Backgrounder on the Mujahideen of the Caucasus and the Levant

This article provides some basic background details on a splinter group of foreign jihadists fighting in Syria that now calls itself the Muhajideen of the Caucasus and the Levant (MCL). Although a peripheral group even in the context of foreign fighters or jihadists in Syria, it is worth examining if only because even a small group of fighters can cause instability, and because its leader’s tendency towards self-promotion may manifest itself in other ways than the occasional video. Also, because Western media reporting about the timing of split and the orientation of the group has been woefully misleading (see Chechen Rebel Leader in Syria Quits. Long After Being Fired).

The following information is based solely on information available in Russian and English; Arabic-language sources may reveal more about the group. 

Screen Shot 2013-09-07 at 09.20.50
The Mujahideen of the Caucasus and the Levant (Youtube, 4 September)

Who Are the Mujahideen of the Caucasus and the Levant?

The MCL is a group of predominantly (or possibly exclusively) foreign fighters operating in Syria, which split from the Jaysh al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar (JMA) in early August. It is led by Emir Seyfullakh, an ethnic Chechen who, prior to the split, played a prominent role in JMA’s Russian-language video productions.

Why Did It Split From the JMA?

On 3 August, Umar al-Shishani, the ethnic Chechen who heads JMA issued a statement via, the JMA’s primary Russian-language media outlet, heavily criticizing Seyfullakh and distancing the JMA from him and his supporters. Al-Shishani claimed that a Shariah council had been convened to make a decision regarding a “group of people whose activities were aimed at [causing a] split and ferment among the muhajideen-muhajirin and at inciting the enmity and animosity of the local population.” He accused this group – which “Seyfullakh the Chechen, promoting himself through the Internet, organized for himself” – of supporting takfiri ideology, wasting the JMA’s money, and insubordination.  As a result of the council, Seyfullakh was excluded from JMA and left, supposedly accompanied by 27 supporters, some of whom returned the following day. Al-Shishani’s statement concluded by saying that the JMA “does not bear any responsibility whatsoever for the words and actions of Seyfullakh and his group.”

Seyfullakh responded with a rambling YouTube video the following day denying that his group had sowed discord and blaming a misunderstanding for the split. He claimed that his group “grows bigger and bigger every day. Seyfullakh has almost 100 brothers.”  He denied wasting JMA’s money, asserting that, “if Seyfullakh wanted to buy something – a car or something like that – I wanted it for God’s sake.” He said his group had nothing against al-Shishani or the JMA and would continue to wage jihad. Two more videos appeared on YouTube on 3 September in which Seyfullakh reaffirmed his commitment to jihad, announced that his dissenting faction now had a name (the MCL), and declared it independent from JMA, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (to which JMA belongs), and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Is MCL More Moderate Than JMA?

Almost certainly not. Seyfullakh’s rambling video messages, both for JMA and MCL, usually consist of a handful of poorly constructed sentences repeated over and over again. One of the main messages has been that his group is in Syria to wage jihad and will continue to do so until Shariah law has been established and the last drop of the infidels’ blood has been spilt. In a June statement, he threated that “if it is the United States or Russia, or any other place, there is no difference to us.” Moderate the man is not.

Does It Have a Media Outlet?

Screen Shot 2013-09-07 at 09.16.19Initially, Seyfullakh appeared to be reliant on YouTube accounts set up for the purpose of distributing the latest statements. However, the website was registered on 12 August and started posting on 23 August, and its main role appears to be the promotion of MCL (hat-tip to @NCaucasusCaucus for the find). Of course, it may also promote its messages via Arabic-language sites. However, its split with the JMA has deprived it of the chance to reach people via the websites of the Caucasus Emirate: when someone posted a link to Seyfullakh’s 4 August response to the split in the comments of one Caucasus Emirate website, administrators swiftly removed the link and told the user not to post it again. None of Seyfullakh’s statements have appeared on primary Caucasus Emirate websites.

How Many Members Does It Have?

The MCL appears to be a comparatively small group, with most of JMA’s fighters apparently remaining loyal to al-Shishani. Seyfullakh’s claim of 100 supporters is almost certainly an exaggeration. The only real information on the MCL’s force strength in Russian-language sources is the three videos mentioned previously. Each featured somewhere in the region of fifty people. It may be that all of MCL’s members featured in those videos, given that they appeared intended to demonstrate the strength of Seyfullakh’s support.

SeyfullakhWho Is Emir Seyfullakh?

Emir Seyfullakh appears to be an ethnic Chechen from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge (see Murad Batal Shishani). It seems likely that he also spent time living in Turkey, which has a sizeable Chechen expatriate community: One of his videos when he was still a member of JMA was in Turkish and — given that he struggles to string together a coherent sentence in Russian and does not exude erudition in his video addresses — it seems reasonable to presume that he would only have learnt the language by being there. He has brought his family with him to Syria: one video featured a young boy in dark, military-style clothing; the administrator’s of confirmed at the time that the boy was Seyfullkah’s son.

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