Revealing ISIS’s inter-ethnic battles as Syria marks 5th year of war
The Azerbaijani bloc within ISIS align themselves with other small ethnic groups such as the Dagestanis and Tajiks
After Omar al-Shishani, ISIS’s military commander, was reportedly killed in a U.S. airstrike in Northern Syria last week, the identity of a potential successor’s remains ambiguous.
Sources within the group refer to an increasing role of Azerbaijani commanders following a reshuffle of ethnic alliances in the multinational Iraqi-led ISIS during the past few months.
Two Azerbaijani commanders in particular are believed to be taking leading military and intelligence roles within ISIS in Syria. The military commander, according to the sources speaking to Al Arabiya English, is an Iraq veteran, known by Azeri ISIS members as Jundullah (pronounced Cundullah in Azeri).
Previously unknown in propaganda and articles on Azeri fighters in Syria, Jundullah’s significance within the organization emanates from his long history of fighting in Iraq, reportedly since 2007, as well as a recent reshuffle in ISIS’s ethnicity politics.
Although the ethnic core of the organization’s leadership remains Iraqi, other numerous groups competed, often violently, over higher roles.
“Iraqis, especially former military officers, are the ISIS’s idols,” Aktham Alwani, a journalist who until recently lived in Raqqa, his home city which is now hailed by the militants as their “capital,” told Al Arabiya English.
Other ethnicities seeking to grab top spots
The organization’s presence in Syria paved the way for wider roles for other ethnicities and nationalities such as the Chechens, namely the young Omar al-Shishani. Chechens, Dagestanis and Azerbaijanis, were believed to have arrived in organized and trained groups to Syria in recent years, allowing most of them to better negotiate their roles than lone foreign militants.
Lone foreigners are usually “handled” by minders, making it more difficult for any of them to reach higher positions, so “they either play a technical role, or they end up as car bomb drivers,” according to a source in Syria’s Deir el-Zour who wished to remain unnamed for security reasons.
“Caucasians arrived in groups, avoided the local population, as they had the sufficient numbers to constitute their own social groups, a smaller society,” says Obada Koujan, who witnessed the advent of Caucasian fighters when he was a media activist with Syrian rebels in Hama’s countryside.
Azerbaijan militants advance
In the Shiite-majority Azerbaijan, where half of the 9 million-strong population identifies as secular, some Shiite converts joined ISIS to fight alongside Azeris from the Sunni minority. In its anti-ISIS propaganda, the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front uses these Shiite converts to discredit the organization as “infiltrated” by former officers of the Azerbaijani pro-American regime. In Azerbaijan, ISIS fighters became known following the death of a wrestler, and a video of a fighter calling for Azerbaijanis to come to Syria where you can eat Shashlik, a type of kebab. This fighter is believed to have been killed last year.
Reputation-building is a crucial part of ISIS’s internal ethnicity politics. Koujan, who says he met an Azerbaijani fighter with al-Nusra Front in Hama’s countryside a few years ago, says that “they built a reputation as fierce fighters,” even more so than the Chechens and Uzbeks.
In Raqqa, a number of Azerbaijanis have been accused of “gholow,” which is excess or overindulgence, and have been executed, Alwani says. Raqqa locals were reportedly angered in April last year after the Azerbaijani Imam of Usama Ben Zayd’s mosque in Raqqa called for the circumcision of Syrian women, known in the organization’s terminology as Al-Ansar, in the city, claiming they were too seductive for foreign fighters. He was found dead days later, according to Alwani who was in the mosque during the speech.
The call for circumcision was an anomaly, especially that the major critique of the Azerbaijani leadership within ISIS is the unusual role of their wives in the organization’s internal politics, Alwani says. Originally trained in Afghanistan and elsewhere, a number of these Azerbaijani women joined ISIS’s all-female Al-Khansa brigade.
The Azerbaijani bloc within ISIS grew in numbers after the organization’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s speech in 2014 on restoring the “caliphate.” As a bloc, they remained smaller than Chechens or Tunisians; however, they played ethnicity politics well, allying themselves with other small ethnic groups such as the Dagestanis and Tajiks, to form a stronger and more influential group within ISIS.
“Fighters from Dagestan fell out with Chechens over the latter’s aggressive leadership,” Alwani said. Rumors over Chechen “traitors” working for Russia surfaced as ISIS’s forces lost ground and Moscow’s airstrikes on Syria intensified, Alwani stated, citing his contacts within the organization.
“Azerbaijani ‘emirs’ rose in military ranks, as Jundullah’s influence rose within the group,” he said.
The ethnic tensions within the organization drove its leadership to appoint a local Wali (governor) from the province, with a powerful foreign Mu’awen, who plays a similar role as advisors to leaderships in colonial eras.
The rising Azerbaijani role is also attributed to a new development in ISIS’s landscape; the migration of foreign militants, including Chechens and especially North Africans, to Libya, says Alwani. “Libya is the new land of opportunity, a new tourist destination for militants.”