Syrian Jihad: Making Friends with Al Qaeda

Al-Qaeda leader in Syria speaks to Al Jazeera

Syrian Jihad: Making Friends with Al Qaeda

Syrian Jihad: Making Friends With &# 171; Al-Qaida&# 187;

Japanese journalist Shamil Tsuneoka visited the ISIS leader on the presentation of his Chechen friends

Syrian Jihad: Making Friends with Al Qaeda

According to US intelligence, about 17,000 foreign fighters are fighting in Syria on the side of the opposition, more than half of them in the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Syria and Lebanon) coalition associated with al-Qaeda. Russian special services claim that about a thousand militants from the North Caucasus, Volga region and the Chechen diaspora in Europe are fighting in Syria.

“Visiting” Al-Qaida

In an interview with Voice of America via Skype from Tokyo, Japanese journalist Shamil Tsuneoka said that he spent a week at ISIS headquarters in Syria. He explained that he was accepted for two reasons: firstly, because of his friendship with Chechen fighters, and secondly, because of his religious views and beliefs. Tsuneoka converted to Islam in the early 2000s in a mosque in Moscow, he also admitted that he shares the ideas of jihad: “The Koran says that jihad is the duty of a Muslim.”.

ISIS declares its goal of jihad for the sake of creating a caliphate. The group is known for the establishment of radical Sharia restrictions in the territories it controls, public executions of prisoners, as well as conflicts and armed clashes with other parts of the Syrian opposition, in particular, with units of the Free Syrian Army and Kurdish groups..

While in ISIS in Syria, Shamil Tsuneoka tweeted two photographs of him in front of a black al-Qaeda flag with Yiddish leader Sheikh Omar and a submachine gun in his hands. Discussions appeared in the Western press about whether the Japanese journalist could continue to be considered independent. Tsuneoka himself explains the photo as a production necessity. “To work, I needed to gain confidence in them, and these photos helped a lot,” he said in an interview..

Tsuneoka says that during this year he visited Syria twice – in April and in October, after “received an invitation from Chechen friends.”.

He explained that he met and made friends with the Chechens from the resistance during his first journalistic assignment at the beginning of the second war in Chechnya..

On a hike with Gelaev

Tsuneoka arrived in Chechnya in November 1999 from the Georgian border.

“On my first trip, I did an interview with Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov. Then I wanted to return to Chechnya again, but Russian troops closed the border, and I had to wait for a moment in the village of Chechen refugees in Georgia, ”he says. The journalist says that soon Khamzat (Ruslan) Gelayev came to the camp from Chechnya and began to gather an army of Chechen refugees. In 2001, preparations were over, and Gelayev announced his campaign.

“I asked him to let me accompany the group and write about the trip. In June we left the village and went into the forest. In July Gelayev announced that the purpose of the operation was to attack Abkhazia. There were about 400 fighters in the detachment, and none of them had heard anything about Abkhazia before. They all believed that they were going to Chechnya. Everyone was disappointed. About 50 fighters left immediately, and the remaining 350 joined the Georgian partisans fighting for their territories against Abkhazia.

We stayed in the forests of Abkhazia for almost four months. At the beginning of the operation, Georgian military helicopters supplied us with food, but then this assistance stopped. It seems to me that the Shevardnadze government has betrayed Gelayev. After three weeks without any food, we were exhausted from hunger. Later I learned that the real target of the operation was the Russian airbase in Sochi. They wanted to capture it, but they got stuck in the Abkhaz forests and fought with the Abkhaz, ”Tsuneoka says, showing a book he wrote and published in Japan on the events in Chechnya and Abkhazia..

“This spring, old friends invited me to come to Syria. During my first trip in April, Chechen friends met me and transferred me to Syria across the Turkish border. But by the second trip in October, the Turkish authorities had imposed border restrictions, and therefore had to cross the checkpoints controlled by ISIS. My Chechen friends introduced me to the ISIS leaders, and they accepted me, ”the journalist claims that the visit to the Yiddish camp was the result of a chain of coincidences. At the same time, he says he is glad to have the opportunity to study deeper the nature of YIDISH, which aroused his interest even before his trip to Syria.

