it is likely that people from Chechnya will be watching the video and will want to know about events. He talks about how around 40 fighters managed to capture a large number of hilltop villages and regime military posts — Abu Walid points out the various tent encampments on hilltops in the area. Notably, Abu Walid and the group he leads are referred to in Russian as “The Army of Emigrants and Helpers” and not as the Islamic State of Iraq.
Jaish Beyond The Battlefield
Like other factions — including both Free Syrian Army and Islamist groups — Jaish has made promotional videos that show its activities away from the battlefield as well as its fighters’ military prowess. This video from June shows the group providing aid and assistance to civilians — presumably in Aleppo, though no location is given — and also involving children in their activities.
Like the Islamic State of Iraq and As-Sham, the group carries out public “advocacy” in an attempt to spread ideology and win hearts and minds of civilians. This promotional video from June shows Jaish running a public advocacy event involving children, again, presumably somewhere in Aleppo Province:
Promotional images co-branded to both Jaish and ISIS posted on Islamist forums in July show fighters providing food aid to civilians in Idlib: