Abstract: In 2013 and 2014, more than 30 German fighters joined Junud al-Sham (Soldiers of Syria), a Chechen jihadist group in northern Syria. Most of them hailed from the jihadist hotspots of Berlin, Bonn, and Frankfurt and belonged to a German group called Millatu Ibrahim (Abraham’s community) led by Austrian-Egyptian Mohamed Mahmoud. After the emergence of the Islamic State, most of these Germans left Junud al-Sham and joined the Iraqi-led organization. Nevertheless, their experience with the Chechen group was important because they received extensive training by Junud al-Sham and in many cases had their first battlefield experiences under its leadership. Moreover, the shared experiences of that group created tight bonds between Germans, Turks, Caucasians, and jihadis of other nationalities, which will likely shape the nature of the terrorist threat in Germany and other European states in the coming years.

Among the more than 30,000 foreign fighters who have flocked to Syria since 2011 to join the fight against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Chechens have been one of the largest contingents. Although commonly referred to as Chechens, they include Caucasians of other origins, such as Dagestanis and Ingush, all of whom have chosen Syria as an alternative battlefield to their native Caucasus region where jihadis have suffered numerous setbacks in their fight against the Russians and their local allies in recent years. As a result, since 2012, several thousand Caucasians have made their way to Syria.

Although not the largest Chechen group, Junud al-Sham—led by veteran Chechen jihadi Murad Margoshvili—has managed to remain independent while closely cooperating with Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, with which it took part in many of the major operations in the Syrian provinces of Latakia, Aleppo, and Idlib from 2013 to 2015. Junud al-Sham has trained hundreds of fighters from the Caucasus, Turkey, Germany, Austria, and a host of other nations and prepared them for the fight against the Assad regime. In the course of the emerging struggle between Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies on the one side and the Islamic State on the other, though, most non-Caucasians left Junud al-Sham in late 2013 and early 2014 and joined the Islamic State. A small minority has stayed with their Chechen brethren in Junud al-Sham.

Information introduced at a series of terrorism trials in Germany and one in Turkey has shed significant new light on the organization and its structure, its strength, its national and ethnic composition, and its German contingent. Most importantly, Harun Pashtoon, a 29-year-old German-Afghan who left Junud al-Sham in March 2014 and returned to his native Munich, testified in his own and others’ trials, providing an extensive overview of the organization and its members.[a] A second German, Benjamin Xu, a young jihadi of Macedonian-Chinese origin from Berlin and born in 1996, was arrested in Turkey in March 2014, where he volunteered detailed information to his interrogators about his stay in Syria with Junud al-Sham and subsequently the Islamic State.[1][b]

Murad Margoshvili and Junud al-Sham
In 2013, the Chechen jihadist contingent in Syria experienced serious internal disagreements, which led to the breakup of its largest organization, the Army of Emigrants and Helpers (Jaish al-Muhajirin wa-l-Ansar, or JMA). The split was instigated by its leader Abu Umar al-Shishani, who moved steadily closer to the Islamic State from early summer 2013, culminating in his public declaration of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on November 21 of that year. Already in July 2013, his second-in-command Saifullah al-Shishani had left the group over criticism of its new alliance with the Islamic State and joined Jabhat al-Nusra in late 2013. Another commander named Salahuddin al-Shishani continued to use the JMA label and claimed to operate as the Syrian branch of the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus and its then-leader Doku Umarov.[2][c]

Junud al-Sham is the only major Chechen group that continues to claim independence from larger organizations, be it the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Caucasus Emirate. It owes its reputation and probably its very existence to its charismatic leader, Murad Margoshvili (fighting name Muslim Abu al-Walid al-Shishani, born 1972). Among the Chechen commanders in Syria, he is the only one who is widely known to have taken part, as a field commander, in the Chechen wars against Russia. His reputation seems to have suffered from his release from a Russian jail in 2005 after only two years in custody, leading to rumors about collaboration with the authorities. This, coupled with the ideological rift between Jabhat al-Nusra/al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State, might have prevented him from becoming the overall leader of the Caucasians in Syria. Nevertheless, Junud al-Sham is a well-known and well-respected organization, which has managed to survive to this very day, and one that attracted many foreign fighters in 2013, although it never recovered from its losses afterwards.

