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Islamic State militants want to fight Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin waves after a wreath laying ceremony at the monument to Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

Here's a slightly new geopolitical wrinkle. Earlier this week, the Islamic State issued a video challenging a powerful global leader. But this time, it was not President Obama or one of his counterparts in Europe. It was Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the video, fighters pose atop Russian military equipment, including a fighter jet, captured from the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is Agence France-Presse's transcription of what follows:

"This is a message to you, oh Vladimir Putin, these are the jets that you have sent to Bashar, we will send them to you, God willing, remember that," said one fighter in Arabic, according to Russian-language captions provided in the video.
"And we will liberate Chechnya and the entire Caucasus, God willing," said the militant. "The Islamic State is and will be and it is expanding God willing."
"Your throne has already teetered, it is under threat and will fall when we come to you because Allah is truly on our side."

Russia is an old ally of the Assad regime and maintains its only remaining naval facility on the Mediterranean in the Syrian port of Tartus. In the initial stages of the Syrian conflict, Putin's government urged reconciliation and dialogue with the Assad regime, but rapprochement with the opposition never came to pass. Russia is Assad's primary source for military hardware.

The jihadists' reference to Chechnya and the Caucasus should not be a surprise. The Chechen insurgency has gone deep underground -- the worst of the open violence was more than a decade ago -- but Russia's heavy-handed rule over the North Caucasus has radicalized some in this Muslim-majority borderland. Fears of Caucasus-related terrorism haunted the buildup to this year's Winter Olympics in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

According to AFP, a second voice heard in the video, jeering over the stolen jet, speaks in "accented" Russian. There are an estimated 200 Chechen fighters within the Islamic State ranks. The most prominent, a red-bearded 28-year-old who goes by the name Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen), is thought to be one of the senior-most commanders in the whole terrorist organization.

Like other foreign jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq for the Islamic State, he doesn't seem that camera shy. Not long after the Islamic State surged into northern Iraq and captured the key city of Mosul earlier this summer, al-Shishani appeared unmasked in a video. "Our aim is clear and everyone knows why we are fighting. Our path is toward the caliphate," he intoned.

Al-Shishani's real name is believed to be Tarkhan Batirashvili. He was born in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, a rugged, lawless region that's home to an old community of ethnic Kists, Chechens who migrated to Georgia in the 19th century. The remote valley has a reputation for being a thoroughfare for jihadists and arms smugglers. It's suspected that the bulk of the Chechens fighting in Syria may come from this area.

Al-Shishani served for a time in the Georgian military, taking part in the war with Russia in 2008, according to the BBC. In an interview with NPR on Friday, Russia terrorism expert Gordon Hahn suggested that al-Shishani may have even received counterterrorism training from U.S. forces aiding the Georgian army. (The Washington Post has not been able to independently to confirm this.)

But al-Shishani was forced out in 2010 after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. Not long thereafter he was arrested for possessing illegal weapons and jailed. It's unclear when he was released but he emerged in 2013 among the Islamist rebel forces in Syria, leading an al-Qaeda-linked battalion of fighters primarily from the former Soviet Union, reports the Associated Press. He eventually joined ranks with the Islamic State.

The video directed at Putin may just be a hollow boast, but it shows the many international dimensions to the Islamic State's jihad. Fighters who may have initially been attracted to a separatist cause in one region have surfaced somewhere else all together, inflamed with a zeal not shared by many locals.

"A Chechen comes and has no idea about anything Syria and does whatever his leader tells him," a spokesman from an Islamist faction that rivals the Islamic State told the AP. "Even if his [leader] tells him to kill a child, he would do it."