The Secret Life of an ISIS Warlord
PANKISI GORGE, Georgia—The mother of martyrs, a woman in her fifties, is delicately beautiful and visibly in pain. She covers her hazel eyes and sobs over a photo album as the call to prayer echoes throughout the Georgian village of Jokolo, just south of the Chechen border.
The mother’s story involves one of the most notorious jihadists in the world, a man who served in intelligence units trained by Americans and the British, a man who is the face of the ISIS conquests, and a man who took her late son’s wife for his own bride.
The mother, Leila Achishvili, tries hard to maintain her poise, even as she discusses the death of both of her boys, Hamzat and Khalid Borchashvili. She is halfway through a box of tissues. Her story has just begun.
The eight-mile-long Pankisi Valley is notorious even in the infamous Caucasus as a lawless corridor for smuggling weapons, drugs, and jihadists into Chechnya, just a few miles to the north and the east. It is also one of the few places in Georgia where the sorrowful beauty of the call to prayer still can be heard. These days Pankisi feels closer to Syria than to the nation of Georgia, to which it belongs.
Among the younger generations, radical versions of Sunni Wahhabism have replaced the traditional moderate Sufi Islam of Pankisi’s Kist majority. There is rampant unemployment, and many of these disillusioned young Georgian jihadists now make their way west to Syria via neighboring Turkey. They are inspired by local legend and ISIS commander Abu Omar al-Shishani, who made the same journey only a few years before.
Stories and rumors circulate—whispers of his massive villa, his fiefdom and private harem, his 40 personal guards, his armored cavalcade of SUVs, and now his stunning and fierce Chechen warrior wife. For these young men, their Pankisi native son has already become part Josef Stalin (another native son of Georgia) and part rock star of the media-savvy Islamic caliphate. But according to his father, Abu Omar al-Shishani is a mirage: It’s his older brother who is running the ISIS show.
The name that Abu Omar al-Shishani grew up with was Tarkhan. And because we are here in his hometown talking to the people who once loved him, and perhaps still do, we’ll use that name, too. Tarkhan’s father, Temur, a grizzled, eccentric, well-read old Christian with a bitter sense of self-irony, tells his sons’ story in an extensive—almost bizarre—interview with The Daily Beast at his small gray house in the village of Birkiani, where his boys grew up.
“I am like a hobo,” the old man declares. “My son is one of the founders of Islamic caliphate and I’m here, dying in poverty! Look! Look where I live!” According to Temur, his son even invited him to Syria. “He told me, ‘Dad, come with me. You’ll live like you are in paradise.’ I told him, ‘Save your paradise for yourself, I prefer my home here.’”
Despite Tarkhan’s fame as a holy warrior, the father doesn’t see him as particularly pious, his mother came from a Muslim family, but he didn’t show much interest. The old man claims that, in fact, before Tarkhan went to prison, he wasn’t religious at all. He supposedly warned his older brothers about the dangers of fanatical Islam, especially his brother Tamaz, who was fighting in Chechnya: “‘Be citizens of Georgia,’ Tarkhan would say to Tamaz, ‘You are in a war, you may fight there, but do not pick up their beliefs.’ And now look what happened! Do you see how a man can change?”
Like so many of the world’s most brutal dictators, military leaders, tyrants, and jihadists, it appears Tarkhan was trained by the very best: the United States government. According to his father and former colleagues, Tarkhan worked for an elite “Spetsnaz” Georgian military-intelligence unit—at least until he caught tuberculosis, lost his job in the intelligence unit, was then framed by that same intelligence unit, and went to jail in 2010 for weapons possession.
Tarkhan’s father claims that his son worked, specifically, for the ministry of interior’s KUD or “Kudi,” basically the domestic-intelligence and special-operations service in Georgia, officially called the Constitutional Security Department. The agency was notoriously brutal. When asked if it was true that his son Tarkhan was trained by the United States, Temur says, “Of course they did. They trained all of the Georgian army back then… My boy was just 19 when he went to the army… This KUDI, where he was working, it was an intelligence and reconnaissance unit.”
The United States government has been overtly training and funding Georgian troops for more than a decade. This is no secret. Last month, when U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Georgia, he also visited U.S. Marines at the Krtsanisi National Training Center outside Tbilisi, where the leathernecks continue to train Georgian troops as they have for more than a dozen years.