Margoshvili is renowned among Caucasian and Turkish jihadis, who have reportedly nicknamed him “the Viking” due to his imposing stature and red-blond beard and long hair. Like all the major Chechen commanders in Syria, Margoshvili is a Georgian national and ethnic Kist, a minority closely related to the Chechens and located in the Pankisi gorge, formerly the main supply line for the rebels in neighboring Chechnya.[3] According to his German language video biography published in 2013, Margoshvili served in the Soviet Red Army and in 1995 was attracted to the Chechen struggle when the legendary Saudi Arabian field commander Khattab (originally Thamir al-Suwailim, who died in 2002) established training camps in Chechnya. Rising in the ranks of the rebels, he first commandeered his own fighting group during the second Chechen war (1999-2006), under the command of Khattab and then his successor, the Saudi Abu Walid al-Ghamidi (d. 2006). Pictures of the young Margoshvili between 1999 and 2002 show him together with jihadist heroes of the Chechen struggle like Khattab, Abu Walid, Shamil Bassayev (d. 2006), and Aslan Maskhadov (d. 2005).[4]

Repeatedly injured during fighting in Grozny, he was arrested by Russian troops in 2003 and spent the next two years in jail. It remains an unsolved riddle why the Russians, who are known for their harsh treatment of suspected terrorists, released him at all and after such a short time, a fact which raised doubts as to whether Margoshvili might have cooperated with his captors. After reportedly having recovered from the repercussions of heavy torture, Margoshvili returned to fight in a new jihadist unit in Dagestan from 2008 onward. When he did not manage to rejoin the struggle in Chechnya in the following years, Margoshvili decided to carry the fight to Syria when the civil war broke out there; he arrived in Syria in 2012.[5]

Margoshvili quickly managed to establish a small organization in the Turkish border area, specifically in a region called Turkmen Mountain (Jabal Turkman) in the northeastern part of the coastal province of Latakia and in the northern part of Idlib, where Junud al-Sham was clearly identifiable from spring 2013.[d] Because of their military experience, Margoshvili and his lieutenants were able to offer advanced guerilla training for the growing numbers of Caucasian, Turkish, European, and Arab fighters flocking to Syria. In its early publications, Junud al-Sham published videos and pictures of training in the Syrian mountains and boasted that it trained “young Mujahidin, who arrive from the whole world to fight the jihad.”[e] As a result, the group seems to have grown quickly, with its numbers reaching some 200-350 fighters in mid- to late-2013.[f]

The organization quickly developed its own command structure with Chechens dominating its upper ranks. Margoshvili was its uncontested leader and became a focus of the group’s propaganda effort, which celebrated the exploits of the veteran. His second-in-command and head of military operations was and is Abu Bakr al-Shishani.[6] The number three seems to have been Abu Turab al-Shishani, who is also presented as a military leader in the organization’s propaganda but seems to have been subordinate to Abu Bakr.[7] Quite possibly, each of the two commanders was responsible for one of the group’s two main areas of operations, the coastal mountains and the northern suburbs of Aleppo. Below these two, there are several Caucasians known to have served as mid-level functionaries and commanders of smaller units of the organization—some of them Chechens who lived in Europe before moving to Syria.[g]

Non-Chechen Europeans, Turks, and Arabs only headed small contingents of compatriots without playing a major role in the organization. The only non-Chechens in superior positions in 2013 seem to have been two Arab religious scholars, a North African allegedly named Abu Schams al-Maghribi, who according to Pashtoon was a well-known authority, and an Egyptian called Abu Abdallah. Al-Maghribi is said to have been very close to Margoshvili, but nothing further is known about his career.[8] Although Margoshvili claimed that Arabs and Syrians played important roles in the organization, there is no evidence that they were of particular importance for it.

Junud al-Sham and the Conflict Between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State
After having secured its headquarters and surroundings in Jabal Turkman in May 2013, Junud al-Sham took part in most major military campaigns headed by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. This began with the coastal offensive of August 2013 when Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic State (known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, at the time), and several smaller outfits attacked small towns and villages around Baruda in the coastal mountains. The rebels were able to take some of the locations but were quickly repelled when regime reinforcements arrived. The Islamist coalition left a lasting impression, however, by committing numerous atrocities against the Alawite civilian population.[9]

This was the only time that Junud al-Sham cooperated with the Islamic State/ISIL. When tensions rose between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL that summer, Margoshvili took the side of the former. Just like most other Islamist rebels in Syria, he believed that it was paramount to avoid a confrontation between Muslims in order not to weaken the struggle against the al-Assad regime, but slowly had to come to terms with the fact that the Iraqi-dominated organization aimed to control the rebellion and subjugate the other insurgent groups. Margoshvili later conceded that he was too late in understanding the Islamic State’s strategy and complained bitterly that its emergence weakened the rebels’ overall objective. He especially chastised Abu Umar al-Shishani and his followers in the JMA for swearing allegiance to the Islamic State and perpetrating crimes against fellow rebels and the Syrian population.[h]

