‘Omar The Chechen’ Should Come Home, Says Dad
By Katie Stallard, Moscow Correspondent, in Pankisi, Georgia
Sky News | 10 July 2014
The father of ISIS commander Omar al Shishani has told Sky News his son felt rejected by his country when he left to fight jihad.
With his distinctive red beard, al Shishani has become one of the most recognisable faces of a group now notorious for extreme brutality in its pursuit of an Islamic state across large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
But his father remembers a young man who was never particularly religious, but who always wanted to be a soldier.
Born in the remote Pankisi Gorge in Northern Georgia, an area once seen as a stronghold for Chechen militants, his real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili.
When he was younger, he worked as a shepherd boy in the hills above the gorge, where he reportedly first met Chechen fighters, crossing the Caucasus mountains to fight Russian forces across the border.
"He was a very good boy, very well behaved," Timur Batirashvili remembers.
"Always very intelligent, very nice, he hated when people lied.
"Do you know what I think now? I didn’t know my son. I didn’t know him at all."
Tarkhan joined the Georgian army and served in the Russia-Georgia war in 2008. His father said he seemed happy, that he had found his place in the world.
He was due to be promoted to become an officer, and told his father their lives were about to change, that he was going to earn so much more money.
But then he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and admitted to hospital, after which he was discharged from the army on medical grounds.
He tried and failed to get back in – Mr Batirashvili said he was "tormented" – sent from office to office to no avail.
A few months later he was arrested and sent to prison for possession of illegal weapons.
"When he came back from prison he was really thin," Mr Batirashvili said.
"He lost his colour in prison, and he told me, ‘Father, this means that this country doesn’t need me.’
"I haven’t seen him ever since. He felt really bad, he was really angry.
"He made a pact that if he left the prison alive he would start a holy war for God.
"’I will start a holy war in the name of God’, he said, and that’s what he’s doing right now."
He reappeared in Syria last year under a new name, Omar al Shishani – which translates as Omar the Chechen – and became the leader of an al Qaeda-inspired group, The Army of Emigrants and Partisans, before pledging his allegiance to ISIS.
Mr Batirashvili said his son phoned him once, asking whether everything was okay, and whether he was praying to God.
When he replied that he was praying to Saint George, a Christian saint, al Shishani told him he should convert to Islam and hung up.
We asked him what he would say to his son if he could speak to him now.
He said: "Come back home. I am an old man. I need to be taken care of, I need to be looked after. Come home."
Chechen jihadists in Syria: The case of Omar al-Shishani
Al-Akhbar | Thursday, May 1, 2014
Chechen jihadists play a major role in the conflict in Syria. They have been fighting in Syria since 2012 and their role has been carefully planned, with direct clerical guidance from certain countries and indirect involvement by a number of intelligence agencies.
The Chechen jihadist role in the Syrian crisis has the covert support of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The Qatari ties to Chechen jihadists, though relatively recent, are the most effective. The Saudis have provided clerical support, while the Turkish role is mostly logistical.
Omar the Chechen
In September 2010, the Georgian authorities arrested Tarkhan Batirashvili on charges related to illegally purchasing and stockpiling weapons. Little did the man know that the primary outcome of his arrest would be his transformation into a jihadist and that later on, he would become one of the most famous leaders of the jihadist project in Syria.
Omar was born in 1986 in the Pankisi Gorge located in northeast Georgia, where the majority of the population is Chechen. In 2006, he was drafted into the Georgian military. The impoverished young man was seen as a loner, but he was known for his passion for learning various combat techniques.
He was retained on contract by the Georgian army after the end of his compulsory service in 2008. Less than a year later, he was discharged after contracting tuberculosis. This was before he was arrested in September 2010.
There is nothing new in the information above, most of which is already known and circulated. But a jihadist source close to Omar al-Shishani agreed to speak to Al-Akhbar to help us gain a better understanding of who Omar really is and how he became a leading Chechen jihadist.
According to the jihadist source, the two years between Omar’s discharge and his arrest played an important role in developing his jihadist ideology. During that period, Batirashvili met a number of friends who eagerly supported jihad.
The short time he served in prison played a crucial role in his life. There, he met a man called Mohammed, a Saudi national who had ties to major jihadist leaders and was well versed in jihadist ideology. Mohammed told Batirashvili about the role of the Saudis in supporting jihad, and the feats of the late Thamir Saleh Abdullah al-Suwailem, a Saudi national and major jihadist commander in Chechnya.
Batirashvili, became eager to partake in jihad himself, and even started seeing himself fighting against what jihadists called the “Russian infidels.” “Brother Mohammed would tell him salvation was near, and that those visions were signs from God,” the source added.
