How US training helped mold Islamic State’s top military commander
By MITCHELL PROTHERO | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: September 15, 2015
KILLIS, Turkey (Tribune News Service) — The 15 Chechens looking to cross the border from Turkey to Syria didn’t strike Abdullah as particularly important or unusual.
It was early summer in 2012, and as a smuggler based in the Turkish border town of Killis, Abdullah, who’d fled his home village in Syria because of fighting on the outskirts of Aleppo, was used to secretive groups of foreigners — journalists, aid workers and many recently aspiring jihadists — hiring him to cross Turkish military lines at the border while avoiding what was then still a significant Syrian government presence in northern Syria.
“In 2012, everyone was coming to Syria and we had too much work leading all kinds of people across the border,” he explained over lunch in Killis, a Turkish town just a few miles from the rebel-held Syrian city of Azzaz. “A lot were Muslims who had come to support the revolution against Bashar Assad from every country. So many from Europe, Russia, Germany, France … ”
The 15 men had reached Abdullah through a network of contacts that were funneling new fighters to northern Syria, and Abdullah recalled they said they were going to Syria to assist in the fight against Assad. They were quiet, disciplined and for the most part spoke only a bit of crude formal Arabic.
Only later did Abdullah realize that the network that funneled these men to him was the beginnings of the Islamic State, and that one of the 15 would turn out to be the most important non-Arab figure in the Islamic State hierarchy, a former American-trained noncommissioned officer in the special forces of the nation of Georgia, who’d led his men heroically during the 2008 Russian invasion of his homeland.
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 the largest group of foreign fighters among Islamic State forces.
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.”
Even before Georgia and Russia came to blows in 2008, Batirashvili had earned a reputation for fighting Russians. While a part of Georgia, the Pankisi Valley’s northern end abuts Chechnya, where separatists fought a brutal war for independence from Russia in the 1990s. 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.
The choice of a military career was natural, say Georgian officials and journalists who knew him and his community. Pankisi is a tiny and isolated sliver of Georgia with little economic activity, and the choices for its youth are narrow: leave home to fight the Russians, become a subsistence farmer, join one of the legendarily nasty Chechen criminal gangs, or join the military.
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.”
Fighting the Russians in Chechnya would not have disqualified him, the former comrade said. “Having fought the Russians as a Chechen is hardly unusual and not the sort of thing that would have meant you were a bad guy,” he said. “It just means you’re from Pankisi.”
None of the people who knew Batirashvili during his military service noted any sort of dedication to Islam or jihadist tendencies, but that’s not considered particularly unusual in a country where Muslims tend to adhere to a moderate strain of Sufi Islam despite Chechnya’s reputation as an incubator of extremism.
“Chechens have a reputation as crazy Islamic warriors, but our Islam has always been moderate,” according to one Pankisi community and clan leader who’s been ordered by the government not to talk about the man many Georgians laughingly refer to as “Pankisi’s most famous son.”
That reputation for moderation, however, began to change in the wake of the Chechen wars, which devastated Chechnya, and by the construction in 2000 of a second mosque to serve the valley’s six small villages.
The new mosque, the community leader said, was built with a donation from Saudi Arabia and “preached a kind of alien Wahhabi-style Islam,” not the Sufi-style Islam that had characterized the regions for hundreds of years.
“It told our people that it was wrong to pray at graves of saints and ancestors, as our people have done for hundreds of years, and even to share our religious rites with our Christian brothers,” he said.
By the mid-2000s, multiple residents say, the situation had split the community, mostly by age, with the original Sufi mosque attended by the older members of the community, while the young people were radicalized by the new mosque. This led to significant tensions with police until it was resolved by a revolution almost 1,000 miles away.
“They all started leaving for Syria,” the community elder said. “Things are safer here now because all the radicals — our children — have gone to Syria.”
American and Georgian intelligence estimates put that number at between 150 and 200 young men who have left Pankisi to fight in Syria.
Batirashvili’s father, who still lives in Pankisi, couldn’t be reached for comment. Local officials who were asked to help contact him said his son had warned them not to let foreigners interview him, and outsiders are easily noticed riding along the single main road that spans the tiny valley.