Margoshvili’s support for Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham pushed many foreigners to leave his group and join the Islamic State.[i] As a result, Junud al-Sham shrank in numbers and was forced to intensify its cooperation with the other rebels.[j] This was clearly discernible over the course of the next two years when Junud al-Sham operated as part of the rebel alliance led by Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, an alliance that from March 2015 called itself Jaish al-Fath (Army of Conquest). The first big operation was an attack on Aleppo Central Prison in early February 2014, the last major regime stronghold in the area, which was led by Margoshvili. Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham took part, but Junud al-Sham and other Chechens seem to have constituted most of the fighting force.[10] The offensive suffered from the ongoing in-fighting among the insurgents in the surrounding areas and was beaten back by regime forces, which managed to lift the year-long prison siege and inflict heavy losses on the assailants.[11]

Probably due to its loss of membership to the Islamic State, which continued in 2014, Junud al-Sham never regained comparable prominence but instead had to act as a small junior partner of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. As such, it took part in an attack on the city of Kasab next to the Turkish border and the Mediterranean Sea in northern Latakia. The large offensive, dubbed Battle of Anfal by the rebels, began on March 21, 2014, and involved the big Islamist groups plus a small Free Syrian Army contingent. The insurgents advanced to the coast and took the strategically important Height 45, which controlled the road between the city of Latakia and the Turkish border.[12] Only a few days later, however, the rebel coalition was again beaten back by advancing government troops. Not much was heard of Junud al-Sham for the following year until it participated in the takeover of the city of Jisr al-Shughur in the western part of the province of Idlib in April 2015. This was part of a major advance of the newly formed Jaish al-Fath under the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Junud al-Sham was only one among many groups involved, and it remains unclear whether it had played any significant role in the fighting.[13] Although Junud al-Sham continues to exist as an independent group, it seems to be much smaller today than in 2013 or 2014.

The Germans in Junud al-Sham
Junud al-Sham’s most important contribution to the jihadist scene may have been in its training of hundreds of foreign fighters, providing them with their first battlefield experiences in Latakia and Aleppo and forging relationships between its European, Turkish, and Caucasian members.

More than 30 German fighters joined Junud al-Sham, and while most of them arrived in 2013, some had already come to Syria as early as 2012. Most Germans were drawn to Junud al-Sham because they were either members or supporters of a German group of jihadis called Millatu Ibrahim. This group was founded in Berlin in late 2011 after its leader Mohamed Mahmoud (aka Abu Usama al-Gharib) moved from Vienna to Berlin and made contact with like-minded German jihadis, most prominently Denis Cuspert (aka Abu Talha al-Almani), a former gangster rapper.[14] The small group took part in violent demonstrations in Solingen and Bonn in the western part of the country in May 2012 and consequently was banned by the federal government. Many members, including its two leaders, fled to Egypt and then to Derna in Libya, where they reportedly received training by sympathetic groups before they traveled to Turkey in late 2012 or early 2013. Mahmoud was arrested by Turkish authorities in March 2013 and remained in jail until he was released in August 2014, directly joining the Islamic State afterward.[k] Cuspert and the others managed to enter Syria in spring 2013 where they joined Junud al-Sham and received training.[l]

A prior connection between the German extremist network and Chechen jihadis seems to have been established in a mosque in Berlin, where Cuspert was known to have been in contact with local Chechen and Turkish radicals. This network seems to have been the connection between the German jihadist scene and the Chechens in Syria. It sent other militants who had remained in Germany in spite of the ban and the subsequent crackdown until early 2013 to Junud al-Sham in Syria.[m]

The sequence of events and the role of the Berlin network becomes clear in the report about the interrogations of Benjamin Xu in Turkish custody. Xu’s father, Nimetullah, was a constant visitor to a mosque called “Fusilat 33” in the Berlin quarter of Wedding, which was administered by Turkish jihadis and where Turks and Chechens regularly met.[n] In April 2013, Nimetullah Xu and Fatih Kahraman, a close friend of Cuspert’s from Berlin, traveled to Turkey, where they met Benjamin and headed to Syria. They were received by a group of German Junud al-Sham fighters at the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa and went on to train with the group.[15] While more German recruits—many of them Turks and Chechens from Berlin and some others from Frankfurt and Bonn—continued arriving in the Junud al-Sham camps, a group of them, among them Denis Cuspert, took part in the coastal offensive in August 2013 where they gained their first battlefield experience.[o]

