Chechen in Syria a rising star in extremist group
BEIRUT // A young, red-bearded ethnic Chechen has rapidly become one of the most prominent commanders in the breakaway Al Qaeda group that has overrun swaths of Iraq and Syria, illustrating the international nature of the movement.
Omar Al Shishani, one of hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest Islamist fighters in Syria, has emerged as the face of the Islamic State, appearing frequently in its online videos – in contrast to the group’s Iraqi leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, who remains in hiding and has hardly ever been photographed.
In a recent video released by the group, Al Shishani stands among a group of fighters as they declare the elimination of the border between Iraq and Syria.
“Our aim is clear and everyone knows why we are fighting. Our path is toward the caliphate,” the 28-year-old Al Shishani declares.
Al Shishani has been the group’s military commander in Syria, leading its offensive to take over a broad stretch of territory leading to the Iraq border. But he may have risen to become the overall military chief, a post that has been vacant after the Iraqi militant who once held it was killed in Mosul in early June. The video identified Al Shishani as “the military commander” without specifying its Syria branch, suggesting he had been elevated to overall commander.
As the militant group’s operations in Iraq and Syria grow “more and more inter-dependent by the day, it is more than possible that someone like [Al Shishani] could assume overall military leadership,” said Charles Lister, visiting Fellow with the Brookings Doha Center.
The extremist group began as Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, and many of its top leaders are Iraqi. But after it intervened in Syria’s civil war last year, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its operations there.
Now, with victories on the two sides of the border, the two branches are swapping fighters, equipment and weapons to an even greater extent than before. Its declaration of the caliphate could mean an even greater internationalisation of its ranks.
Alexei Malashenko, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow office, said ethnicity is not a major factor in radical Islamist movements, only dedication to waging war. Al Shishani “is a fanatic of Islam with war experience, and he obviously has had a strong track record”, he said.
Syria’s civil war, in its fourth year, has attracted militants from around the world. Some estimates run as high as 10,000 foreign fighters in the country. But the Chechens – hardened from years of wars with Russia in the Caucasus region – are considered some of the best fighters.
Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, said last October that about 500 militants from Russia and hundreds more from other ex-Soviet nations are fighting in Syria.
Al Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is from Georgia, specifically from the Pankisi Valley, a centre of Georgia’s Chechen community and once a stronghold for militants.
He did military service in the Georgian army but was discharged after an unspecified illness, said one of his former neighbours. At one point, police arrested him for illegal possession of arms, the neighbour said. As soon as he was released in 2010, Batirashvili left for Turkey.
He later surfaced in Syria in 2013 with his nom de guerre, which means “Omar the Chechen” in Arabic, leading an Al Qaeda-inspired group called “The Army of Emigrants and Partisans”, which included many fighters from the former Soviet Union. A meeting was soon organised with Al Baghdadi in which Al Shishani pledged loyalty to him, according to Lebanon’s Al Akhbar newspaper, which follows jihadi groups.
Al Shishani first showed his battlefield prowess in August 2013, when his fighters proved pivotal in taking the Syrian military’s Managh air base in the north of the country. For the past two months, he has led an offensive in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzour province against rival rebel groups, seeking to solidify his hold on territory connected to neighboring Iraq.
Hussein Nasser, a spokesman for the Islamic Front coalition of Syrian rebel groups, said Chechens were among the most feared fighters in Syria.
“A Chechen comes and has no idea about anything [in the country] and does whatever his leader tells him,” Nasser said. “Even if his emir tells him to kill a child, he would do it.”
* Associated Press
Updated: July 2, 2014 04:00 AM