In December 2014, several high-ranking field commanders from the Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz, IK), an insurgent and designated terrorist group in Russia’s North Caucasus, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). Following the subsequent defection of many of the IK’s surviving commanders, IS consolidated its regional presence with the establishment of a formal branch, the Caucasus Wilayah (IS/CW). This paper uses Social Movement Theory’s concept of framing to interpret North Caucasus insurgent leaders’ response to the Syrian conflict and identify the differences in the competing factions’ articulated ideologies. It finds that IS/CW leaders have sought to draw on the emotional appeal of the “caliphate” and redirect it back into the local insurgency, while neglecting to articulate alternative tactics or goals. Those leaders who remained loyal to the IK, by contrast, rooted their opposition in jihadi scholarship and rejected the legitimacy of the “caliphate”. However, apparent ideological differences have been exacerbated by communication difficulties that have hindered leaders’ ability to negotiate internal and external pressures. This paper contributes to understandings of the differences between the competing factions, illustrates how groups can seek to strengthen their appeal by avoiding explicitness, and demonstrates the importance of operational context in considering ideological change.