Rising Star of ISIS Has Chechen Background and Fierce Reputation
By Erin McClam
NBC News | July 2nd 2014
The rising star of ISIS, the Sunni insurgent group terrorizing Iraq, is a fighter known as Omar the Chechen — a young, fierce military commander whose most distinctive feature is an unmistakable red beard.
His nom de guerre is Omar al-Shishani, and he’s only 28. Terror analysts say his growing profile demonstrates not just the reach of ISIS but its ferocity: Al-Shishani grew up in the spartan Pankisi Gorge of Georgia, hardened by decades of fighting.
“That’s the Harvard of terrorist upbringing,” said Patrick M. Skinner, director of special projects for the Soufan Group, a security consulting company, who has studied ISIS and its predecessor groups for years.
“It’s very different than being a kid in Saudi Arabia, where you’re coddled and you come to the ideology later,” he said. “He was raised this way.”
Al-Shishani has commanded ISIS forces in Syria as they work to erase the border between Syria and Iraq. Analysts say he may already be the military chief for the whole movement.
The last man to hold the job, Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari, was killed in the city of Mosul last month, just as ISIS fighters were sweeping across the Iraqi north and capturing swaths of land.
Unlike Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, Omar the Chechen is not afraid to show his face. He appeared in an ISIS video over the weekend, asking God to grant his fellow fighters martyrdom if they can’t establish an enormous Islamic state.
“Our aim is clear, and everyone knows why we are fighting,” al-Shishani said in the video. “Our path is toward the caliphate.”
The public profile is almost certainly not an accident because ISIS is known to be extremely brand-conscious — mobilizing on Twitter and even recently changing its name to Islamic State to emphasize its goals.
Al-Shishani’s style draws a sharp contrast with al-Baghdadi, who has almost never been photographed and whose secrecy has enhanced his prestige among fighters, according to terror analysts.
Al-Shishani, whose given name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is from the Caucasus region of Georgia, torn by strife as long as he has been alive. He served in the national army and was discharged after an illness, a former neighbor told The Associated Press.
The BBC, citing Georgian military records, reported in December that it was tuberculosis.
Police in Georgia arrested him for illegal arms possession, the neighbor told the AP. Al-Shishani left Georgia for Turkey in 2010. He showed up in Syria three years later, long after that country had plunged into civil war, and swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
The State Department estimates that 9,000 foreign fighters have joined the civil war in Syria. And the Chechens, who have fought Russia in the Caucasus for decades, are among the most feared.
Al-Shishani commands perhaps 500 to 1,000 fighters and has risen with a sustained campaign of success. His groups have avoided crippling losses, including fighting both the Maliki forces and the troops of Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
Last August, it was al-Shishani’s fighters who helped capture Managh, an air base in the Syrian north that had been disputed for months.
Until recently, ISIS was thought to be recruiting heavily inside Iraq. It has shifted its focus and is picking people who have demonstrated fighting prowess no matter where they are fighting — the opposite of the cronyism of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, analysts say.
“Shishani’s unit is the best performing wherever he goes,” Skinner said. “In the jihadist world, there are levels of fear and respect, and the Chechens occupy the top.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
Iraq crisis: Umar al-Shishani – the face at the forefront of the new terror wears a chilling smile
The Independent | Tuesday 17 June 2014
The photograph circulating on social media is of a man with a striking long, red beard, dressed in a simple robe and prayer cap, emerging smiling from a vehicle.
The picture is of Umar al-Shishani, one of the most feared commanders of Isis, the Sunni militia that had stormed through a swathe of Iraq, spreading alarm through the international community; he had been test-driving a captured American-supplied Humvee, abandoned by fleeing government troops in Mosul.
Shishani is an ethnic Chechen, a leader among the fighters from abroad who had flocked to join the jihad against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and who are now the shock troops of the insurgency across the border. After a period of absence, foreign Islamists, often fanatical, who had played an important and bloody role in the savage war that followed the US-led invasion, are once again back in Iraq.
Some of those foreign fighters had left Iraq to fight on other front lines, others were eased out by Isis’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), as their presence became increasingly unpopular in the community, a factor that helped the US organise the tribes in the “Sunni Awakening” against the insurgency alongside the American military “surge” under General David Petraeus.
All that has changed: the “martyrdom” message board of Isis on the internet lists 202 foreign fighters killed in Iraq. The dead came from the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, the Caucasus, the Balkans, the US, Canada and Western Europe. The numbers do not yet include those killed this year.
British Muslim deaths, until the current offensive, have been confined to Syria; the dead Western jihadists in Iraq have been from France, Denmark, Canada and Norway, eight in all. Others killed include 57 Tunisians, 38 Saudis, 27 Moroccans, and 10 Libyans. Most of the fatalities were in Anbar, where Isis has set up base in the city of Fallujah, with 56, northern Baghdad province with 51, Diyala 41, and Nineveh 29, the last figure bound to rise from the battle for Mosul.
The Chechens only joined the Iraq expedition in numbers during the current Islamist “surge” although, it is believed, they had played a key role in drawing up operational plans. Many of them, along with volunteers from neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia, had previous military experience which helped them move into lead roles in combat missions. Shishani is said to be staying inside Syria, going across the porous border when necessary, because he believes that he may be targeted in American air strikes, or by the Iranians on the behest of the Kremlin. There is an unverified claim that he had been shot by a Kurdish peshmerga sniper near Kirkuk.
US intelligence put the total of foreign fighters in Syria at around 17,000; other figures vary between 14,000 and 20,000. The local population, I found during my visits to opposition-held parts of the country, differentiate between the characteristics of the nationalities – the Libyans were viewed as the friendliest, the Saudis the most pious, the Pakistanis the most spiteful, the Chechens the toughest and the most implacable.
Shishani, who was born with the name Tarkhan Batirasvili in Georgia, was pointed out to me at a town on the outskirts of Aleppo last autumn. At the time he was basking in the approbation over Menagh airbase which the Free Syrian Army had sought to take, but failed, for months. The coming of the Chechens was followed by the base being stormed.
Shishani had initially formed his own group, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) with around 3,000 men under arms from the north Caucasus, Crimea and Ukraine, as well as a small group of Arabs. He later pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of Isis, and was appointed the head of the group’s “special unit” as well as commander of the northern region.
The presence of the foreign fighters in Iraq is likely to have an impact on the relationship between Isis and al-Qa’ida, which is already fractious. Some of the most direct criticism of al-Qa’ida had come from the Chechens; this, in turn, had led to verbal attacks on them by fellow jihadists. Shishani has been the subject of online postings pointing out that he is of “tainted” mixed Christian and Muslim descent and also that he served in the Georgian army where he was trained by the Americans. No evidence has been produced for the latter.
Shishani insists that his motivation was a hatred of Russia and thus the desire to fight against its ally, President Assad. But, in an interview with a jihadist website, he also described America as “enemies of Allah and enemies of Islam” who must be confronted.
States neighbouring Syria and beyond had sought to influence and manipulate foreign volunteers on either side of the civil war. But, as the conflict has spread across borders, the more tenuous those controls have become. The international brigade of jihadists is now a force of significance, their destructive power adding to the turbulence in the region and with ominous signs of some, especially those from the West, taking the war home.
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