Myths, Facts, and Mysteries About Foreign Fighters Out of Russia

Those who follow the conflict in Syria are well aware that thousands of citizens and residents of the Russian Federation joined ISIS, al-Nusra, and other violent jihadi groups fighting to overthrow Bashar alAssad’s government in Syria. As we discuss in a recent report coauthored by the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program and Transnational Threats Project, people traveled from Russia to Syria by well-trodden paths, supported by an infrastructure populated by fellow Russian speakers. While the existence of this route to conflict is well-known (even as specific numbers of fighters and other travelers are highly disputed), answering the questions of these people are, why they chose to go to Syria, and where they’re likely to go next reveals a complicated patchwork of motivations, allegiances, and repercussions that precludes easy solutions. Indeed, simplification can be misleading, and particularly as these fighters and families move on from Syria to other locations, detrimental to efforts to respond to their movements and actions. Complex as the web may be, pulling it apart will be critical to any effort by the Russian Federation and other affected states—including those in the West—to craft policies that lead to more lasting security rather than less.

Not Just Chechens: Who Are the Russians in Syria?

A number of stories exist about the people who have traveled from Russia to Syria to fight Assad. One narrative describes them as battle-hardened veterans of the rebellion against Moscow in Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim republic (an administrative division roughly analogous to a U.S. state) of Russia where two wars were fought between 1994 and the early 2000s. This narrative, which ISIS itself has used in its propaganda, is misleading. There have, indeed, been some prominent ethnic Chechens in ISIS ranks. The most well-known is probably Omar al-Shishani, or Omar the Chechen, ISIS’s late minister of war (killed in a 2016 airstrike). But here’s the thing: while al-Shishani was certainly an ethnic Chechen (on his mother’s side), he was not from Russia, and he did not fight in the Chechen wars. Rather, he was born in Georgia and served in that country’s armed forces. In this, he’s not entirely an outlier: while Chechens are certainly fighting in Syria and some of those in the insurgents’ leadership and ranks hail from Chechnya, others came to the Middle East from the communities of the Chechen diaspora, not just in Georgia but also in Turkey and throughout Europe, along with other European nationals who heard the call of violent jihad.

There’s another problem with the Chechen narrative: many of the so-called Chechens aren’t. The global notoriety of the Chechen wars has fed an unfortunate tendency in the West to view the entire Russian North Caucasus region as synonymous with Chechnya. Even one of the best sources of information about Russian-speaking fighters in the Middle East, Joanna Paraszczuk’s blog on the subject, blurs the distinction in its name “From Chechnya to Syria.” But the Chechen Republic is, in fact, one of the seven multiethnic republics of the North Caucasus. As the conflict in Chechnya drew to a close, insurgent violence largely shifted to other North Caucasus territories, most notably that of Dagestan, where the Caucasus Emirate was for many years the most prominent violent jihadi group, organizing terrorist and insurgent attacks. Many of the fighters in Syria and Iraq come from Dagestan, or have roots in that territory. Others, however, come from all over the country: Many of Russia’s cities and some of its towns and villages have substantial Muslim communities, encompassing peoples who have lived in those areas for generations, more recent labor migrants (for instance to Siberia’s oil and gas industry), and converts to Islam. According to research and interviews conducted by CSIS staff and affiliates, many of those communities report that some number of young people, recruited either in person or through the internet, have decamped for Syria in recent years.

Not Just Russians: The Broader Trend of Russian-speaking Foreign Fighters

Moreover, not all of the fighters who come from Russia are Russian nationals. A substantial proportion are originally from Central Asian countries. Here, another interesting story emerges. While Central Asian leaders present a variety of statistics regarding how many of their citizens have gone to fight in the Middle East, and some more credible than others, one thing is clear: very few of these people appear to have left their country of origin with the intent to join the jihad. Rather, it appears that a small number of the millions of Central Asians who have gone to work in Russia, whether in the oil fields, in construction, or in the homes of wealthier Russians, decided at some point after their arrival that violent jihad in the Middle East was a better use of their time.