From August 2013, Germans began to leave Junud al-Sham and join the Islamic State (ISIL at the time). Cuspert, his close associate Farid Saal, and some others were the first to leave. They settled in northern Latakia, where ISIL had built a base under the command of the notorious Abu Aiman al-Iraqi, but remained in contact with members of Junud al-Sham. Until they left the area in late 2013 and early 2014, they tried to convince the remaining Germans in Junud al-Sham to defect as well. They were successful in this, as most of them did in fact join ISIL in these months.[p] Although some Germans stayed with the Chechen organization and took part in the attack on Aleppo prison in early February 2014, only a few Germans have stayed with Margoshvili—their commander Abu Fahd (originally Rashid A.), a German Arab from the Bonn region, and his lieutenant Muhammad Turki (aka Mehmet Ceylan).[q] Mohamed Mahmoud, Denis Cuspert, and dozens of supporters of Millatu Ibrahim together with many Turks and some Chechens moved eastward with ISIL, and those who have not died have formed the core of the now Islamic State’s German contingent. Mahmoud became its leader and Cuspert its leading propagandist before his reported death in a U.S. strike in Syria in October 2015.[16]

Since the inception of the German jihadist scene in the 1990s, its members have developed a strong sympathy for the Chechen cause. In 1999, Mohammed Atta and his friends wanted to fight in Chechnya before they were convinced to travel to Afghanistan because they lacked military training. The Sauerland group failed to find a way to the Caucasian battlefields before joining the Islamic Jihad Union in Pakistan in 2006. With the end of the second Chechen war in 2006, the opportunity to join their brethren in the Caucasus seemed to have been missed for good. But with the emergence of a Chechen jihadist diaspora and the establishment of organizations like Junud al-Sham in Syria, German jihadis finally have been able to link up.

The new bonds will add a fresh dimension to the terrorist threat in Germany and Austria, with Germans, Turks, Arabs, and Chechens forming an even more international crowd than before. Most importantly, success of counterterrorism operations in Europe will increasingly depend on cooperation with Russia and Turkey. The terrorist threat from these little-understood networks will affect all European countries with a substantial Chechen diaspora. This is especially the case for Austria, where about half of all 250 nationals who went to Syria are of Chechen origin.[17] Furthermore, over the years, jihadis from Germany and Austria had, for the most part, lacked training and battlefield experience, which might explain the relatively low number of terrorist attacks and plots there.[r] Partly due to training and fighting with the Chechens both before and after the Germans joined the Islamic State, this has changed and has made German jihadis and their allies a more potent terrorist threat.

Dr. Guido Steinberg specializes in the Middle East and Islamist terrorism at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) in Berlin. He is a regular expert witness at terrorism trials against German members of Junud al-Sham.

Substantive Notes
[a] Pashtoon was sentenced to 11 years in prison by the Higher State Court in Munich in July 2015.

[b] Xu and two accomplices had opened fire on Turkish policemen during a routine stop in the southern province of Nigde. They killed three but were quickly apprehended.

[c] A significant part of the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus has gone over to the Islamic State side. See Derek Henry Flood: “The Islamic State Raises Its Black Flag Over The Caucasus,” CTC Sentinel 8:6 (2015): pp. 1-4.

[d] According to Pashtoon, Margoshvili lived in the village of Rihaniya, which is near Rabia. Testimony by Harun Pashtoon in the presence of the author, Higher State Court Düsseldorf, May 15, 2015.

[e] The quote is taken from Margoshvili’s video biography, where a short clip of the training is shown. On its Google+ page, the group published photographs of its Emir Muslim giving a speech before the start of military training (“#Amir #Muslim Abu Waleed bei der Ansprache vor dem Beginn des #Militärtrainings”) and a picture of the German jihadist Denis Cuspert with an RPG. See https://plus.google.com/+ShamcenterInfo/posts.

[f] Pashtoon gave a number of 200-250 during trial in Munich. Testimony by Harun Pashtoon in the presence of the author, Higher State Court Munich, February 6, 2015. In post-arrest interviews, he is reported to have quoted a slightly higher number of 300-350 fighters.

[g] In 2013 and 2014, a Caucasian named Abu Riduan was responsible for the obligatory security checks of recruits. Testimony by Harun Pashtoon in the presence of the author, Higher State Court Munich, March 5, 2015.

[h] In a long speech published in July 2014, Margoshvili described in detail how it took him and the other rebels a long time and many bitter experiences to understand that the Islamic State had no intention of cooperating with fellow insurgents, even if they were jihadis. He complained bitterly about the internal conflict (fitna) among the rebels in general and held the Islamic State and its supporters responsible. He especially blamed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his organization for betraying al-Qa`ida despite having sworn an oath to the organization and its leader, and he criticized them for weakening the insurgency by trying to take over liberated territories and killing other rebels and their leaders. The text was translated into German by a member or supporter of Junud al-Sham. “Amir Muslim Abu Walid of the Brigade Junud al-Sham: Wisdom takes a break” (in German), n.p., n.d., pp. 6-7.