Al-Qaida’s friend

Tsuneoka calls ISIS “the Syrian Al-Qaeda” in an interview, but considers it “atypical al-Qaida”, since, in his opinion, the tasks of this group, unlike its global ally, “are limited to the establishment of a caliphate in Sham. ”And are not hostile to the West. The journalist, however, makes a reservation that during interviews with ISIS members, many referred to a surah from the Koran, predicting the beginning of a caliphate in Syria and then spreading around the world. The journalist notes that hatred of Assad and of Shiites in general is one of the main motivators in the actions of ISIS. However, these ideas do not prevent ISIS fighters from fighting for influence with other Sunni groups, and most of all with the Free Syrian Army groups..

“A lot of SAS members have told me that they think ISIS fighters are crazy and very dangerous enemies. In some areas, the conflict between them is very serious, they simply kill each other. But there are areas where the SAS and ISIS units maintain friendly relations. The ISIS leader I met (he is Syrian, unlike many ISIS fighters) showed me photographs of him with many of the current SAS commanders, ”Tsuneoka says..

According to Tsuneoka, the determining factor in relations between opposition groups in Syria is ethnicity, and only secondarily – religious. According to the journalist, Syrians tend to maintain friendly ties with each other, even if they belong to very different ideologically opposition groups, while relations with foreign fighters are more wary..

Syrian Jihad: Making Friends with Al Qaeda

According to Tsuneoki’s observations, the residents of the territories controlled by the group are also ambiguous: “In the center of the territory controlled by the ISIS there is a village, where their commander used to serve as the imam of the local mosque. It helps in dealing with the local population. It seemed to me that the locals like him, because he is also from these places. But there are also areas where the local population hates ISIS, for example, in Idlib. “.

The journalist claims that the rules established by ISIS are not as strict as the Western press writes: “In those areas controlled by the radicals that I visited, I saw women in hijabs (covers everything except the face and hands), but it seems to me that no one forces them to wear niqabs (only the slits for the eyes remain open), as the extreme Salafis do. “.

At the same time, Tsuneoka notes that the control measures taken by ISIS are leading to the isolation of the regions controlled by the group from the rest of Syria: “They put up numerous checkpoints on their territories and block the passage of foreigners through these posts – even doctors, humanitarian workers and journalists.”.

Tsuneoka says that spy mania is very strong among jihadists: “If a captive Syrian is considered an Assad, he will be executed unconditionally. I also know that ISIS has executed about forty foreign fighters suspected of being spies for Turkey or Saudi Arabia. “.

On November 15, ISIS fighters posted a video on the Internet showing the severed head of “Assad’s spy”, but it soon became clear that the executed man was the leader of another Islamic group, Hakarat Ahrar al-Sham, and ISIS had to apologize to the “brothers.” According to The Wall Street Journal, the head severed incident occurred in the Russian-speaking IDISH group led by Pankisi Chechen Tarkhan Batirashvili, known among jihadists as Sheikh Umar al-Shishani..

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Japanese journalist Tsuneoka on Skype about Russian militants of the Syrian opposition

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Syrian Jihad: Making Friends with Al Qaeda

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Shamil Tsuneoka claims that he personally met in Syria with more than 50 Russian-speaking militants, among whom were representatives of various ethnic groups: Dagestanis, Chechens, Azerbaijanis, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, etc. According to him, several hundred immigrants from Russia and the countries of the former USSR.

“A lot of Russian speakers have joined ISIS, especially there are many Chechens and people from Central Asia,” Tsuneoka said..

  • Fatima Tlisova

    In journalism since 1995. Before joining «Voice of America» worked in 2010 Correspondent for the North Caucasus at the agency «Associated Press», in «Common newspaper» and in «Novaya Gazeta». Since January 2016 he has been working as part of the Extremism Watch Desk team "Voices of America"

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