TBILISI, Georgia — Once again Abu Omar al-Shishani, aka Omar the Chechen, the “minister of war” of the so-called Islamic State, has made international headlines by getting killed—then not dying.
On March 8, the Pentagon announced it had targeted Shishani in airstrikes near the town of al-Shaddadi in eastern Syria, where he supposedly had been sent to bolster the morale of fighters under attack by U.S.-backed forces.
The Pentagon said its was still “assessing the results,” but on background officials told reporters Shishani was “likely killed” along with a dozen other ISIS fighters. Subsequent reports have claimed Shishani is “clinically dead.” Then reports quoting Pentagon officials on Monday afternoon said that Shishani survived the attack, but then died of his injuries.
So far, as of 10:30 a.m. GMT on Tuesday, ISIS has said nothing.
But sources in northern Syria close to Abu Omar have told The Daily Beast that, at least as of the weekend, their “minister of war” was still alive. They said the red-bearded commander—born Tarkhan Batirashvili in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge—was injured, yes, but the wounds were not life-threatening. And since September 2014, they note, this is at least the fifth time Omar al-Shishani reportedly has been terminated.
Ironically, every time Shishani doesn’t die after these premature announcements, his stature increases. Indeed, his extraordinary habit of surviving helps to recruit, radicalize, and inspire young fundamentalists who then go to their deaths.
Tarkhan Batirashvili/Omar al-Shishani is often referred to as the “Ginger Jihadist” because of his distinct features: red hair and red beard. Unlike most other ISIS commanders he does not hide his face in photographs and videos. Batirashvili may resemble some kind of dystopian jihadist leprechaun, but this pattern of recurring resurrections has caused some analysts to wonder if there is more than lucky charms or pure coincidence at work here.
Omar’s face is becoming synonymous with ISIS upper management. His features are recognizably Caucasian in every sense, and he’s become iconic: the face of an organization that is actively recruiting young European fighters.
In reality ISIS (also called ISIL or Daesh) is a myriad of ruthless military commanders with vague allegiances and ever-changing alliances, yet it has been remarkably effective at maintaining a unified message and image in its infamous PR campaigns.
Beneath the façade are signs of deterioration, and 2016 may be remembered for ushering in a weakened and internally fractured Islamic State, although if ISIS collapses, what may follow in its wake could be just as terrifying.
One month prior to Batirashvili’s non-death, Special Operations Forces from the first major U.S. combat presence on the ground in Iraq in nearly five years captured the head of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program, Sleiman Daoud al-Afari.
The Iraqi specialist, allegedly linked to Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons program, had been developing user-friendly, mortar-ready chemical warfare agents, including mustard and chlorine. These are the chemical weapons ISIS military commanders use on Syrian and Iraqi civilians, including women and children. As one might expect, once captured the Iraqi chemist turned out to be a gutless wealth of operational intelligence, some of it pointing the way to Omar the Chechen.
In early March, U.S. warplanes and drones intensified a bombing campaign on ISIS positions in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. Airstrikes pummeled two chemical weapons sites in locations around Mosul, Iraq, which Afari apparently had fingered.
The same week, airstrikes went after Shishani in a convoy on the road between the ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria and the town of Shaddadi, which is on the road to Mosul in Iraq. Our sources say that three of Shishani’s Chechen bodyguards were killed and 17 people were wounded, including Shishani himself, but his injuries, according to these sources, are not life-threatening.
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook claimed Shishani’s “potential removal from the battlefield would negatively impact ISIL’s ability to recruit foreign fighters—especially those from Chechnya and the Caucasus regions—and degrade ISIL’s ability to coordinate attacks and defense of its strongholds like Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq.”
But reports on the ground seem to indicate the exact opposite. According to Daily Beast sources and a range of regional analysts, Georgian ISIS fighters from Kist (Chechen) backgrounds are now rallying around the wounded Pankisi Gorge native.
Before, there was a consensus that Georgian ISIS fighters only came from Pankisi, but recently fighters have arrived from Georgia’s Adjara region (an autonomous republic) near Turkey and from Azerbaijan as well. Several Adjarian Georgians have already been killed, these sources said.
Our sources close to the Georgian ISIS commander in Raqqa, “capital” of the so-called Islamic State, have given us a reasonably reliable picture of the situation on the ground and a timeline of recent events.
It now seems “likely”—to borrow some U.S. Defense Department informational ambiguity—that Abu Omar al-Shishani survived the U.S. airstrike with noncritical injuries. He was then transported to a hospital in Raqqa where he is receiving medical treatment, and his myth is very healthy indeed.
As Georgia Today reported in late February, even then Shishani had been “killed” at a rate of “once every four months since his appointment as ISIS northern commander.”
“They treat him as a god because no one can kill him,” one source in northern Syria told us last week.
This “god” came from very humble beginnings in a tiny Pankisi Gorge village where he was born to an ethnic Georgian Orthodox Christian father and a Chechen Muslim Kist mother. As a boy, Tarkhan worked as a shepherd in the hills of the Georgian-Chechen border, where he watched his older brother Tamaz fight in the Second Chechen War. Tarkhan grew up to serve his country valiantly in an elite “Spetsnaz” Georgian military-intelligence unit which benefitted from training by U.S. advisers.
