The Chechen War and the Diaspora
Chechen militants have gained notoriety thanks to their abilities on the battlefield. The two brutal wars in Chechnya produced a large set of hardcore and experienced extremist fighters.
This is a problem for the rest of the world – these fighters have passed their expertise on to new recruits, using the diaspora as a key channel. The Chechen wars and subsequent insurgency drove many Chechens out of the Caucasus and into European countries including Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Norway, Poland, and Turkey. Some of these individuals brought their extremist ideology with them and integrated it with existing extremist circles, deepening radicalization and forming new transnational networks.
To make matters worse, many Chechens from Europe and the Caucasus took part in the Syrian Civil War, bolstering cells that now represent a threat for the coming years.
Russian Gains Spell Trouble for Other Countries
Russia’s gains against Chechen fighters have only increased the risks.
Violence in the Caucasus has been declining significantly since 2014 due to a strong crackdown by the Russian authorities. Guerrilla operations inside Russia are also more difficult.
In fact, the departure of fighters from the Caucasus was aided by Russian security forces, who reportedly allowed people to leave for Syria in a “pragmatic” attempt to weaken the local factions.
The activities of the Russian authorities were not limited to internal counter-terrorism and no holds were barred. Assassins were dispatched to Turkey, where many Chechens had settled, and they gradually eliminated individuals who had participated in the Chechen conflict.
As one insurgent fighter puts it, jihad in the Caucasus became “1,000 times harder than in Syria”.
These developments encouraged fighters to go to Syria and Iraq. Now that they are leaving, many look to Europe rather than a return to combat in the Caucasus.
Chechens in the Syrian Civil War
European Chechens have played a major role in the battalions of Caucasian fighters in Syria. According to a Europol report released to the public in 2015, “the majority of Chechens and other North Caucasians involved in the armed conflict in Syria, had come from Europe, after receiving early indoctrination via Internet.”
Fighters who came from the Caucasus are more diverse group, ranging from seasoned jihadists to young people drawn by Islamic State’s ideology.
One of the first Chechen groups to appear in Syria was the 700-strong Katibat al-Muhajireen, led by Abu Omar al-Shishani. A Chechen of Georgian origins, he served in the special forces of the Georgian Army and even participated in the Russo-Georgian War in 2008.
Similarly, between 2013 and 2014, around thirty German fighters joined a Chechen jihadist group named Junund al-Sham, led by Murad Magoshvili, a veteran of the Chechen wars against Russia. The battalion was independent but closely affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra. Its ranks were a mix of hundreds of fighters from the Caucasus, Germany, Turkey and Austria. They received extensive training and gained experience with Junund, benefitting from the expertise of Magoshvili.
Several Chechens who lived in Europe were important in this group and rose to be prominent commanders. By contrast, non-Chechen Europeans, Turks and Arabs headed only small contingents of compatriots and did not play a major role in the organization.
The connection between the German jihadists and the Chechens appears to have been established in a Berlin mosque, where the Germans came into contact with Chechen and Turkish radicals.
Elsewhere in Europe, at it appears that around half of the 250 Austrian foreign fighters are of Chechen descent and at least twelve known Chechen foreign fighters came from Belgium.
The rise of Islamic State had a destabilizing effect on the Caucasus Emirate, the militant jihadist organisation active in the southwestern region of the Russian Federation whose primary goals were to expel the Russian presence from the North Caucasus and to establish an independent Islamic State. Omar al-Shishani and many local insurgent commanders declared allegiance to Islamic State, causing a rift with the central leadership of the Caucasus Emirate, which had traditionally been close to al-Qaeda. For their part, most of the German Junund fighters joined Islamic State. Other fighters merged with Al-Nusra (now known as Hayat Tharir al-Sham).
The Future of the Chechen Fighters
Several Chechen fighters are still active in the insurgency in Syria. Members of various Caucasus battalions such as the Ajnad al-Kavkaz and groups affiliated to Hayat Tharir al-Sham are currently holed up in Idlib province. Their future will depend on the evolution of the Syrian crisis. With a Russian-Syrian offensive looming, the groups will probably have to flee or fight for their survival. As with Islamic State, authorities in Europe warn that individuals may move to other areas of conflict or come to Europe.
Officials clearly fear that an influx of seasoned fighters from conflict may lead to an increase in attacks by foreign fighters. This is particularly worrying because these battle-hardened individuals would be able to use their expertise with firearms and the manufacturing of explosives to inflict mass casualties.
So far, an increase in attacks by foreign fighters has not occurred. However, a scenario along the lines of the aftermath of the Balkan and Algerian Civil Wars is possible. Namely, the creation of new networks and the further radicalization of individuals by returning foreign fighters, with support from connections formed in Syria and Iraq.
The case of Eli Bombataliev shows how this scenario can become reality. Bombataliev is a 38-year-old Chechen foreign fighter who was arrested in Foggia, Italy, in July 2017 for recruiting for terror.
Among the people recruited by Bombataliev were his own Russian wife and two Albanian nationals. All three of them were expelled from the country).
Bombataliev was also connected to two Tunisian brothers, Kamel and Boubaker Sadraoui, who were arrested in May, 2017 by police special forces. At the time of his arrest Kamel was found in possession of an illegal firearm.
Bombataliev reportedly fought in Syria between 2014 and 2015. The Italian authorities have said that evidence indicates he may also have participated in the December 2014 attack on the Press House in Grozny, Chechnya, which left 19 people dead.
After a brief return to Belgium from Syria in 2015, Bombataliev settled in Foggia, where he began to proselytize and recruit. The investigation into Bombataliev was the result of international collaboration between the Italian and Belgian authorities. Italian intelligence placed Bombataliev on a list of known recruiters after receiving information form their Belgian counterparts.
During the subsequent investigation, Italian law enforcement officials set up wire taps and heard Bombataliev encouraging his Russian wife to carry out a suicide attack. This prompted investigators to close in.
Bombataliev reportedly had several connections with Belgium and Austria, two countries that historically have seen considerable Chechen jihadist network activity.
For example, in 2016 the Belgian authorities arrested 16 people accused of being part of Chechen groups. A few were suspected to have participated in the armed conflict in Syria with al-Nusra and the Caucasus Emirate. The central figure of the investigation was a jihadist who had reportedly returned to Ostend, Belgium to receive treatment for the wounds he had sustained in Syria.
Chechen fighters have played an important role in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars. One their most notorious militants, Omar al-Shishani, rose through the ranks of the Islamic State, while other jihadists spearheaded attacks and applied the lessons learned from veterans of the Chechen wars.
Furthermore, the civil wars in the Middle East shifted attention away from the Caucasus and drew in many individuals from the Chechen European diaspora.
Given the difficulties that Chechen fighters now face in engaging in guerrilla warfare in Chechnya, the notable presence of Chechen jihadists in Syria and Iraq, and the connections established among militants on the battlefield, Europe now faces a significant threat as some of these fighters return to its shores. As seen in the case of Bombataliev, returning fighters engaged in recruitment and enjoying access to both old networks and new connections can be particularly dangerous.
 The North Caucasus Insurgency and Syria: An Exported Jihad?, Report n. 238, International Crisis Group, March 16, 2016.
 North Caucasian Fighters in Syria and Iraq & IS Propaganda in Russian Language, Europol, Document made partially accessible to the public on November 10, 2015.