Batirashvili’s exploits in the 2008 war with Russia are the stuff of local legend. At the time, the region was tense. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Putin, then Russia’s prime minister, had been waging a verbal war over what Saakashvili called Russian interference in Georgian affairs with its support of South Ossetia, a Georgian region that had declared its independence.
In what is generally seen now as an enormous miscalculation, Saakashvili ordered a Georgian military offensive to retake the autonomous breakaway region. According to his former comrade and the Georgian defense official, Batirashvili led a special forces detachment of forward artillery observers who’d infiltrated deep into South Ossetia to set up an observation post overlooking the Dzara Bypass Road, which connected South Ossetia through the critical Roki Tunnel to Russia.
As Georgian troops attacked the Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, Batirashvili’s unit rained artillery on the Russian reinforcements that began pouring in to reinforce the breakaway republic.
The Russians crushed the Georgians within days, but not before Batirashvili’s unit inflicted serious damage, including an ambush on Aug. 9, 2008, that wounded the commander of the Russian 58th Army, one of the highest-ranking Russian military officers wounded since World War II.
“He was a magnificent fighter and one of the best men I have ever known,” said a veteran of that battle who remembered Batirashvili as quiet and dedicated to his men. “He controlled the forward positions and called in the artillery on the Russians. Maybe he more than any other single soldier in the Georgian army fought the Russians the best during that terrible week.”
The story of how Batirashvili left the Georgian army and later ended up in prison for a year on suspicion of arms trafficking is muddled. Georgian military records show that he was discharged for medical reasons in 2010 — he’d contracted tuberculosis, according to the records — but some colleagues and residents of Pankisi say the real reason for the discharge were concerns about his family.
“The guy has two brothers, both of whom fought in Chechnya, and he is known to have helped the rebels before joining the army,” the defense official said. “As good a soldier as he was, there was a lot of concern about the guy’s being radicalized over the Chechen conflict next door.”
By late 2010, Batirashvili was under arrest for weapons possession, which his father told the BBC was merely an old box of ammunition in the house. But prosecutors asked for a significant jail term out of fear that Batirashvili already had been radicalized. Regardless of when this radicalization took place, by the time he left prison 16 months later, Batirashvili reportedly was telling people that prison and his Muslim mother’s death from cancer shortly after his release had convinced him to become religious.
In early 2012, Batirashvili disappeared from Georgia. He told his father he was headed to Istanbul to get away from Georgian military intelligence.
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.
“You must understand this about Chechens, they’re really good at two things: Fighting and extorting other Chechens,” said one Pankisi resident. “So if you run a grocery story or a tea shop or some other business anywhere in the world, if you’re Chechen, you will end up having to pay other Chechens to leave you alone.”
“And Istanbul had too many unemployed guys trying to be gangsters all at once,” he added. “But when Syria came along they had something to do.”
A Chechen fighter who spent two years fighting in Syria and currently lives in Istanbul agreed.
“We were all bored and starving here in Istanbul before the Syrian war,” said Ramzan, a huge man with a bushy red beard. He was talking over a cup of tea, buried in the Chechen market on the Asian side of Istanbul.
Ramzan, who asked to not be identified further because of security concerns, had been fighting against the Russians in Chechnya when he was wounded outside of the Chechen capital, Grozny. After members of his family were kidnapped by security forces in the hunt for him, Ramzan decided to flee to Turkey in 2002. For a decade he’d scraped out a living doing low-level extortion and protection rackets.
“Once the jihad in Syria began, people began to tell us, ‘Come to Syria, there’s fighting and paychecks and wives.’ So we started leaving by the hundreds,” he said.
Ramzan fought for nearly two years as a member of Jaysh al-Muhajireen, or the “Army of the Immigrants.” Abu Omar al-Shishtani, aka Batirashvili, was its commander.
“Abu Omar — we never used our Chechen names — was my emir (commander) for two years in Syria,” said Ramzan. “I fought with him in Aleppo and at the capture of the Menagh Air Base. He is an excellent military commander and a very good Muslim. He also helped the Islamic State get many Russian-speaking recruits from Chechnya, Dagestan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and even Afghanistan. He was responsible for bringing them in through a network that I think was controlled by al-Qaida.”
