Chechen jihadists in Syria: The case of Omar al-Shishani
By: Suhaib Anjarini
Published Thursday, May 1, 2014
Chechen jihadists play a major role in the conflict in Syria. They have been fighting in Syria since 2012 and their role has been carefully planned, with direct clerical guidance from certain countries and indirect involvement by a number of intelligence agencies.
The Chechen jihadist role in the Syrian crisis has the covert support of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The Qatari ties to Chechen jihadists, though relatively recent, are the most effective. The Saudis have provided clerical support, while the Turkish role is mostly logistical.
Omar the Chechen
In September 2010, the Georgian authorities arrested Tarkhan Batirashvili on charges related to illegally purchasing and stockpiling weapons. Little did the man know that the primary outcome of his arrest would be his transformation into a jihadist and that later on, he would become one of the most famous leaders of the jihadist project in Syria.
Omar was born in 1986 in the Pankisi Gorge located in northeast Georgia, where the majority of the population is Chechen. In 2006, he was drafted into the Georgian military. The impoverished young man was seen as a loner, but he was known for his passion for learning various combat techniques.
He was retained on contract by the Georgian army after the end of his compulsory service in 2008. Less than a year later, he was discharged after contracting tuberculosis. This was before he was arrested in September 2010.
There is nothing new in the information above, most of which is already known and circulated. But a jihadist source close to Omar al-Shishani agreed to speak to Al-Akhbar to help us gain a better understanding of who Omar really is and how he became a leading Chechen jihadist.
According to the jihadist source, the two years between Omar’s discharge and his arrest played an important role in developing his jihadist ideology. During that period, Batirashvili met a number of friends who eagerly supported jihad.
The short time he served in prison played a crucial role in his life. There, he met a man called Mohammed, a Saudi national who had ties to major jihadist leaders and was well versed in jihadist ideology. Mohammed told Batirashvili about the role of the Saudis in supporting jihad, and the feats of the late Thamir Saleh Abdullah al-Suwailem, a Saudi national and major jihadist commander in Chechnya.
Batirashvili, became eager to partake in jihad himself, and even started seeing himself fighting against what jihadists called the “Russian infidels.” “Brother Mohammed would tell him salvation was near, and that those visions were signs from God,” the source added.
Batirashvili was later released from prison after contracting tuberculosis. “Sheikh [Batirashvili] left prison armed with the prayers of Brother Mohammed and the names of clerics who have a history of supporting jihad, and ways to contact them,” the source explained.
Passage to Egypt
Batirashvili, now rechristened as Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen), wasted no time. He quickly contacted two of those clerics via the Internet. The source said, “They told him there were vigorous efforts to revive the golden age of jihad. They then quickly agreed to meet away from the country of the infidels, in Egypt.”
Shishani travelled to Egypt, possibly in February 2011, where he met with a Saudi cleric, a Qatari businessman, a prominent figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, and a young Turkish man known as Mansour al-Turki.
The idea of jihad in Syria was not on the table yet. Batirashvili believed he would be leaving Egypt back to the Caucasus, having obtained backing for a new and sustainable wave of jihad against the Russians. It is also likely that there was a jihadist operation in the works for Egypt, which was witnessing the beginnings of unrest against the Mubarak regime. The Muslim Brotherhood and its backers, primarily Turkey and Qatar, wanted to seize power there at any cost.
But the way events unfolded in Egypt allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to achieve its goals at the ballot box. This, in addition to the outbreak of the crisis in Syria, tilted the jihadist compass in the direction of the Levant.
By that time, Mansour al-Turki had become a permanent escort for Batirashvili during his stay in Egypt. He had also convinced him that jihad would become global. The source quoted Shishani saying, “Repeated discussions with Sheikh Mansour persuaded me that the jihad against the infidels was one and the same everywhere, and was the path to the restoration of the caliphate and its rule over the entire world.”
It seems that Omar’s impressionable character was one of the reasons he was chosen to lead Chechen jihadists in Syria, instead of giving the task to veteran jihadist commanders. For one thing, the latter’s allegiance primarily lay with the organizations they fought for before, specifically al-Qaeda.
The journey to Syria
In late 2011, Shishani found himself in Turkey, ahead of entering Syria, for “jihad against the Russians and their Baathist ally, who is no less of an infidel than the communists are.”
The jihadist source said, “Sheikh Omar did not want to form an independent group. He was looking for a group with a clear vision and a correct approach.”
To this end, Batirashvili held several meetings with jihadist leaders in Syria. He is quoted as having said, “We sat with their commanders but we were shocked by the extent of their misplaced loyalties. We found them to be very vein.”
Shishani also wanted to obtain a pledge from jihadists in Syria to support jihadists in the Caucasus in the future, a promise he ultimately obtained only from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In ISIS’ arms
In the Aleppo countryside, Omar met with major jihadist figure in Syria, Abu al-Athir al-Absi, who became his new patron. Through Absi, a meeting was arranged for Shishani with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of ISIS.
Shishani is quoted as praising Baghdadi, “We found in him humility, which we did not find in others. He pledged to support the jihad in the Caucasus. He was immensely pleased with us, and confirmed that he has been looking for some time for a way to help there.”
Shishani’s Army of Emigrants and Partisans, formed in March 2013, pledged allegiance to ISIS for jihad against the Syrian regime, but they did not endorse its claim to leading the caliphate for many reasons, including “avoiding antagonizing emir Dokka Omarov [a major Chechen jihadist leader] and his supporters,” according to the same source.
Despite this, Salah al-Din al-Shishani, another Chechen commander, along with 800 of his fighters, split from Omar’s group in November 2013. Interestingly though, the split was almost amicable. In a statement explaining his move, Salah al-Din said, “The leadership of ISIS suggested that our group, the Army of Emigrants and Partisans, grant it an all-encompassing pledge of allegiance. Part of our mujahedeen gave an oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, while the rest refused to grant an all-encompassing pledge. Praise be to God, every mujahid has the right to choose. We did not become enemies because of this. We are brothers, and we will unite when needed to fight together against the enemy. We will not refuse to give an all-encompassing pledge when there is a single emir ruling all of the Levant, God willing.”
The Turkish role
Since the jihadists’ attention turned to Syria, their reliance was primarily on the Turkish role for help. Turkish collaboration with Chechen jihadists dates back to the Ottoman era, specifically, to the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid I, who helped Sheikh Mansour al-Shishani in the war with the Russian Empress Catherine in 1787. Mansour answered the call “to preserve the caliphate.”
Based on similar grounds, Chechen jihadists were manipulated to draw them into the Syrian crisis. The premise was that “jihad against the Russians in the Levant paves the way for the return of the caliphate, and for taking the jihad back to the Russian heartland.”
Ankara took advantage of the ties cultivated by its secret services with a number of Chechen jihadist symbols, who moved to Syria recently. Turkey is a compulsory crossing bridge for all Chechens on their way to Syria. The flow of Chechen jihadists reached a peak in the past two months during the battle near the headquarters of the Air Force Intelligence in Aleppo, and the town of Kessab on the Syrian coast.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.