The Boston bombings have brought attention to the tumultuous Russian region of the North Caucasus, including Dagestan and Chechnya, which was a front line for international jihadists in the mid-1990s and which has seen a series of fierce and ultimately futile battles for independence from Russia.
In recent weeks, North Caucasus-based fighters became increasingly visible online, as well as on the ground in Syria. Along with a growing number of foreign fighters from the Arab world as well as Europe, they joined a legion of al-Qaeda offshoots and Syria-based movements to fight against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Last week, an armed group of Chechen fighters was behind a kidnapping of two bishops in the Syrian province of Aleppo, according to their dioceses. Their driver was killed immediately, while Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim remain in captivity.
"We can say that they haven't been freed," a priest at Aleppo’s Greek Orthodox archdiocese, Ghassan Ward, told AFP on Wednesday [April 24].
The Chechen jihadists have been active near the Turkish border, according to activist reports, and the newly launched Russian-language jihadist website documents their operations in Syria.
The group, which identifies itself as Jaish Muhajirin Wa Anshar or Army of Emigrants and Helpers, is not limited to Chechen fighters, although most of the fighters on the website identify themselves as Chechen and speak a mixture of Russian and Arabic.
In the latest post on April 24, the group claimed to have taken over Minnigh military airport, which has been the site of clashes between the Syrian government forces and foreign fighters for months, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The rights group's director, Rami Abdel Rahman, confirmed that foreign-sponsored militants entered the airport for the first time in months.
The group documents the use of Russian weapons fired on civilians in the ongoing standoff between the Syrian military and Syrian rebels. “Our goal is to establish Shariah law, God willing,” one fighter says in a recruiting video. “We have 30 years of history in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq; our goals are the same.”
According to Russian Foreign Ministry estimates, there are between 600 and 6,000 North Caucasus fighters inside Syria on the side of Syrian rebels. Analysts suggest the number of confirmed fighters on the ground is much smaller.
And the total number of foreign fighters in Syria from Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan and Europe has been increasing since the conflict began, even though they still represent a small percentage of total forces fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
According to a recent study by the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICRS), up to 5,500 foreign fighters have joined rebel forces in Syria, with Europeans counting for up to 590 individuals, or 7-11% of the total.
As with most foreign fighters, these men stand out from Syrian opposition groups and even jihadist movements, and tend to have a hard-line Islamist approach compared with other foreign fighters.
Chechnya’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov, disavowed Chechens fighting in Syria as “fighting for money and not an idea,” according to an interview with SkyNews Arabia TV earlier this month.
"They represent neither our people, nor our religion," Kadyrov said, promising to "personally hunt down" the fighters if they ever return to Chechnya.
For the Russian government, it did not take long to connect Boston’s Chechen link with its position on Syria.
"What happened in Boston should finally force the Americans to conclude that there are no bad or good terrorists, there is no 'ours' and 'theirs' among terrorists,” Vladimir Kotlyar, a Russian Foreign Ministry official, told business radio channel Kommersant FM.
The presence of international terrorists has been at the core of Russia’s stance on Syria, which says that removal of Assad will plunge the country in chaos.
“Months before Western governments went public with their concerns that fighters aligned with al-Qaeda were active in Syria, the phenomenon was noted with alarm by Russian state officials and commentators — including, among the latter, some who are ordinarily trenchant critics of their own government,” according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Everything that is happening today is falling precisely where Russia wants it to fall,” said Rami Jarrah, a Syrian activist and founder of ANA, an activist network of Syrian citizen journalists, of Russia’s position on Syria.
In fact, the growing role of international fighters in Syria’s rebellion against the government, which started as a peaceful movement, is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Syria’s transformation into the center of gravity for international terrorists is becoming a reality,” according to Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.
But the number and role of fighters from the North Caucasus should not be overstated. “There are countries with much bigger numbers [in Syria],” said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
And it is not the presence of foreign fighters alone that is driving the war, as the underlying conflict and dim prospects for its resolution take their toll on the morale of citizens in that country.
“Syrians themselves are becoming more radicalized because of the situation they are in,” Jarrah said. “Normal people are becoming more violent, more sectarian.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly reported that the ICRS study cited here had found that “up to 5,500 foreign fighters joined Syria’s rebel forces from Europe alone.” This has been corrected in the text above.
Daria Solovieva covers business and politics in the Middle East from Cairo. She is on Twitter @dariasolo.