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Hundreds Of Chechens Join ISIS, Including Group's No. 2 Leader


We have a reminder this morning that while the Islamic State, the militants known as ISIS, burst into the headlines only recently, they have been growing in force for years. Their anger shaped by conflicts of the past.


Turns out some of the fighters in ISIS have their roots in a separatist movement that Russia confronted some years back.

GREENE: Russia fought two wars against Islamic militants fighting for independence for Chechnya. And one of the most powerful figures in ISIS today is an ethnic Chechen.

GONYEA: He goes by the name Omar al-Shishani. He grew up in a scenic mountain region called the Pankisi Gorge. It's in Georgia across the border from Chechnya.

GREENE: It's a place that is long considered lawless, spawning a powerful group of separatist rebels, including al-Shishani, who are now tied directly to ISIS.

GONYEA: To understand who these fighters are and their role in ISIS today, we reached Gordan Hahn. He's the author of "Russia's Islamic Threat" and an analyst for the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation.

GREENE: Hahn told us that Omar al-Shishani grew up a shepherd boy, encountering rebel fighters as they passed through the Pankisi Gorge.

GORDAN HAHN: He eventually joined the Georgian Army and became an expert in various weaponry and was trained under the U.S. train and equip program to prepare Georgian military for counterinsurgency operations and counterterrorist tactics. And then in 2010, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, kicked out of the Army. Eventually he got arrested for illegally storing weapons and was sentenced to three years in prison. And right after prison, he pledged to leave Georgia and go fight jihad.

GREENE: I just want to make sure I understand what you just said. This is a man - the number two in ISIS now - who was in the Georgian army and receiving anti-terrorism training from the United States?

HAHN: That's exactly right (laughter).

GREENE: Is his expertise, you know, and this training he received from the United States, is that one reason that ISIS has him in such a high post?

HAHN: I think that that's one reason that has enabled him to rise up the ranks of the ISIS.

GREENE: Have we seen an event or an attack carried out by ISIS that perhaps involved Chechens?

HAHN: Well, there were two attacks - an initial attack on the Aleppo prison. The attack began with the use of two suicide bombers who were supposedly Chechens. Also, in the recent murder of the 170 Syrian soldiers, there's a video out in which you can hear some of the executors speaking in Russian. So they were very likely Chechens.

GREENE: And do we learn something from this phenomenon? I mean that a nationalist sort of movement, a separatist movement in one part of the world has sort of become an important component into what is, you know, a growing global threat?

HAHN: Yeah, I mean, we've seen this pattern before. This process took some period of time in North Caucusus, but it was quite clear by 2002 that the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria was on its road to becoming a jihadist organization. Although there were many people in Washington, D.C., then and now, who tend to downplay or deny the jihadi nature of the Caucusus Emirate, there's a certain element within Washington that seeks to portray the Chechen cause and the Caucusus Emirate as more moderate than it really is in the hope that someday, perhaps, the United States would be supporting them against Russia.

GREENE: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that because for a long time Vladimir Putin had an incredibly aggressive policy in these wars against the Chechens. And part of his argument was that this was a very dangerous group. A lot of people criticized Putin for being so aggressive in rounding up men in Chechnya and other republics in the North Caucusus. I mean, does this give Putin a window to make an argument that he was right all along?

HAHN: Putin was right and he was wrong. His tendency was to try to portray the movement as purely being jihadist, even when there was still a nationalist element. He was right in that the then Chechen Republican of Ichkeria, of course later the Caucusus Emirate, had ties to al-Qaida and other groups. The problem was that the tactics that he used in the war, in the second war beginning in 1999, were equally as brutal as the tactics in the first war. And that just created a momentum for the radicalization of the movement. So he's also to blame for the emergence - partially to blame for the rise of Jihadism in the region.

GREENE: Professor Hahn, thank you so much for speaking to us. We really appreciate it.

HAHN: You're welcome.

GREENE: Gordon Hahn is an analyst for the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.