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.
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SOURCE: Tribune News Service, Mitchell Prothero