Middle East

Chechens drawn south to fight against Syria's Assad

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Media captionMurad Batal al-Shishani reports on Chechen Jihadists fighting in Syria

On the flight from Istanbul to Tbilisi, I had a conversation with a former employee of the UN's refugee agency who had worked with Chechens living in the Pankisi Gorge.

The remote area in north-eastern Georgia had been "forgotten", because "the pro-Russian regime in Chechnya led by Ramzan Kadyrov does not want the valley's Chechens, the Georgian government cannot support them, and Russia - of course - does not care about them", the former UN official said.

I went to the Pankisi Gorge to find out why many young Chechens from there have travelled to Syria to fight alongside rebels trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

One of the most prominent, Omar Shishani, is the leader of Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar (Army of the Emigrants and Helpers), an al-Qaeda-aligned jihadist group comprising hundreds of mostly foreign fighters, many of them from the North Caucasus.

Muslim majority

The Pankisi Gorge sits in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.

It has about 15,000 ethnic Chechen residents, whose ancestors migrated there in the 18th Century.

The population suffers from relatively high rates of poverty and pensions form the primary source of income for most of the families there, according to the Georgian government.

Image caption The Pankisi Gorge has about 15,000 ethnic Chechen residents

During the two wars between Russian government forces and separatist rebels in Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s, the Pankisi Gorge's Chechen population expanded.

The valley became a refuge for those wanting to flee the fighting and, as the Russian state re-established control, rebel fighters seeking protection from attack.

Many of the rebels were ultraconservative Islamists, or Salafists, who wanted to create an Islamic state in the North Caucasus.

As their numbers increased, their ideology - which calls for a return to the political and moral practice of the first Muslims - became increasingly popular among young people in the Muslim majority valley.

Image caption Ayoub Borchashvili (left, with our reporter) says Chechens believe they must help "protect oppressed people" in Syria

This caused tension between the ethnic Chechens, who traditionally are Sufis.

But Ayoub Borchashvili, a Salafist imam in the village of Jokolo, was keen to play down the disagreements, because they also share tribal and familial ties.

The Salafists, he said, were only "aiming to live according to the Quran and Sunnah".

Travelling south

In the past, many young Salafists from the Pankisi Gorge travelled north to fight in Chechnya, or in the neighbouring Russian republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria, where there are also Islamist insurgencies.

They tended to fight under the banner of the Caucasus Emirate, an Islamist militant umbrella group led by the Chechen separatist warlord Doku Umarov.

But since the uprising in Syria began in March 2011, an increasing number of Chechens have ignored the call of the Caucasus Emirate and instead travelled south to help the predominantly Sunni rebels seeking to topple President Assad.

Umar Idigov, a senior figure in Georgia's Chechen community, believes there are currently about 200 Chechens fighting in Syria, something he opposes.

'Helping the oppressed'

Mr Borchashvili says this is partly because it is far more difficult to cross the borders of the North Caucasus than it used to be, but also because the young Chechens believe it is incumbent on them to help "protect oppressed people" in Syria.

Doku Umarov initially expressed reservations about the exodus of Chechen fighters to Syria, saying that they ought to be helping the cause of the Caucasus Emirate.

Image caption It is unclear how much Doku Umarov supports the Chechens' decision to fight in Syria

But he later extended his support, saying that the flow of volunteers was the result of the Caucasus Emirate's refusal to accept more youth into its ranks.

A source close to the Chechen fighters in Syria also told the BBC: "There are no training camps in the North Caucasus like there are in Syria and not enough resources.

"We feel ashamed of our presence in Syria while the Caucasus are still occupied, but young people are returning after being trained here. One of my comrades returned directly to the mountains after receiving training in explosives.

"In that sense, [the Caucasus Emirate] is benefiting from us being here; they will have trained and ready fighters," the source added.

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Media captionMurad Batal al-Shishani reports on Chechen Jihadists fighting in Syria