Exiled from their homeland following their defeat in the Second Chechen War in 2009, the Jihadist fighters of Ajnad al-Kavkaz (Soldiers of the Caucasus) are willing to fight the Russian Federation and its allies anywhere they go. Formed from the unification of two other Jihadist factions in 2015, Ajnad al-Kavkaz have fought against regime loyalists in Syria and on the side of Ukraine since the beginning of the 2022 Russian invasion. The group seeks to expel Russia from Chechnya and to overthrow its current government of Razman Kadyrov. It is led by Rustam Azhiev, who goes by the nom-de-guerre Abdul Hakim al-Shishani.
History & Foundations
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, several of the formerly Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics sought greater rights or independence from Russia. Moscow was able to appease most regions, integrating them into the Russian Federation. One holdout was Chechnya, who declared independence as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and held off an invasion by Russian forces between 1994 and 1996 (1). Following a series of bomb blasts (which many believe to be false flags carried out by the FSB) and an invasion of neighboring Dagestan by Chechen Islamists, Russia attempted to recapture the country again in 1999. This time they would be successful, though small-scale fighting continued all the way up to 2009 (2). Today, Chechnya acts as a Russian satellite. Ruled by the pro-Russian dictator Razman Kadyrov, it has participated in the Russian war against Ukraine.
Following the defeat of the Ichkerian forces, many of its fighters sought refuge in Turkey and Syria. One such man was Rustam Azhiev, who lost three fingers in the conflict and like others hoped there would be a chance for revenge against Russia (3). When the civil war began in Syria, Azhiev was the leader of Jamaat al-Khilafa al-Qawqazia which merged with Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz to form Ajnad al-Kavkaz (AK) in 2015. The group participated in fighting against the forces of Bashar al-Assad and Russia, particularly in Latakia and Idlib (4). As the war evolved, Syria would become a less hospitable environment for AK.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the dominant Jihadist faction in northwestern Syria, began consolidating power, leaving little space for other groups to operate. Now at odds with HTS and feeling threatened, Azhiev and others decided to take their fight with Russia elsewhere. In 2022, several AK members arrived in Ukraine to join the foreign legion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (5). While there, Azhiev was appointed deputy commander of the Ichkerian military in exile (6).
Ideology & Objectives
Ajnad al-Kavkaz follows a Sunni fundamentalist ideology; Azhiev states the group’s goal is to “establish the religion of Allah and live according to the precepts of Allah everywhere." Mainly, this means instituting a strict interpretation of Sharia Law, upholding Islamic principles of morality, and establishing a state that follows and enforces these principles (7). The group was previously allied with other Jihadist groups in Syria such as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly called Jabat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate) and Ahrar al-Sham. This also meant that AK found itself on the opposite side from Shia Islamist groups such as Hezbollah, which supported the Assad regime. Azhiev also voiced complaints that the Islamic State received too much support, lamenting that “Islamic humanitarian organizations accused of supporting jihad don’t help the Chechens." (8)
Political & Military Capabilities
According to one Idlib-based journalist, the group did not involve itself in political affairs too much in Syria. Even had it wanted to, the group would have been constrained by HTS’ crackdown on other factions in Idlib. Many of its allies have been arrested or been killed by American drones. (9)
In 2016, Ajnad al-Kavkaz boasted over 100 members (10). How many members the group currently has and how many members have relocated to Ukraine is unknown. While videos from the group in Syria show mostly the use of small arms, there is a chance they have their hands on a greater range of equipment in Syria. This video taken of Azhiev fighting in Bakhmut, Ukraine shows him firing an AT4 anti-tank launcher, but whether they have trained on more advanced equipment is unknown.
Approach to Resistance
AK’s main focus is on military confrontation. Azhiev hopes Chechens will be able to return to Chechnya and expel Russia once and for all (11). Despite the group's previous ties with other Jihadist organizations, he has objected to being labeled as a terrorist group, stating “we want to overthrow tyranny. That’s all.” (12) Both the first and second Chechen wars saw heavy fighting over the capital of Grozny before transitioning to longer periods of mountainous fighting. With their experience in the asymmetric conflict in Syria and more conventional war in Ukraine, AK fighters could be quite formidable and likely make up many of the key leadership positions if war renewed in Chechnya itself.
