Chechen Volunteers Fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq: Report

Chechen fighters march on a road in Donetsk region
Pro-Russian separatists from the Chechen "Death" battalion take part in a training exercise in the territory controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, December 8, 2014. According to a Chechen government source, volunteers from the Russian region have also joined the fray in Syria. Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Young Chechen volunteers are currently fighting the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in both Syria and Iraq, a senior source in the Chechen government told Russian news agency Interfax on Tuesday.

“There have been people from the Chechen Republic in the region of conflict in Syria and Iraq ever since the arrival of ISIS,” the source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “This is a self-organized group of young people who have put it upon themselves to combat this terrorist organization.”

The source said he did not personally have information about the identities of any of the volunteers but highlighted that “none of them is an acting serviceman for the Russian armed forces or the Russian Ministry of the Interior.”

According to the source, these volunteers provide authorities with operational intelligence about the situation on the ground, including about the number of Russian nationals in ISIS ranks. Some of the volunteers are also fighting ISIS recruits from Chechnya who they believe are responsible for attacks on their own families.

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who was quoted by Russian state TV on Monday as saying that there are Chechen spies in the ISIS ranks, was referring to such volunteers, the source told Interfax.

While Russia is backing Syrian President Bashar Assad with air strikes, it has denied that it has sent soldiers to fight ISIS and other factions in Syria. Russia’s support for the Iraqi government is even more limited, not carrying out any official military operations but sharing intelligence on the movement of ISIS.

Although the government of the Chechen Republic was not immediately available for comment, Igor Sutyagin, Russian military expert at London’s Royal United Services Institute believes the report is likely true and that Chechens are fighting Chechen ISIS recruits.

“Regarding Chechens fighting on Assad’s side—yes, it is quite possible that they fight other Chechens on the other side,” Sutyagin says. “Ramzan Kadyrov recently stated publicly that members of the local Chechen law-enforcement units participated in guarding the Russian air base in Syria. I do not see reasons to doubt that.”

According to Sutyagin, it is likely the volunteer status of these forces is a cover to allow the presence of Russian nationals to fight ISIS. “They are not acting under covert orders from Kadyrov—they are acting under covert orders from the Kremlin with Kadyrov being the transmitter of those orders.”

Senior Russian army general Vladimir Komoyedov said in October 2015 that so-called Russian volunteers in Ukraine could join the fight in Syria. After several captures of what they claim are regular Russian troops, the Ukrainian government has claimed Russian fighters with military training and equipment are simply Russian troops.

Several Russians backing Assad forces have been killed in Syria, under different circumstances with at least two Russian servicemen and three volunteers among them. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that any Russian soldiers are involved in combat in Syria and has repeatedly denied the presence of Russian military personnel in Ukraine in any official capacity.