The Daily Beast has learned that a young clean-shaven Tarkhan joined the U.S-funded Georgian army in 2006. He rose quickly. He was recruited into a newly created “Spetsnaz” intelligence unit and he carried out reconnaissance on Russian tank brigades during the 2008 Georgia/Russia War. Levan Amiridze, Tarkhan’s friend and military colleague, with whom he would later spend time in prison, confirmed that officers in the “secret services” of the ministry of defense were routinely trained by both U.S. and British instructors. So there is little doubt that the ISIS commander from Pankisi was either trained by the Americans or by the officers whom they had trained.
Yet despite Tarkhan’s American guidance and combat experience, Tarkhan’s father doesn’t see his son as any kind of military mastermind. Temur views his youngest boy as a kind of victim. Over the course of the interview, the father sketches a relationship that his two sons have gone to great lengths to create and to conceal in their command of ISIS troops in Syria.
“Tarkhan is 27, not more—a child! Tamaz is his teacher. Tamaz ruined everything I had,” says the father of these holy warriors. “Tamaz is everything, the main actor; Tarkhan is nothing.” It was Tamaz who went off to fight in Grozny during the gruesome Chechen rebellion against Russia in the 1990s and early in the last decade. It was Tamaz who took his whole family to Syria. “They are together. Tamaz is his mentor. He survived that huge Grozny war and came back alive. [But] in Syria, Tamaz doesn’t show himself.”
And there we have it. The conspicuous, red-bearded jihadist Tarkhan, a.k.a. Abu Omar, one of the most wanted terrorists on the planet, may well be a figurehead for his older brother, the mastermind behind the Chechen operatives running ISIS offensives in Syria and Iraq.
If this is true, it explains why, unlike the rest of the top ISIS commanders, Tarkhan allows himself to be photographed extensively. They are creating the illusion that he is the “head of snake”—while the real architect of ISIS’s Syria operation, Tamaz Batirashvili, remains in the shadows.
The two brothers have similar features, the same nose, same red beards, yet we are told that Tamaz doesn’t typically wear military fatigues. He dresses simply, in a gown with a scarf on his head. They play two very different roles, but according to a local in Pankisi, “It’s instantly recognizable that they are brothers.” The tactic is quite clever in the terrifying game of illusion and terror that is so essential to the mystique and the conquests of the self-declared caliphate.
The importance of Tamaz is not just a figment of the old man’s imagination. The elder brother’s military prowess and importance to Georgian intelligence was also confirmed by a former Georgian military official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified by name.
There were much more professional and experienced men in the group from the Pankisi who worked with the Georgian spy agency. “Tarkhan was the only newbie,” says this source. “We only recruited him because we were interested in his brother—Tamaz and his friends, who were ‘real wolves,’ experienced soldiers, and veterans of the Chechen wars. We had certain interests toward them.” Georgia’s Anti-Terrorism Center, or ATC, allegedly ran some jihadists out of Pankisi to fight against Moscow’s troops in Grozny, a charge the Georgian government has always denied.
But when Tarkhan got sick with tuberculosis and was ushered out, the government gave him no pension or medical assistance. He grew increasingly angry, and then the government went after him, charging him with arms possession—just as it had done with his older brother years before—and throwing him in jail.
“I don’t know whether he really was involved in weapon smuggling, but most of his friends, including those who were arrested with him, presumably really were doing this,” said the same former official. “Some even were drug addicts. And Tarkhan was thought to act as a fixer, getting them in touch with people from Pankisi who wanted to buy weapons.”
The home of Leila, the soft-spoken mother of martyrs, is warm and elegant, a far cry from the tiny cottage of the boisterous Temur, Tarkhan’s father. Yet Leila’s hearth is also the childhood home of two Wahhabi jihadists who left Pankisi to join Tarkhan’s fight in Syria. Leila’s sons, Hamzat and Khalid Borchashvili, also have not returned. And there is this curious connection as well: Leila and Temur have the same daughter-in-law.
Her name is Seda Dudurkaeva, although now she goes by the name Aisha. With big brown eyes, long lashes, and voluptuous features, she was once one of Chechnya’s most desired brides. Seda is the daughter of Asu Dudurkaev, who was a minister in the government of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov—who fired him because he could not “control” his fanatical daughter.
Kadyrov, who is very close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a strong supporter of the Assad regime in Syria, announced the dismissal of the minister on his absurdly active Instagram page in late November last year: “Dudurkaev, as the leader of one of the most important structures, has no moral right to speak with subordinates about morality and patriotism and religion. His own daughter is in the ranks of the Wahhabis and bandits, who are shedding the blood of civilians, and blowing up Islamic shrines in Syria.”