[i] Margoshvili is reported to have freed those fighters who wanted to leave from all obligations incurred by their oath of allegiance to him. Testimony by Harun Pashtoon in the presence of the author, Higher State Court Munich, March 5, 2015.

[j] Margoshvili himself mentioned the loss of fighters in his July 2014 speech. “Amir Muslim Abu Walid: Wisdom takes a break,” p. 15.

[k] Mahmoud’s wife stayed with Junud al-Sham in fall 2013.

[l] Pictures of Cuspert during training can be seen at https://plus.google.com/+ShamcenterInfo/posts. There is a video showing a small group of German Junud al-Sham members during training. Sham Center (in cooperation with Junud al-Sham), “Holiday Greetings: A Speech by Abu Talha Al Almani” (in German).

[m] The ban of the organization involved house searches and other measures, which prompted many members of Millatu Ibrahim to leave the country.

[n] The trial of two Turkish administrators of the mosque, Ismet D. and Emin F., started in January 2016. Both had been to Syria for a short visit with their friends in Junud al-Sham, but they returned shortly after. The attorney general accused them of having supported the organization with money and recruits.

[o] Video footage showing Cuspert close to Margoshvili during the fighting was shown in the trial against his friend Fatih Kahraman in Berlin in 2015.

[p] This process was described in detail by Pashtoon’s testimonies during trial in Munich, Berlin, and Düsseldorf. According to Pashtoon, Farid Saal from Bonn visited the remaining Germans in order to win them over to ISIL.

[q] While Abu Fahd seems to have remained in Syria and might have stayed with Junud al-Sham, Ceylan was killed in early 2014.

[r] Germans only started to travel to jihadist war zones in 2006, long after their French and British counterparts. Most of them did not stay long enough to acquire experience. Nevertheless, there have been serious plots in Germany linked to overseas training, like the Sauerland case in 2007, which were thwarted by German and allied authorities. The only fatal jihadist attack in Germany to date was the shooting of American airmen at Frankfurt airport on March 2, 2011, by Arid Uka, a young Kosovar who had grown up in Germany. Two airmen were killed, and two were seriously injured.

[1] Information from his interrogations is detailed in the indictment against Xu. Turkish Republic Nigde Republican Attorney’s Office: Indictment No. 2014/167 of Cendrim Ramadani, Benyamin Xu, Muhammad Zakiri, et al. (in Turkish), January 9, 2015.

[2] For an overview of the Caucasian jihadist scene in Syria, see Guido Steinberg, “A Chechen al-Qaeda? Caucasian Groups Further Internationalise the Syrian Struggle,” Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP Comments 2014/C 31, June 2014.

[3] Sham Center (in cooperation with Junud al-Sham), “The Biography of Muslim” (in German), uploaded November 1, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See his appearance in the Arabic language video “Junud ash-Sham: Operation Jisr al-Shughur” (in Arabic) on YouTube.

[7] Testimony by Harun Pashtoon in the presence of the author, Higher State Court Munich, March 5, 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Human Rights Watch, “You can Still See Their Blood: Executions, Indiscriminate Shootings and Hostage Taking by Opposition Forces in Latakia Countryside,” October 2013.

[10] Video of the attack by Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and others on the Central Prison of Aleppo on February 6, 2014, is available on YouTube.

[11] Testimony by Harun Pashtoon in the presence of the author, Higher State Court Munich, March 5, 2015.

[12] Joanna Paraszczuk, “Syria Video: Muslim Shishani & Jundu Sham at Tower 45,” From Chechnya to Syria, Volume 26. März 2014.

[13] Margoshvili and his deputy Abu Bakr were shown in a short video of the fighting. “Junud al-Sham: Operation Jisir Al Shughur” (in Arabic), available on YouTube.

[14] On Mahmoud’s earlier career, see Guido Steinberg, German Jihad: On the Internationalization of Islamist Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp. 133-136.

[15] Turkish Republic Nigde Republican Attorney’s Office: Indictment No. 2014/167, pp. 42-43.

[16] Paul Cruickshank, “German Rapper who joined ISIS killed in U.S. Strike, officials says,” CNN, October 30, 2015.

[17] Clemens Neuhold and Jakob Winter, “Unter uns: Dschihadisten in Oesterreich,” Profil, November 25, 2015.

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