Relatively little news comes out these days from northeast Latakia province, which remains outside of regime control despite the recapture of the Armenian town of Kassab in June. However, it is important to observers of jihadi groups as what I would call 'the muhajireen's hangout'. For example, the Moroccan group Harakat Sham al-Islam- now a part of the independent jihadi coalition Jabhat Ansar al-Din- engages in da'wah outreach to locals in the area. It is also where the group Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham (led by Abu Obeida al-Masri) headed after being forced to leave the locality of Azaz in northern Aleppo province by the Islamic Front. The continuing importance of northeast Latakia as a place for muhajireen groups to congregate is illustrated by the emergence of Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz ('The Caucasus Soldiers' Group').
Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz, as confirmed to me in an interview, is affiliated with the Caucasus Emirate, which also counts Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar of the Jabhat Ansar al-Din coalition as among its affiliates. However, Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz also claims to operate independently and not to be part of Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar and Jabhat Ansar al-Din. It is an interesting question to ponder why that is so. As my colleague Caleb Weiss of The Long War Journal suggests to me, Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz's operating status may have to do with the Caucasus Emirate's encouragement of group independence. In keeping with the general trend of an anti-fitna (i.e. anti jihadi infighting) stance on the part of non-Islamic State [IS] and non-Jabhat al-Nusra [JN] muhajireen groups, Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz officially claims to have no problems with other jihadi groups.
Thus, to quote from my interview with a media representative: "We don't have a [formal] link with anyone [in Syria] but we work with all- thanks to God- and we have no problems with any of the other jihadi groups like [Jabhat] Ansar al-Din, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State." Note the reflection of the anti-fitna stance in referring to IS as simply ad-dawla al-islamiya ['The Islamic State'] rather than JN's disparaging 'jamaat ad-dawla' ['group of the state']. Concomitant with such official anti-fitna posturing is the group's stated aim on its Facebook page:
"Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz is a Caucasus mujahid group aiming to gather the Caucasians in the totality under the banner of jihad against the enemies of Islam in the totality. It operates in Latakia."
I suspect though that were my interviewee to leave Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz and become completely independent, he might express a much more negative view of IS, which had rejected outreach attempts by Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar's Salah ad-Din ash-Shishani. Indeed, my interviewee for Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Abu Mo'atasem al-Shami- once affiliated with Jabhat Ansar al-Din sub-component Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya- has since resigned from Jabhat Ansar al-Din's media office, and has conveyed to me his desire to set up an outlet to document and expose the crimes of the regime and IS (now referred to by the derogatory Arabic acronym Da3esh).
In the context of Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz, it is also notable that the group's Facebook page has advertised JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani's recent interview (see below), but does not similarly advertise media content from IS, hinting that in practice, relations are closer with JN than they are or ever can be with IS.
Below are some photos put out by Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz of its presence in Latakia province.
Two Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz fighters in Latakia: on left, Abu Obeida al-Sharkasy [the Circassian]; on right, Abu Sewar al-Abkhazi [the Abkhazian].
Training for Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz fighters, purportedly Circassians.
Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz fighters in the Latakia forest.
Update (24 November 2014)
Another member of Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz got in touch with me today and offered some more specific information about the group:
1. It is not incorrect to say the group is affiliated with Caucasus Emirate, but one must also note that Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz has given bay'ah [allegiance] to Abd al-Hakim ash-Shishani, who is not only part of Caucasus Emirate but also leads his own group: Jamaat al-Khilafa al-Qawqazia ['The Caucasian Caliphate Group'].
2. The group's membership currently totals 32, and the majority of its members- while ethnic Circassians- were not born in the Caucasus area, but rather Syria [specifically, the Golan Heights area] and Jordan. In this regard, this member of Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz characterizes the group's activities thus: 'Our jihad is in Latakia and the Golan Heights.'
Update (30 November 2014)
-In the original article I said that Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham had gone to Latakia after the withdrawal from Azaz. I based that on the fact that the group's leader had gone there and given that nothing points to the disbanding of Jaysh Muhammad the group presumably would have gone where its leader headed. However, a local contact in Aleppo reported to me today that Jaysh Muhammad has been participating in the ongoing battle for the two Shi'a villages of Nubl and Zahara, saying that he saw Jaysh Muhammad in the area yesterday. Other factions involved include Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat Ansar al-Din and the Islamic Front.
- On 28 November, a video was released announcing the joining of 'Ahrar al-Sharkas' ('Free Circassians') battalion in Quneitra to Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz. Citing the Qur'anic verse 22:39 of defensive jihad, a spokesman declared that after more than two years since the announcement of the group with fighting against 'Nusayris' (Alawites) and 'Shi'a militias' (not detached from reality: e.g. Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, an Iraqi Shi'a militia, used to operate there). This fits in with the expectation of Abu Obeida the Circassian (who contacted me on 24 November) of more members beyond the 32. Since the new gain, Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz has advertised a Quneitra presence of 'Ahrar al-Sharkas' and updated its self-description on Facebook to include the area.