Chechen – Tajik , foreign fighters join the battle in Syria
Jihadi veterans of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan join callow foreign idealists on frontline of Aleppo.
It was enough for Abu Omar al-Chechen.
His ragtag band of foreign fighters, known as “muhajiroun brothers”, was huddled in the doorway of a burned-out apartment building in the university district of Aleppo.
One of the brothers – a Turk – lay dead in the road around the corner and a second brother lay next to him, badly wounded and unable to move.
They had been unable to rescue him.
Abu Omar gave an order in Arabic, which was translated into a babble of different languages – Chechen, Tajik, Turkish, French, Saudi dialect, Urdu – and the men retreated in orderly single file, picking their way between piles of smoldering rubbish and twisted plastic bottles toward a house behind the front line where other fighters had gathered.
Their Syrian handler stood alone in the street clutching two radios: one blared in Chechen and the other in Arabic.
Two men volunteered to stay and try to fetch the young injured man.
Among them was a thin Saudi, dressed in a dirty black T-shirt and a prayer cap, who conversed in perfect English with a Turk sitting next to him.
He had arrived the week before and was curious about how the jihad was being reported abroad.
“What do the foreign news organizations and the outside world say about us?” he asked. “Do they know about the fighting in Aleppo? Do they know that we are here?”
Hundreds of international fighters have flocked to Syria to join the war against the Syrian government.
Some are fresh-faced idealists driven by a romantic notion of revolution or a hatred for the Syria’s president.
Others are jihadi veterans of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
To reach the wars in those countries, foreign fighters had to cross borders with forged passports and dodge secret services.
The frontline in Syria is easier to reach via a comfortable flight to southern Turkey and a hike across the border.
According to the Saudi, it was an easy walk from Turkey to the small Syrian town of Atmeh.
There, in a hilly landscape flecked with olive groves, the recruits were received by a Syrian who runs a jihadi camp and organized into fighting units.
Each team was assigned an Arabic speaker and given 10 days’ basic training, the point of which was not to learn how to shoot but to learn to communicate and work together.
The fighters were then dispersed among the different jihadi organizations, including Ahrar al-Sham (“the Free Men of Syria”) and Jabhat al-Nusra (“the Front Victory).
Some, like Abu Omar’s Chechens, were allowed to form their own units and simply referred to as the muhajiroun, or “immigrants”.
The Chechens were older, taller, and stronger and wore hiking boots and combat trousers.
They carried their weapons with confidence and distanced themselves from the rest, moving around in a tight-knit unit-within-a-unit.
One of the Turks was a former soldier who wore western-style webbing and equipment, while the three Tajiks and the Pakistani were evidently poor.
Their trousers were too short, their shoes old and torn.
The men were also secretive, especially when dealing with the Free Army.
When the Syrians asked them where they were from, a blond French-speaker said they were Moroccans, the Chechens said they were Turks and the Tajiks said they were Afghans.
On the steps of a commandeered school, behind a flimsy barricade of corrugated sheets and a barrel, a group of Libyans sat complaining about the lack of ammunition.
They had arrived the previous day and already lost one of their friends.
“This is a poor revolution, very poor. We are in the second year of it and they still don’t have enough weapons and ammunition,” one of the Libyans complained.
Inside the school was a Jordanian who often roamed the frontline with his Belgian gun, for which he had only 11 bullets.
He was a secular and clean-shaven former officer in the Jordanian army who lived in Eastern Europe running an import-export business.
He had come to Aleppo without telling his wife and children where he was going.
“This is my duty,” he said.
“Many Arab men I know want to come and fight. Some lack the means and others the energy.