Seda, the Chechen beauty, first went to Syria to marry Leila’s son Hamzat, and Leila’s sobs grow deeper as her story progresses. She says that when her two sons were just boys she sent them to live with her former husband in Austria. She thought he could provide better for them, and she wanted to get them away from the increasingly radical atmosphere in Pankisi. She remembers Hamzat coming home one day when he was only 12 years old wearing the kind of robes affected by the Wahhabi extremist. “I thought in Europe they would abandon Wahhabi teachings,” she say. “I was wrong.”
Fifteen years later, when Hamzat returned from Austria to Pankisi, he was well-educated, with an engineer’s diploma from a university in Vienna, and he could speak five languages. But he took all these skills to Syria, to fight alongside Tarkhan, now known as Abu Omar al-Shishani.
“Hamzat became his interpreter and he would travel everywhere with Abu Omar, never leaving his side and respecting him enormously,” Leila says. But she heard from him only rarely. “I begged him to call me via Skype,” she said. “It’s shameful for a mujahedin to disobey his mother’s wish.”
“I used to not sleep at night, waiting for Hamzat’s Skype call. One night he finally did. Suddenly there on the screen was my son wearing a black scarf on his head with ‘Allah u Akbar’ written in Arabic. When I saw him, I cannot express the feeling I had,” she said. “I asked him: ‘For God’s sake… For Allah’s sake, take me there with you to Syria, I just want to hug you, nothing more.’”
Hamzat agreed to let her visit. “I asked him what to bring with me,” she said. “He told me to bring natural Georgian honey and churchkhela [a traditional Georgian candy made with dried grape must and nuts] for Abu Omar al-Shishani, which he loves very much. I knew Abu Omar,” said Leila. “He grew up here in Pankisi and for some time he worked in Georgia. I took everything that my son liked and missed. And I went to Turkey by bus.”
Leila is reluctant to talk about her son’s wife—the girl who fled from her wealthy father, a life of luxury, and traveled to Syria to marry a mujahedin. She says Seda and Hamzat met online, and that the girl left her guarded house to visit Hamzat, who had been wounded and was in hospital being treated. She acknowledges that someone helped Seda get to Hamzat in Syria, although Leila declines to say if it was friend or a relative.
President Kadyrov, who famously persecutes Wahhabis in Chechnya (along with many others), declared it “a matter of honor” and “a priority” that Seda, who now calls herself Aisha, return to the land of her birth. And the Chechen government’s search for the ex-minister’s daughter eventually led to Leila. “They contacted me and told me to bring that girl back—saying ‘She doesn’t belong with the likes of you,’” Leila recalls.
The mother of martyrs went to Syria with two objectives: to see her son and to convince the girl to return to her family. She was a worried mother navigating safehouses and borders, clandestinely making her way to a rebel stronghold in Syrian territory to retrieve a Chechen princess.
“One man was supposed to meet me in Turkey and see me off to Syria,” she remembers. “Without talking, he took me to the car, gave me a cellphone, and someone spoke to me in poor Russian, asking, ‘Are you Abu Abdula’s mother?’ I said that I was. He asked again, whether I really was the mother of the man who recently married a woman from Chechnya. Again I confirmed. We went to a big building, full of wounded people, refugees from Syria.
“I went downstairs and entered a large room,” she continued, “where I saw about 10 tables with computers and men with long beards. What can I say—they looked very frightening! A group of young boys from Chechnya again asked me: ‘Are you Abu Abdula’s mother?’ Even they knew him.” She had no idea at the time how famous her own son had become in jihadist circles after appearing on YouTube calling on the whole Muslim world, especially athletes, to take part in jihad.
“Then a man came and took us to a bus station,” Leila recalled. “They paid for our tickets. I did not spend a single coin. From there they took us to the Syrian border.” And finally she saw her son, who was no longer the boy she knew: “He was gaunt and armed with all kinds of weapons. He was not the boy I raised. Then they took me to the car surrounded by armed men with cars, who seemed to protect them. They had cars full of guns, in case something happened. When I climbed in, the girl [Seda] was there too.” According to Hamzat, the car belonged to Tarkhan. “He said that these and some other cars were brought from Iran and that he was the only person who had access to this car.”
Apart from his wheels, Hamzat was living with few comforts and little cash. “He did not even have $100 to give me,” said Leila. “He told me: ‘Mom, sorry, I’m dedicating my life to Allah and I am extremely sad that I cannot give you money because I don’t have any.’ He had just one gown that his wife would wash. He used to wear that all the time.”