Why Did They Go? Explaining the Motivations of Fighters and Others

Having established that the Russians and Central Asians in Syria are a diverse group, we should not be surprised that their motivations are also diverse. A few were indeed hardened fighters who were seeking a new war. Some of those, and even more who had not fought in Chechnya but were involved in planning or implementing violent actions, found their paths out of Russia facilitated by federal and local authorities, who offered them the choice of the war in Syria or arrest and imprisonment (or worse) at home. While the extent of top-down guidance for such policies is disputed, and may vary from region to region, officials who took part hoped that some of Russia’s more problematical insurgents and prospective terrorists could be exported to another conflict. Meanwhile, as crackdowns on the Caucasus Emirate also became more successful in this time frame, ISIS began to gain adherents in Russia. As a result, more of the flows of fighters went toward that organization than others.

Not all recruits for the Syrian jihad had prior experience, or even interest, in insurgency however. There is also ample evidence of recruiting drives that targeted young people, whether migrants (from Central Asia or within Russia) or still in their hometowns, frustrated with their social and economic options. Some of these efforts were internet based; others relied on personal connections. Some targeted the faithful or recent converts and may even have played a role in conversions or increased interest in Islam among the formerly nonobservant. Russian government policies of equating fundamentalist Islam with Salafism, and that with violent jihad or at least a security threat, have created a difficult atmosphere for many observant Muslims throughout Russia. Recruiters emphasized the challenges of living a faithful Islamic life in Russia and promised better options in Syria, including the opportunity to be part of building an Islamic state. Thus, particularly after ISIS declared a caliphate in 2014, more and more noncombatants, including women and entire families, migrated to Syria. Although the realities they found in there and in Iraq were usually much harsher than what they had been promised, the flows continued.

Where Are They Going Next, and What Should Russia, the United States, and Other Countries Do About Them?

This brief essay only scratches the surface of the many complicated factors that have driven Russian citizens and residents to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq. It underlines the importance, however, of unpacking that equation. If the wrong assumptions are made about who these people are, and what motivates them, poor policies will result. Russian authorities may report success in eliminating their erstwhile citizens in Syria, in line with the familiar “we fought them over there so we wouldn’t have to fight them at home” narrative that drove official help to some of those who went. However, we know that not all have been killed. Some grew disenchanted with the conflict long ago and found paths out, usually to third countries such as Ukraine or Egypt. Others, including some women and their children, are being helped by relatives back in Russia (and by the Chechen head of government, Ramzan Kadyrov) to find a path home—even if that means imprisonment for the adults among them. Still others are finding their own ways back into Russia. Even with their current retreat in Iraq and Syria, ISIS continues to gain adherents in Russia. Although they may not agree with ISIS’s ideology, communities may be willing to hide their returning fighters, or turn a blind eye, just as they did through the many years of North Caucasus insurgency.

We cannot know what all returning fighters and affiliates will do or where they will go. We cannot know in large part because the answers are still evolving. We do know that denying their existence would be a mistake, as it will preclude tracking both individuals and groups and identifying both good and bad policy approaches. Some of those who leave Syria and Iraq will surely seek another war. Others will look to bring war to wherever they settle, whether as fighters or as leaders and recruiters. And many may have no interest in fighting any longer and might even help discourage those who see romance and idealism in violence. Sorting them one from the other will be one key to ensuring that responses to this evolving situation can sustainably improve security in Russia and around the world.

The other challenge lies in crafting the right responses. Policies will be more effective if both policymakers and communities around the world are able to learn from one another. Support for programs intended to address the foreign fighter phenomenon is important. It is also insufficient if such programs are not effectively evaluated and their lessons integrated into future planning. Today, states, local authorities, religious groups, and communities (big and small, virtual and physical) are undertaking their own efforts, in Russia and around the world. Evidence regarding what works, what doesn’t, and why can be gleaned from what they’ve done and what they’re doing. As of now, however both information and analysis remain both insufficient and dispersed. Going forward, governments, private donors, and others must support cooperative work. This includes research that uses a wide range of sources and methodologies to collect, assess, and integrate data both about fighters and supporters and about policy successes and failures. Under current political conditions, this will not be easy. But the costs of failure will be high.

Olga Oliker is a senior adviser and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Olga Oliker