Chechen in Syria a rising star in extremist group

2014-07-02 12:28
Omar al-Shishani climbing out of a humvee. (File, AP)

Omar al-Shishani climbing out of a humvee. (File, AP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

kalahari.com

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 jihadi fighters in Syria, has emerged as the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, appearing frequently in its online videos - in contrast to the group's Iraqi leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdad, who remains deep in hiding and has hardly ever been photographed.

In a video released by the group over the weekend, al-Shishani is shown standing next to the group's spokesperson among a group of fighters as they declare the elimination of the border between Iraq and Syria. The video was released just hours before the extremist group announced the creation of a caliphate - or Islamic state - in the areas it controls.

"Our aim is clear and everyone knows why we are fighting. Our path is toward the caliphate," the 28-year-old al-Shishani declares. "We will bring back the caliphate, and if God does not make it our fate to restore the caliphate, then we ask him to grant us martyrdom." The video is consistent with other Associated Press reporting on al-Shishani.

Military commander

Al-Shishani has been the group's military commander in Syria, leading it on an offensive to take over a broad stretch of territory leading to the Iraq border. But he may have risen to become the group's overall military chief, a post that has been vacant after the Iraqi militant who once held it - known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari - was killed in the Iraqi city of 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, though the group has not formally announced such a promotion.

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 Centre.

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 in Syria.

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, becoming a more integrated organisation. Its declaration of the caliphate - aspiring to be a state for all Muslims - 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 jihadi movements, only dedication to jihad. Al-Shishani "is a fanatic of Islam with war experience, and he obviously has had a strong track record [among fellow fighters]," he said.

Best fighters

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, the main KGB successor agency known under its Russian acronym FSB, 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 an ethnic Chechen from the Caucasus nation of 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, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

At one point, Georgian police arrested him for illegal possession of arms, the neighbour said. As soon as he was released in 2010, Batirashvili left for Turkey. Georgian police refused to comment.

Battlefield prowess

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 a large number of 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.

He 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. Rebels had been trying for months to take the base, but it fell soon after al-Shishani joined the battle, said an activist from the region, Abu al-Hassan Maraee.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant entered the Syria conflict in 2013, and initially it was welcomed by other rebels. But rebel groups - including other Islamic militant factions - turned against it, alienated by its brutal methods and kidnappings and killings of rivals, and accusing it of trying to take over the opposition movement for its own ambitions of creating a transnational Islamic enclave.

Rebel factions have been fighting against the group since last year in battles that have left thousands dead. Al-Qaeda's central command ejected the extremist group from the network.

For the past two months, al-Shishani has led an offensive in Syria's eastern Deir el-Zour province against rival rebels, seeking to solidify his hold on a stretch of territory connected to neighbouring Iraq.

In May, some Arab media organisations reported that al-Shishani was killed in the fighting. An activist in Iraq in contact with members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant said al-Shishani suffered wounds in his right arm and was taken into Iraq where he underwent treatment before returning to Syria. He spoke on condition of anonymity for security concerns.

Since then, al-Shishani has appeared multiple times in photos and videos put out by the group. The photos and videos are consistent with the AP's reporting from activists on the ground.

In a recent photograph, the young, round-faced al-Shishani, wearing a black cap and beige gown, is seen with a big smile as he examines a Humvee said to have been captured in Iraq and brought into Syria.

Hussein Nasser, spokesperson for the Islamic Front coalition group of rebels, said Chechens are 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."
- AP

Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  is  |  isil  |  abu bakr al-baghdadi  |  omar al-sishani  |  syria  |  syria conflict
NEXT ON NEWS24X

SHARE:

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
3 comments
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
 

Inside News24

 
/News
 
Traffic
Lottery
 
  • Wednesday Cape Town - 06:22 AM
    Road name: N2 Inbound
    DELAYS between the R300 Highway and the Satellite Station
  • Wednesday Langa - 06:21 AM
    Road name: N2 Inbound
    DELAYS between Duinefontein Road and the Bhuga Avenue exit
 
More traffic reports...
 

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Magical Massinga

Spend 5 nights at the gorgeous Massinga Beach Lodge in Mozambique and only pay for 4 from R13 220 per person sharing. Includes return flights, accommodation, transfers and romantic turndown. Book now!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

Up to 60% off - clearance sale!

Save up to 60% on appliances, books, electronics, toys, movies and more. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Deal of the Week!

Get bestselling John Green novels now just R99 each! Hurry and get yours while stocks last. Shop here.

Mind blowing deals on beauty & fragrances

Save up to 30% off beauty and fragrances. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Up to 50% off hair care products!

Save up to 50% on professional hair care products at kalahari.com. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

30% off academic books

Score a mind blowing 30% off academic books! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

Samsung Galaxy Tab P7500 10.1" Tablet With WiFi & 3G

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 gives you a better experience for...

From R4999.00

I'm shopping for:

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

It is always easier to look out and see what needs changing. Looking in is a lot harder... Today you may need to look at what...read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.