Batirashvili was later released from prison after contracting tuberculosis. “Sheikh [Batirashvili] left prison armed with the prayers of Brother Mohammed and the names of clerics who have a history of supporting jihad, and ways to contact them,” the source explained.
Passage to Egypt
Batirashvili, now rechristened as Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen), wasted no time. He quickly contacted two of those clerics via the Internet. The source said, “They told him there were vigorous efforts to revive the golden age of jihad. They then quickly agreed to meet away from the country of the infidels, in Egypt.”
Shishani travelled to Egypt, possibly in February 2011, where he met with a Saudi cleric, a Qatari businessman, a prominent figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, and a young Turkish man known as Mansour al-Turki.
The idea of jihad in Syria was not on the table yet. Batirashvili believed he would be leaving Egypt back to the Caucasus, having obtained backing for a new and sustainable wave of jihad against the Russians. It is also likely that there was a jihadist operation in the works for Egypt, which was witnessing the beginnings of unrest against the Mubarak regime. The Muslim Brotherhood and its backers, primarily Turkey and Qatar, wanted to seize power there at any cost.
But the way events unfolded in Egypt allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to achieve its goals at the ballot box. This, in addition to the outbreak of the crisis in Syria, tilted the jihadist compass in the direction of the Levant.
By that time, Mansour al-Turki had become a permanent escort for Batirashvili during his stay in Egypt. He had also convinced him that jihad would become global. The source quoted Shishani saying, “Repeated discussions with Sheikh Mansour persuaded me that the jihad against the infidels was one and the same everywhere, and was the path to the restoration of the caliphate and its rule over the entire world.”
It seems that Omar’s impressionable character was one of the reasons he was chosen to lead Chechen jihadists in Syria, instead of giving the task to veteran jihadist commanders. For one thing, the latter’s allegiance primarily lay with the organizations they fought for before, specifically al-Qaeda.
The journey to Syria
In late 2011, Shishani found himself in Turkey, ahead of entering Syria, for “jihad against the Russians and their Baathist ally, who is no less of an infidel than the communists are.”
The jihadist source said, “Sheikh Omar did not want to form an independent group. He was looking for a group with a clear vision and a correct approach.”
To this end, Batirashvili held several meetings with jihadist leaders in Syria. He is quoted as having said, “We sat with their commanders but we were shocked by the extent of their misplaced loyalties. We found them to be very vein.”
Shishani also wanted to obtain a pledge from jihadists in Syria to support jihadists in the Caucasus in the future, a promise he ultimately obtained only from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In ISIS’ arms
In the Aleppo countryside, Omar met with major jihadist figure in Syria, Abu al-Athir al-Absi, who became his new patron. Through Absi, a meeting was arranged for Shishani with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of ISIS.
Shishani is quoted as praising Baghdadi, “We found in him humility, which we did not find in others. He pledged to support the jihad in the Caucasus. He was immensely pleased with us, and confirmed that he has been looking for some time for a way to help there.”
Shishani’s Army of Emigrants and Partisans, formed in March 2013, pledged allegiance to ISIS for jihad against the Syrian regime, but they did not endorse its claim to leading the caliphate for many reasons, including “avoiding antagonizing emir Dokka Omarov [a major Chechen jihadist leader] and his supporters,” according to the same source.
Despite this, Salah al-Din al-Shishani, another Chechen commander, along with 800 of his fighters, split from Omar’s group in November 2013. Interestingly though, the split was almost amicable. In a statement explaining his move, Salah al-Din said, “The leadership of ISIS suggested that our group, the Army of Emigrants and Partisans, grant it an all-encompassing pledge of allegiance. Part of our mujahedeen gave an oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, while the rest refused to grant an all-encompassing pledge. Praise be to God, every mujahid has the right to choose. We did not become enemies because of this. We are brothers, and we will unite when needed to fight together against the enemy. We will not refuse to give an all-encompassing pledge when there is a single emir ruling all of the Levant, God willing.”
The Turkish role
Since the jihadists’ attention turned to Syria, their reliance was primarily on the Turkish role for help. Turkish collaboration with Chechen jihadists dates back to the Ottoman era, specifically, to the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid I, who helped Sheikh Mansour al-Shishani in the war with the Russian Empress Catherine in 1787. Mansour answered the call “to preserve the caliphate.”
Based on similar grounds, Chechen jihadists were manipulated to draw them into the Syrian crisis. The premise was that “jihad against the Russians in the Levant paves the way for the return of the caliphate, and for taking the jihad back to the Russian heartland.”