Though members of AK fight in the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ Foreign Legion alongside other Chechen fighters, getting all the various groups to cooperate and gaining further support from international powers could prove difficult (13). Europe and the United States would be hesitant to support a Jihadist organization, even one that rejects targeting civilians as much as AK claims to. Given circumstances in Syria, it seems unlikely its fighters could return to the country and feel the same security to operate as they had previously. For the moment, AK fighters and other non-AK Chechen militants are welcomed in Ukraine. Where they can go if fighting in Ukraine comes to an end, whether they will be allowed to stay, and who would come to their side in the event of an uprising in Chechnya, are all questions that can only be answered with time. But Azhiev allying with Ichkerian Prime Minister in exile, in addition to other figures, and becoming a key military figure demonstrates the continued Chechen resolve for independence (14).
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - Gall, C., & Waal, T. D. (2000). Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus. New York University Press.
(2) - Warographics. (2023). The Second Chechen War: Inside Putin's First Invasion. YouTube. Retrieved April 10, 2023, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6faEOPMKPrA&ab_channel=Warographics.
(3) - Mamon, M. (2016, September 3). In Turkey, a Chechen commander makes plans for war in Syria. The Intercept. Retrieved April 8, 2023, from https://theintercept.com/2016/09/03/in-turkey-a-chechen-commander-makes-plans-for-war-in-syria/
(4) - Paraszczuk, Joanna: “Ajnad al Kavkaz Amir Abdul Hakim Shishani was Amir of Central Sector in Chechnya.” From Chechnya to Syria. January 4, 2016.
(5) - al-Kanj, S. (2022, October 22). Chechen fighters leave Syria to battle Russians in Ukraine. Al-Monitor. Retrieved April 10, 2023, from https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/10/chechen-fighters-leave-syria-battle-russians-ukraine
(6) - Hauer, N. (2022, December 15). Ichkeria Dreamin' a new Chechen separatist army is being formed in Ukraine, but beating Russia in the Donbas is easier than deposing Ramzan Kadyrov. Meduza. Retrieved April 10, 2023, from https://meduza.io/en/feature/2022/12/15/ichkeria-dreamin
(7) - BBC. (2014, December 11). What is jihadism? BBC News. Retrieved April 13, 2023, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-30411519
(8) - Mamon, M. (2016, September 3). In Turkey, a Chechen commander makes plans for war in Syria. The Intercept. Retrieved April 8, 2023, from https://theintercept.com/2016/09/03/in-turkey-a-chechen-commander-makes-plans-for-war-in-syria/
(9) - al-Kanj, S. (2022, October 22). Chechen fighters leave Syria to battle Russians in Ukraine. Al-Monitor. Retrieved April 10, 2023, from https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/10/chechen-fighters-leave-syria-battle-russians-ukraine
(10) - Mamon, M. (2016, September 3). In Turkey, a Chechen commander makes plans for war in Syria. The Intercept. Retrieved April 8, 2023, from https://theintercept.com/2016/09/03/in-turkey-a-chechen-commander-makes-plans-for-war-in-syria/
(11) - Gheja, V. (2022, March 18). Comandantul cecen Rustam Azhiev Vine sa lupte cu rusia in UCRAINA. el a mai luptat cu rusii si in Siria, conduce gruparea "Soldatii Caucazului". Aktual24. Retrieved April 10, 2023, from https://www.aktual24.ro/comandantul-cecen-rustam-azhiev-vine-sa-lupte-cu-rusia-in-ucraina-el-a-mai-luptat-cu-rusii-si-in-siria-conduce-gruparea-soldatii-caucazului/
(12) - Mamon, M. (2016, September 3). In Turkey, a Chechen commander makes plans for war in Syria. The Intercept. Retrieved April 8, 2023, from https://theintercept.com/2016/09/03/in-turkey-a-chechen-commander-makes-plans-for-war-in-syria/
(13) - Chambers, H. (2023, April 5). Chechens fight with Ukrainians against Russia. New Lines Magazine. Retrieved April 10, 2023, from https://newlinesmag.com/reportage/chechens-fight-with-ukrainians-against-russia/
(14) - Hauer, N. (2022, December 15). Ichkeria Dreamin' a new Chechen separatist army is being formed in Ukraine, but beating Russia in the Donbas is easier than deposing Ramzan Kadyrov. Meduza. Retrieved April 10, 2023, from https://meduza.io/en/feature/2022/12/15/ichkeria-dreamin