After falling on hard times, Tarkhan went to prison, where he embraced Wahhabi Islam. Upon his release he headed straight to Syria, only looking back to recruit and radicalize other young men from Pankisi—and to send them to martyrdom.
Most Georgians regard this sacrifice of innocent youth as the greatest of all betrayals, and they want Abu Omar dead even more than the Pentagon does.
Georgia, which is still not a NATO member, nevertheless spent a decade contributing more troops per capita to NATO operations in Iraq and Afghanistan than most member countries. And yet here in Tbilisi there is concern that this one un-killable red-bearded ISIS jihadist might jeopardize the country’s entire security reputation and the immense progress Georgia has made toward NATO integration as an “enhanced partner.”
Georgian Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli suggested how much the fate of Tarkhan Batirashvili concerns the country: “We are just waiting for a definitive answer, as a society.”
To the outside world, Georgia has become almost synonymous with the Pankisi Gorge, a remote region of mountains and valleys about 400 kilometers from Grozny, the Chechen capital across the border. Its people of Chechen descent, the Kist, number only a few thousand.
Pankisi grabbed attention because this little pocket of Islam in a small Christian country was so quickly and effectively radicalized over the last decade.
There was already a history of Kist fighters in the area joining the wars against the Russians in Chechnya in the 1990s. Then the Saudis arrived with their contagious brand of Wahhabism early in the last decade. As we wrote in Georgia Today, “By the time the current government established control it was too late. Pankisi extremism had spiked in a manner which appeared to mirror the rise of the Islamic State.”
The Pentagon argues that the attempt to kill Shishani, if successful, would have a major impact on ISIS operations. He is “a battle-tested leader with experience who had led ISIL fighters in numerous engagements in Iraq and Syria,” said the U.S. Defense Department statement about the airstrikes. “His potential removal from the battlefield would negatively impact ISIL’s ability to recruit foreign fighters—especially those from Chechnya and the Caucasus regions—and degrade ISIL’s ability to coordinate attacks and defense of its strongholds like Raqqah, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq.”
But even if Shishani really is dead, it’s doubtful his elimination would have the strategic impact the Pentagon hopes for. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that Tarkhan Batirashvili is not the strategic mastermind. He is the extremely visible front man—blatantly exposed by ISIS—while his older and much more experienced brother, Tamaz, a veteran of the wars against the Russians, remains behind the scenes, fighting under the nom de guerre Abd al-Rahman. Conceivably, he is the real Islamic State minister of war.
According to our sources, when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chosen strongman in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, courageously killed Shishani on Instagram in November 2014, Tarkhan simply went into hiding and his brother Tamaz continued fighting under Tarkhan’s nom de guerre. Our sources say the brothers have also spread rumors that Omar was dead or had gone to Libya—just to stay ahead of those tracking him, and, not least, to make Kadyrov look a fool.
In October 2014, The Daily Beast interviewed Batirashvili’s father and members of the intelligence community, who confirmed the importance the father placed on his older son. As one intel source told us, “The importance of Tamaz is not just a figment of the old man’s imagination.”
The elder brother’s military prowess made him important in the eyes of Georgian intelligence in the last decade when it established ties with Pankisi fighters to gather information about Russian Chechnya.
According to a former Georgian intelligence official, who declined to speak on the record, “Tarkhan [Shishani] was the only newbie. 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.”
The thing about dying all the time is that, quite literally, what hasn’t killed you has made you stronger. Every time Shishani is seen to survive, word spreads that Allah saved him, and his own aura grows.
According to Black Sea and Eurasia regional analyst Michael Hikari Cecire, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “Anyone following Omar al-Shishani/Tarkhan Batirashvili’s comings and goings for the past several years is likely to be unmoved by reports of his demise, as various factions and media outlets tend to regularly announce his death—only for Batirashvili to resurface later as very much alive. Perhaps this time will be different, but earlier reports also suggested Batirashvili was in Libya as part of an announced ISIS strategy to consolidate and expand on its recent gains there. This may have been deliberate misinformation, but it at least helps highlight the complexity of the media narrative that surrounds Georgia’s most infamous son.”
Like the U.S. government, Western media ran with the story of Omar’s death. But the Russian media were uncharacteristically cautious, as journalist and regional analyst Joseph Epstein points out:
“If you’re in the Kremlin, you have nothing to gain by confirming a report which says al-Shishani is ‘likely’ dead. Because the worst-case scenario is galvanizing the population around his death and then having him pop up in Raqqa spouting anti-Russian sentiment. The Russians were already burned in this exact same… when Kadyrov posted a photo on his Instagram of a random dead redhead with a caption in essence equivalent to Obama’s ‘We’ve got him.’ I’m doubtful that they’ll be prone to make the same mistake.”
Once proven wrong, the megalomaniac Chechen leader and most of the Russian media looked quite foolish. The Pentagon and Western media may have to learn the same lesson.
This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. GMT.