Ankara took advantage of the ties cultivated by its secret services with a number of Chechen jihadist symbols, who moved to Syria recently. Turkey is a compulsory crossing bridge for all Chechens on their way to Syria. The flow of Chechen jihadists reached a peak in the past two months during the battle near the headquarters of the Air Force Intelligence in Aleppo, and the town of Kessab on the Syrian coast.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
Syria Analysis: The “True” Story of Insurgent Leader Abu Umar al-Shishani — & What It Means
By Joanna Paraszczuk, Scott Lucas
EA WorldView | November 21, 2013
In August, Abu Umar al-Shishani (“Abu Umar the Chechen”) surged to prominence in the Syrian conflict. The faction which he led, Jaish al-Muhajirin wa Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Helpers) had played a key role in one of the insurgency’s biggest victories of 2013, the capture of Menagh Airbase in Aleppo Province.
Over the next three months, EA’s Joanna Paraszczuk investigated the story of al-Shishani and the foreign fighters, most of them ethnic Chechens, of Jaish al-Muhajirin wa Ansar. She detailed the evolution of the group, assessed its significance in the insurgency, and examined its relationship with the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham. She brought testimony from al-Shishani himself, in videos commenting on battles near Hama, on ISIS — which had reportedly named him “Northern Emir” for Syria — and on battles with Kurdish militia this autumn.
Doing so, she put into perspective the overblown claims of media and some analysts that the “foreign jihadists” of Jaish had “spearheaded the capture” of Menagh and become a leading force in the insurgency. Her story of Abu Umar also gave much-needed context for a media shorthand that was reducing factions in northern Syria to “Al Qa’eda-linked” without considering their backgrounds, operations, and motives.
Now we have additional information for Paraszczuk’s analysis, courtesy of two detailed and sometimes curious stories, from Alan Cullison of The Wall Street Journal, and from Murad Batal Shishani of BBC Arabic, about the “real” Abu Umar.
Both Batal Shishani and Cullison have published stories based heavily on information from anonymous sources, and a middleman who gave information from Georgia’s Defense Ministry.
The Wall Street Journal version
Cullison says that Abu Umar is Tarkhan Batirashvili: “Born to a Christian father and Muslim mother, he served in an intelligence unit of the Georgian army before opportunities dried up at home and he left for holy war.”
Cullison, who interviewed people claiming to be Umar /Tarkhan’s relatives and two of his (anonymous) former army commanders, says that he grew up as a shepherd boy in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, “living in a brick hut with no plumbing in the village of Birkiani”. His long-standing campaign against Moscow began as he helped Chechen rebels cross secretly into Russia and sometimes joined the fighters on missions against Russian-backed troops.
After leaving high school, Umar /Tarkhan joined the Georgian army, winning plaudits for his handling of weapons and maps and joining a special reconnaissance group. He was eventually promoted to sergeant in a new intelligence unit, spying on Russian tank columns during Georgia’s 2008 five-day war with Moscow.
In 2010, Umar /Tarkhan’s life changed when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and confined to a military hospital for several months. He was deemed unfit for the military and discharged.
Unable to get a job with the local police and suspected of helping Islamist fighters inside Russia, he was sentenced to three years in prison in September 2010. When he was released after 16 months, he left Georgia.
Umar /Tarkhan’s father says his son left for Istanbul, where an older brother had gone months earlier, because he had “no job, no prospects”. While his father says Umar /Tarkhan intended to join an Islamist force fighting inside Syria, he disappeared until this spring when he emerged in promotional videos for Jaish al-Muhajirin wal Ansar.
The BBC Arabic Version
In Batal Shishani’s version for BBC Arabic — published some days before Cullison’s, on November 13 — we learn that BBC Arabic “spoke with a Chechen who served with him (in the Georgian Army), who said he was “a young man sober, sane, considered such by all who knew him, nothing in his character that demonstrated anything extreme or something like that”.
The BBC Arabic version says that it managed to access a file from Abu Umar’s military service, from the Georgian Defense Ministry, via a middleman who asked not to be identified.
The military file revealed that Tarkhan Batirashvili was born in 1968 in the village of Barkiyana in the Pankisi Gorge. He served his compulsory military service between 2006 and 2007. After he finished his service in the disputed region of Abkhazia between Russia and Georgia, in early 2008 he signed a contract to join the Georgian army in a sniper battalion.
The file seen by BBC Arabic says that Tarkhan fought in battles with the Georgian Army against Russia during the five-day war in 2008, and was promoted to the rank of sergeant because of his performance, but he was never rewarded. Instead, because of a health conditions — he contracted tuberculosis in 2010 — he was discharged from service in June that same year.
In September 2010 Tarkhan was imprisoned on charges of buying and storing weapons. He was sentenced to three years, but was released to his deteriorating health, before the end of his sentence.
