Thursday, September 17, 2015
How US training helped shape Islamic State’s top military commander Abu Omar al-Shishani.
How US training helped shape Islamic State’s top military commander Abu Omar al-Shishani.(StarandStripes).
Abu Omar al-Shishani, as he’s now known, had been born Tarkhan Batirashvili 27 years earlier in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, a tiny enclave of ethnic Chechens, known locally as Kists, whose roughly 10,000 residents represent virtually all of the Muslims in predominantly Orthodox Christian Georgia.
But analysts of extremist groups said Batirashvili’s impact has been far greater than the small numbers of Muslims in Georgia would suggest. Since he swore allegiance to the Islamic State in 2013, thousands of Muslims from the Caucasus have flocked to Syria to join the extremist cause.
“More than anything else, Batirashvili has legitimized ISIS in the Caucasus by the power of his exploits, which is amplified by slick ISIS propaganda,” said Michael Cecire, an analyst of extremism for the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Batirashvili’s battlefield successes, including orchestrating the capture of Syria’s Menagh Air Base after two years of failed attempts, “helped to legitimize ISIS in militant circles, including in the North Caucasus,” Cecire said.
“In the North Caucasus, young people no longer wanted to fight in Syria with the increasingly marginalized Caucasus Emirate (groups), but wanted to fight with the winners — ISIS.”
“We trained him well, and we had lots of help from America,” said a former Georgian defense official who asked to not be identified because of the sensitivity of Batirashvili’s role in the Islamic State. “In fact, the only reason he didn’t go to Iraq to fight alongside America was that we needed his skills here in Georgia.”
Batirashvili’s mother was Chechen, and his father has told local journalists that young Batirashvili had seen a handful of military operations as a rebel in Chechnya before joining Georgia’s military in 2006 at age 20.
According to Batirashvili’s ex-comrades in the Georgian military, Batirashvili was tapped immediately upon his enlistment to join Georgia’s U.S.-trained special forces.
“He was a perfect soldier from his first days, and everyone knew he was a star,” said one former comrade, who asked not to be identified because he remains on active duty and has been ordered not to give media interviews about his former colleague. “We were well-trained by American special forces units, and he was the star pupil.”
Traveling to Turkey, even before the Syrian civil war, wouldn’t have been an unusual choice. Istanbul had been a destination for Chechen jihadists and gangsters for years. With Turkish roots, Chechens were welcome in Istanbul, able to disappear easily among the ethnic Chechens living in Turkey’s largest city.Read the full story here. More on him here.