ISIS’ Caucasian Connection Will Test Turkish-Russian Ties

Reported involvement of Akhmed Chataev offers early test of Russia-Turkey rapprochement: Will Moscow help Turks find Russian-speaking ISIS operatives?

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CCTV footage of three men believed to be the Istanbul airport attackers. June 28, 2016.
CCTV footage of three men believed to be the Istanbul airport attackers. June 28, 2016.Credit: Handout, AFP

The crumbs of information reaching the media from the investigation into last week’s terror attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul show that at least three of the eight attackers were foreign citizens. They came from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Dagestan, and had rented an apartment in the Fatih quarter of Istanbul three months ago.

Their activities were coordinated by Akhmed Chataev, a Chechen who joined the Islamic State group and operated in Syria. Turkish intelligence is now searching for Chataev and other foreign operatives, who seem to be avoiding contact with ISIS cells in Turkey so as not to expose them.

The Turkish pro-government daily Sabah reported that the attackers had planned to grab hundreds of hostages and blow themselves up with them. Only the alertness of a security guard, who thought one of the attackers looked suspicious because he was wearing a coat despite the heat, led instead to a gunfight in the airport. There was no intelligence warning of any such attack.

Chataev, a one-armed warlord, was known to Turkish, British and U.S. intelligence. The Americans had issued an international warrant for the 40-year-old’s arrest because of his membership in ISIS. He figured prominently in the Chechen war against the Russians in 2001, eventually receiving political asylum in Austria. From there he moved to Sweden, where he was arrested when weapons were found in his car.

It isn’t clear when he moved from Sweden to Syria. Like most of the ISIS volunteers from the Caucasus, he presumably crossed the border from Turkey.

According to U.S. reports, Chataev also planned the attacks in Istanbul last March. He joined ISIS in 2013, after the death by poisoning of Dokka Umarov, the self-proclaimed head of the Islamist Chechen Emirate, which fought the Russians.

It is not news that there are dormant ISIS cells in Turkey, but most of the large attacks in Turkey this past year were committed by Turkish citizens and Arab operatives.

Passengers embrace each other at the entrance to Istanbul's Ataturk airport, early Wednesday, June 29, 2016 following their evacuation after a blast.Credit: Emrah Gurel, AP

The question is why ISIS decided this time to use attackers of Caucasian origin, and not Turkish citizens who could have gotten more logistical help. The answer apparently lies in the increased intelligence surveillance of Turkish operatives, and the fact that Arabs who don’t speak Turkish are more likely to raise suspicions than operatives from the Caucasus, who speak Russian and also often a little Turkish.

Aside from the tactical questions, it isn’t entirely clear which faction the attackers belong to. The broad description – “Russian-speaking attackers” or “Attackers from the Caucasus” – doesn’t do enough to characterize them. Even the more narrow “Chechens” is too general.

Chechen fighters went to Syria at Umarov’s behest, to fight the regime of President Bashar Assad and to establish an Islamic caliphate. The small Chechen force that joined ISIS in 2012 was led by Abu Omar al-Shishani (formerly Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili), a former officer in the Georgian army who, after his release, “found” Islam. Within a short time, he set up a military unit called the Army of Emigrants and Supporters (after the loyalists of the Prophet Mohammed), which, according to estimates, numbered some 10,000 fighters from Chechnya, Dagestan, Abkhazia and other states in the Caucasus.

But it eventually became clear to Shishani that not all of his fighters were prepared to swear allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’ leader, and at least two units of a few hundred fighters broke off from the Army of Emigrants and Supporters and joined the Nusra Front (affiliated with Al-Qaida).

The Army of Emigrants was disbanded and merged into ISIS, while Shishani was killed by a U.S. air strike in Syria last March.

His death eliminated the only leader who was able to maintain some kind of unity among the Caucasians, who were often fighting among themselves – particularly the Uzbeks and Chechens. But there was also tension between all the Caucasians and the Syrian ISIS fighters, whom the Caucasians looked down upon, just as the fighters from the West belittled the Chechens as lesser combatants.

The divisions among the Caucasian forces make it very difficult to determine which unit the terrorists in Turkey belonged to, and who their direct coordinator was.

The working assumption is that they weren’t Caucasians fighting with the Nusra Front, which until now has refrained from attacks on Turkey because it has apparently enjoyed logistical support from Turkish territory during the Syrian civil war.

It also seems that Al-Qaida is encouraged by the defeats ISIS has suffered in recent months and is seeking to increase its involvement in the Syrian war – involvement that will require help from neighboring countries, including, perhaps, Turkey.

The question is whether Russia will agree to help Turkey find the Russian-speaking ISIS operatives. This will be an important test of the value of last week’s reconciliation agreement between them.