Flanked by almost 20 men with rifles, Omar Abu al-Chechen knelt on a carpet and delivered a rousing speech urging fellow Muslims to support the jihad against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Dressed almost entirely in black, the militant from Russia’s Chechnya region declared that an Islamist state is within reach.
Al-Chechen’s recently distributed video highlights the role militants from the volatile North Caucasus region now play in Syria’s civil war, fighting a government that has been backed by Russia and staunchly protected by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It also puts in focus the security risks they may pose for Russia if they return to the Russian region.
“Jihad needs very many things. Firstly, it needs money. Much is dependent on money today for jihad,” said al-Chechen, his nom de guerre, the leader of what rebels and Web sites call the Brigade of Migrants, a Syrian opposition group of foreign fighters.
Syrian rebels confirmed separately that he is in Syria and the leader of the brigade.
While Moscow has been one of al-Assad’s main protectors, members of an Islamist insurgency involved in daily clashes in Russia’s predominantly Muslim North Caucasus have trickled into Syria to fight for the rebels.
“This is the first time that a mass number of Chechens have taken part in military actions abroad,” Paris-based analyst Mairbek Vatchagayev said, adding that claims had been made that Chechens had fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan or Iraq, but no proof had been given.
Syrian soldiers and analysts say there are dozens of fighters in Syria from the North Caucasus, a region where militants wage daily violence to establish an Islamic state.
“They are very significant, in some areas they are leading the fighting and some of them are leaders of Brigades. They are experienced fighters and also they are fighting based on ideological belief, so they do not want anything in return,” a source in Syria said.
One Syrian opposition source said the Chechens are the second-biggest force of foreigners after Libyans, who joined the Syrian uprising after overthrowing former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has said there are no Chechens fighting in Syria, a statement analysts attribute to his loyalty to Moscow.
Russia has used its UN Security Council veto to protect al-Assad from three resolutions meant to pressure him to end violence that has killed 70,000 in the nearly two year-long conflict. Having fighters from Russia fighting against him is sure to be embarrassing for Putin.
The bloodshed in the North Caucasus is rooted in two wars that Moscow fought with Chechen separatists after the Soviet Union’s fall and these fighters could pose a security risk for Russia if they return.
The region is close to Sochi, the Black Sea and Caucasus Mountain resort city where Moscow will host the 2014 Winter Olympics, a sworn target of Russia’s Islamist insurgents, led by the country’s most-wanted man, Doku Umarov.
Calling itself the Caucasus Emirate, Umarov’s Islamist militant group has promised to attack the Games. It claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in January 2011 that killed 37 people and also said it was behind the 2010 subway bombings in Moscow that killed 40.
Last year, Umarov in a video told Syrian militants they were in the prayers of the Caucasus Emirate.
The presence of foreign fighters in Syria, many of whom espouse a firebrand form of Islam, has troubled many Syrians who see the fight as a secular war to oust al-Assad.
“We call all brothers from all the countries, please, my brothers we do not need men. Stay in your own countries and do something good inside your own countries. If you want to help us just send us weapons or funding or even pray for us, but you do not have to come to Syria,” said Brigadier Selim Idris, head of a rebel military command.