More on Omar al-Shishani [Part I]

The Ginger Jihadist of Mosul: Omar al-Shishani the Chechen ‘General’
Jack Moore
International Business Times | June 11, 2014

Following the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams’ (Isis) capture of Mosul, which caused 500,000 Iraqis to flee the city and propelled the group to the status of richest terror force in the world, pictures have emerged on social media of Isis Emir Omar al-Shishani inspecting stolen US-supplied humvees.

The photos of al-Shishani, a Georgian-born ethnic Chechen, suggest that he was the mastermind of the siege as the commander of the northern sector of Isis in Syria and Iraq.

He is considered one of the most influential leaders of the Syrian opposition after a series of assaults on military bases near Aleppo, specifically as the mastermind of the capture of a government airbase in August last year which boosted his standing among comrades.

After being raised by a Christian father and a Muslim mother in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, al-Shishani served in the US-funded Georgian army, rising to the rank of sergeant.

With a deep hatred for the Kremlin, he played a role in the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, spying on Russian tanks and relaying their positions back to Georgian artillery.

After his wartime efforts, Al-Shishani contracted tuberculosis in 2010 and was subsequently discharged from the army. He became increasingly disillusioned by life at home, unable to find a job, after his mother passed away with cancer. This was to inform his later decision to take up arms in Syria.

"He has become the same as them"

According to US intelligence figures, over 17,000 foreign fighters are now in Syria aligned to the opposition rebels, with many from the North Caucasus.

Many Chechens have flocked to Syria and proved their military nous by battling fellow jihadists, often in brutal fashion.

For instance, one jihadist from Dagestan posted a video beheading three Syrians for supporting the Assad regime.

However, some Chechens who have taken to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime have become dissatisfied with al-Shishani because of his comfortable life in Syria and killing of other Muslims.

"He’s spent such a long time in Isis that he has become the same as them. Already he’s killing Muslims," wrote Chechen Sultan Khizriyev on his Facebook page.

Another social media user commented on the Sultan’s post calling Shishani "Tarkhan the Rodent" in reference to his real name, Tarkhan Batirashvili. Shishani translates as "the Chechen" in Arabic.

Many Chechens in Syria refuse to fight for Isis because of their brutality and willingness to kill other Muslims.

"A sober, respected person"

A former comrade of al-Shishani tells a different story. One of a man not enamoured with Islamic fundamentalism but a quiet and popular colleague.

"He was a sober, respected person, who never showed signs of religious fanaticism or extremism," the colleague told BBC News.

His father, who hasn’t heard from his son since he left for Syria, told the Washington Post that al-Shishani was "a man with no job, no prospects. So he took the wrong path."

Al-Shishani’s chief motivation for fighting in Syria is reportedly to weaken one of Russia’s key allies but, in other interviews, he has talked of his hate for Americans as "the enemies of Allah and the enemies of Islam".

These extremist beliefs appear to have stemmed from his 16 months in a Georgian prison after being charged for possessing illegal weapons in 2010.

"I promised God that if I come out of prison alive, I’ll go fight jihad for the sake of God," he told a jihadist website.

His military experience, time in prison and hatred of Russia have seemingly combined to make Omar al-Shishani one of the most influential and feared figures in the Middle East today.


The Georgian roots of Isis commander Omar al-Shishani
By Nina Akhmeteli
BBC News, Birkiani | 8 July 2014

Omar al-Shishani may now be one of the most feared jihadists in the Middle East, as a commander in the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), but his early life was very different.

He was born Tarkhan Batirashvili and grew up in Georgia’s picturesque Pankisi Gorge. He lived in the village of Birkiani, where his father, a Christian, still lives in a small, simply-furnished house.

The jihad in Syria and Iraq was not Shishani’s first experience with combat. He previously served with the Georgian army during the war with Russia in 2008.


But when he became ill and was dismissed from the army, things started to go wrong, Teimuraz Batirashvili says.

He found it hard to get work and was arrested after a raid on his house.

"One night a terrible noise woke me up – someone was banging at the door. It was the police. There was a bench next to the door near the stairs. I used to go past it every day," Mr Batirashvili recalls.

"A policeman called me over and took a box full of ammunition out from under it. He asked me: ‘What’s this?’ and I told him: ‘I don’t know. It wasn’t here before.’"

The Pankisi Gorge boasts bucolic scenery – but gained a reputation as a haven for Islamist militants

Shishani was reportedly accused of storing the ammunition.

But it was when he was sent to prison that Shishani really changed, his father says, adding that he left for Syria after being released early under an amnesty.

Family photos removed

"He said to me: ‘Father, no-one needs me here,’" Mr Batirashvili recalls.

Before Shishani left he removed all family photos in the house, in accordance with his strict new beliefs.

"I didn’t notice it, but one day when I wanted to look at an album I realised there was nothing left," Mr Batirashvili says.

He says his middle son was also radicalised and has also left the country.

"I have three sons and they all became Muslim. I’m a Christian, I go to church.

"Neither my father nor my grandfather were Muslim. We’ve all prayed in these sacred places. And these three are Muslim radical preachers," Mr Batirashvili says.

Shishani has appeared in photos and videos released online by Isis-affiliated accounts

The Pankisi Gorge had been an area of suspected militant activity.

Mr Batirashvili says poverty was a factor in Shishani’s radicalisation.

"When you’re desperate you’ll do anything. Now he says he left because of his faith, but I knew he did it because we were poor," he says.

However, he admitted that Shishani’s motivations would have changed over time. "Now, yes, money isn’t the reason he’s leading this war."

Cut off

Now, Mr Batirashvili gets by on his pension with the help of the odd contribution from his eldest son Tengiz, who is still in the village.

He has had only one phone call from Shishani since he left.

Shishani told him he had a Chechen wife. "He said: ‘I have a daughter and she looks like you, her name is Sophia.’"

Shishani asked his father if he was still praying. Mr Batirashvili says that when he replied that he was still a practising Christian, his son hung up the phone and never called again.

Among the more religious people of the gorge, Shishani has attracted respect for his actions in Syria, and some locals say that more men from the area have gone to follow his example.

Mr Batirashvili laments his family’s new-found notoriety. "What need do I have for this sort of fame? I wish [Shishani] had never left. But maybe that was his fate, to go to war in Syria," he says.


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