Cecire, the analyst, said there’s little doubt Abu Omar found many ethnic Chechens, living in poverty, willing to join the fight. “The ‘poverty’ explanation for foreign fighter flow has taken a lot of flak,” he said. “But in Pankisi and many rural Caucasus regions, that poverty is intertwined with the fame and international demand for the Chechen warrior.” That intersection was a draw for Chechens “in search of means as well as meaning,” Cecire said.
“At rock bottom, it’s no wonder that Batirashvili availed himself of that demand,” he said.
Abu Omar quickly turned Jaysh al-Muhajireen into one of the most effective anti-Assad fighting forces, in part by insisting that Syrians be mixed among his primarily Russian-speaking force. The Syrians’ local knowledge and the Chechens’ fighting prowess soon made Jaysh al-Muhajireen the leading Syrian rebel unit.
“He was the most brilliant commander in the Syrian revolution,” said Yousef, a Syrian who served as Abu Omar’s deputy and spoke freely of his time with him during lengthy interviews in Gaziantep and Killis, two Turkish cities with large Syrian rebel presences.
Abu Omar’s string of victories included leading broad coalitions of disparate rebel groups to victory in Aleppo. In August 2013, he was the leader of the group that captured the Menagh Air Base, which rebels had been trying to take for two years.
Yousef, who asked to not be identified further because of security concerns, remembers his time with Abu Omar fondly. “I fought with him for two years, he was like a brother to me,” he said. “He would talk about the best military tactics and why we should never be afraid of dying, because we would go to paradise and marry black-eyed virgins and eat with the Prophet Muhammad.”
Ramzan also has warm memories of Abu Omar as a commander. “I fought alongside Abu Omar a lot,” he said. “And I respect him as a person and a leader; he’s a good man.”
But both Yousef and Ramzan said they eventually broke with Abu Omar over his decision in November 2013 to throw in with the Islamic State. At the time, tensions were running high between the Islamic State and other rebel factions, including al-Qaida’s Nusra Front. Abu Omar had remained above the fray, but it eventually became apparent that he had sided with the Islamic State.
Yousef remembers a series of suicide bombings that targeted Free Syrian Army units at Tal Rifaat, his hometown, while he was visiting family.
“The FSA unit in Tal Rifaat was made of very good men. They did not have a reputation for being gangsters or foreign spies like many of the other FSA units,” he said. But the Islamic State attacked them anyway.
“I called Omar and told him ‘Stop, these are good men, why is this happening?’” Yousef recalled. “And he told me not to worry and that he would have them stop fighting. He told me wait a day and not to take action.”
The next day, two suicide car bombs dispatched by the Islamic State struck Tal Rifaat, killing a number of Yousef’s friends. A horrified Yousef called Abu Omar again, who denied knowing about the car bombs but said the only FSA units being targeted had ties to Western intelligence.
Yousef found himself the middle man in a negotiation between the FSA and Islamic State representatives, who included Abu Omar’s nephew.
“I thought the meeting was good and that we would resolve things,” Yousef said. That night another suicide bomb struck a command post for the FSA killing several top officials in the local unit.
Yousef called Abu Omar again in a panic only to be told that the car bombs must have been from Assad forces because he had not authorized an operation. “The next day they murdered my cousin in a cemetery,” Yousef said. “He wasn’t even a fighter with the FSA and they shot him to death for being Syrian.”
Yousef visibly teared up as he told of the final text messages he sent Abu Omar, ending their friendship and announcing his split from the group.
“I told him that an enemy is an enemy, but he was a brother who became an enemy and it was much worse. That I would forever oppose him.”
Still, Yousef, who now fights with a moderate Syrian rebel movement outside Aleppo, absolves Abu Omar of the worst crimes of the Islamic State.
“He’s one of the best men and best Muslims I have ever known,” said Yousef. “I am obligated to confront him if he remains with these people, but if he were to leave them or take control of the Islamic State, I would forgive him. If he ran the Islamic State I would have never had to leave.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.
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