Some who knew him said that he then traveled to Turkey, and from there to Syria, which had begun experiencing armed conflict. Assisted by his military experience, he gained a leadership position with armed groups in Syria.
BBC Arabic also talked to residents of the Pankisi Gorge, one of whom, named as Abdullah, described Umar as “a good person”. An imam of a nearby village described him
as a “balanced man, and a noble one, and I love him so much. Umar and others with him have gone in the way of Allah to Syria to support the oppressed there, and the protection of their rights.”
It is an engaging story, but what is its significance for an understanding of the insurgency in the Syrian conflict? Both articles offer more questions than answers.
Did Umar /Batirashvili Become a “Global Islamic Jihadist”?
The common narrative of Islamist groups in Syria, and the foreign fighters in them, is that they are pursuing a sectarian campaign for a global Islamist ideology. That often turns into the phrase “Al Qa’eda-linked”.
Cullison’s account offers little of this for Umar /Batirashvili. There are only two sentences.
In a recent interview with the jihadi website, Mr. Batirashvili said that prison transformed him. “I promised God that if I come out of prison alive, I’ll go fight jihad for the sake of God.”
Cullison does not give a link to the website, so there is no way to establish if Umar /Batirashvili offered more insight into a religious motivation.
Instead, the close of his article points away from the “global Islamist” narrative:
Mr. Batirashvili’s father…doubts his son’s beard was grown out of any religious conviction.
“He just switched armies, and now he’s wearing a different hat,” he said.
How Did Umar /Batirashvili Rise So Quickly to Lead Jaish al-Muhajirin wa Ansar?
In Cullison’s story, Umar /Batirashvili goes to Turkey in 2012 with military experience and some evidence of support for Islamist insurgents in Russia, but no previous involvement, let alone leadership, with factions fighting in Syria.
Within a year, however, Umar /Batirashvili moves from recruit to head of Jaish al-Muhajirin wa Ansar, formed in March 2013 from the merger of three Islamist factions — Kataeb al-Muhajireen, Kataeb Khattab, and Jaish Muhammad.
There is no explanation in the article of Umar /Batirashvili’s meteoric rise to become, in Cullison’s words, an “unruly mastermind” of an insurgent force.
This footage, from February, shows Kataeb al-Muhajireen — which Abu Umar commanded until its merger —following an assault on a military airbase in Aleppo Province. During the storm of the airbase, 36 fighters, mostly from the North Caucasus, were killed. The man speaking in the video is Seyfullakh, Abu Umar’s second-in-command:
What is Jaish al-Muhajirin wa Ansar’s Relationship with the Islamic State of Iraq?
Cullison repeats the menacing lines used by most Western media in descriptions of “foreign jihadists” rising to dominance of the insurgency:
The jihadi commander has recently emerged from obscurity to be the northern commander in Syria of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda-connected coalition whose thousands of Arab and foreign fighters have overrun key Syrian military bases, staged public executions and muscled aside American-backed moderate rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
However, the article has no information on the link between Jaish al-Mujahirin wa Ansar and ISIS, other than the nominal designation of Umar /Batarashvili as an “Emir of the Northern Front” for ISIS during a major offensive by insurgents in Latakia Province in August.
And there is nothing in the piece to link Jaish with Al Qa’eda beyond the generic guilt-by-association reference to Umar /Batarashvili as an ISIS Emir.
What Does It Mean?
Perhaps ironically, given its dramatic opening of Jaish’s involvement in the capture of the Menagh airbase in August, the Wall Street Journal account undermines the portrayal of a well-organized “foreign jihadist” effort which has systematically taken over the insurgency.
Instead, Umar/Batarashvili’s story — and thus the story of Jaish — is one of circumstances and opportunities in which a motley collection of fighters, mainly from outside Syria, gathered. Some may have a sense of “global jihad”, others may have a vague ideological commitment, others may just have a general wish to be involved in a battle.
Umar/Batarashvili, who often struggles to put together a sentence, does not offer a coherent vision of jihad beyond the fight as a fight — against President Assad’s forces, against the Kurds, possibly against other insurgents.
This does not diminish Jaish as a force, at Menagh and elsewhere. Its use of suicide bombers, its ruthlessness — noted and condemned in a Human Rights Watch report on the Latakia offensive — and its determination have made it an asset for insurgent campaigns.
However, it is only one of a large number of such forces in a patchwork insurgency in a fragmented conflict. Jaish are not the cohesive “foreign jihadist” front dominating an insurgency on behalf of Al Qa’eda.
And Abu Umar/Batarashvili — ex-shepherd boy, veteran of the Georgian military, former prisoner — is just a man who “switched armies” to fight another fight.