Leila said her daughter-in-law did not seem to mind. “They were a loving couple,” she said. Seda told her that she was in Syria by her own free will. “She did not complain about anything. I was astonished. She was such a beautiful girl, like an angel. She said that she was freer and felt a spiritual freedom there. As it befits a Muslim woman, in front of me she was shy. I would speak to my son. I told him that her people were calling me and saying that his wife should return home and that they would take care of her. But she said that she was going to stay and die there.”
At night, Leila was awakened frequently by airstrikes. She begged her son on her knees to leave Syria with her. “I asked him why he needed to die, here in a foreign country. He told me that he was strongly following Allah’s path and he was going to sacrifice himself to the God.”
Leila also met with Tarkhan, who came to visit her: “I was taken to a room full of men where I was told that Omar al-Shishani would come the next day and we would meet separately. I needed to give him the churchkhela that he loved very much. So the next day he came and we sat and spoke for an hour. We did not speak about anything special. He just wondered how the neighbors were and about Pankisi. He told me that he loved and respected my son, Hamzat, very much—how he was a ‘devout and exemplary Muslim.’”
Leila marvels at the reverence with which Tarkhan was treated. In her eyes he was just a boy from Pankisi: “I asked what kind of a position he held and why he was so heavily protected—why people were visiting him to get his advice and consultations or telling him their plans. I was told that he was like a second Bin Laden. He was seen this way.”
Four days after Leila returned home from Syria, she received a call from her younger son, Khalid. He informed her that Hamzat had “become a shahid,” a martyr, and he was dead. Leila desperately begged and pleaded with her youngest son not repeat the mistake of his brother, but Khalid replied: “I have been dreaming about this since my childhood.”
“When I heard these words, my heart froze,” the mother of martyrs told us there at her house in Pankisi. “After four or five weeks, I noticed that people were trying to hide something from me. My worst fear had come true: My Khalid was now dead too. They say he was shot by a sniper. But no one saw him dead or alive. Only his wallet was found. Seda, the widow of Hamzat, sent me the money she found in Khalid’s wallet. She said that it belonged to me.”
Leila Achishvili says she believes that after Hamzat was killed, Seda was ready to leave Syria and return home, but “Abu Omar did not let her go and today she is his wife.” Partly this is tradition as old as the history of warrior Islam. “If a shahid’s wife loses her husband, she should not stay alone without care. This is their rule and according to it now someone else had to marry her. Suddenly Seda found herself with Tarkhan, whom my son trusted and at whose side he used to stand!”
Inevitably there have been rumors and suspicions that Tarkhan might have arranged Hamzat’s death, much as King David in the Bible arranged the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah. But there is nothing to substantiate those stories. There is simply too little information.
When asked how exactly Hamzat died, Leila seems uncertain: “As I was told, my son died together with a man from Chechnya. Probably they were returning from the battle together. His car was blown up. He was alive when he was sent to Turkey, but he died there in the hospital.”
Later Leila tried to return to Syria again, to find her sons’ graves, but she was told that she had “no business left” there. The message came from Tarkhan himself.
Now the battlefield is changing. Tarkhan boldly claims that next he will bring the fight to Putin. ISIS has its sights set on the North Caucasus. After years of President Kadyrov’s reign in the Chechen Republic, ISIS may indeed find a niche as it did in Syria. But the Georgians who trained the red-bearded ISIS commander will not welcome his return at this point, no matter how the jihadists might hurt Putin’s cronies. Indeed, some in Tbilisi fear that the Kremlin will act first and use the radicalization in the Pankisi Gorge as a reason to carry out an anti-terrorist operation there—simply put, another Russian invasion of Georgia.
The tiny valley is becoming a big problem. There is a feeling in the air that Pankisi is about to reach its tipping point. Unemployment and the lack of opportunities for young men are taking their toll. The Gorge has always been a hotbed of radicalism and arms smuggling, but now it is fast becoming a shahid factory. The red-bearded jihadist posing frequently for the camera gives the ruthless campaigs of ISIS a glamorous allure, and so far the tactic seems to be working. This “holy war” expends young men faster than mortar rounds. And the brothers Tarkhan and Tamaz know that the ones who survive will return to their homeland soon enough as ruthless battle-hardened jihadists—as “real wolves.”
Yet for the mothers and fathers of this radicalized generation, there is only loss and uncertainty. In this valley so far away from Syria, questions loom like mist drifting off the Caucasus. Leila has lost both of her sons. In a different way, Temur, the father of Tarkhan and Tamaz, also has lost his. With grave sincerity Leila asks, “What is the purpose of this war? With whom are they fighting and for what or why are they killing each other? Still today I cannot find an explanation for why these little children are dying.”