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.
“Batirashvili’s ability to demonstrate ISIS’ tactical prowess attracted fighters in droves from other factions and tipped the scales in foreign fighter flow and recruitment,” 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.”
Batirashvili’s story also was compelling, Cecire said: “A man with a modest background, sickly and impoverished before he went to Syria,” becomes “a great battlefield commander defying the world” . . . a “seemingly emulable, rags-to-riches story.”
Those seeking an explanation for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence on sending military supplies and manpower to Syria to bolster the government of President Bashar Assad would do well to consider Batirashvili. Putin not only personally oversaw the Russian push into Georgia, but he has twice waged war against Islamist-led factions in Chechnya whose cause Batirashvili has supported since he was a teenager. Ethnic Chechens are thought to be one of the largest groups of foreign fighters in the Islamic State.
Now 30, Batirashvili is a key figure, reportedly a member of the group’s governing council, is said to be the Islamic State’s supreme military leader in northern Syria and Aleppo, and is perhaps the group’s most fearsome ground commander. His current status is an irony for a man once considered a Georgian soldier with a bright future.
“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.”