March 18, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: What Omar al-Shishani Leaves Behind
On March 14, Pentagon officials confirmed the death of Tarkhan Batirashvili aka Omar al-Shishani or Omar the Chechen—the Minister of Defense of the so-called Islamic State. Al-Shishani’s fate had been unclear since he was reportedly hit by March 4 U.S. airstrike in northeastern Syria, after which various sources claimed he had been ‘severely injured.’ The American confirmation came a day after the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a British-based organization with extensive sources within Syria, reported that al-Shishani had been ‘clinically dead for several days.’ However, the ‘Amaq News Agency, a propaganda outlet linked to the Islamic State, posted a statement on March 15 denying the Pentagon’s claims. If reports of al-Shishani’s death prove true, it will be a public blow for Islamic State leadership.
The red-bearded al-Shishani, a native of the remote Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia, was highly visible in Islamic State propaganda materials, particularly those aimed at recruiting foreign fighters from the Caucasus. By many accounts, al-Shishani was a skilled military commander—the former member of the Georgian military is said to have been part of a unit that received training from U.S. Special Forces. As a result, Islamic State propaganda elevated al-Shishani as an icon of the group’s strength—to great effect. At least 2,400 Russian citizens have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq, the majority from the North Caucasus regions of Chechnya and Dagestan. More than 100 have traveled from Azerbaijan, and an additional 50 from Georgia.
Even if al-Shishani is dead, the threat posed by his fighters remains. During their time fighting in Iraq and Syria, many of these men have acquired skills that make them effective insurgents and effective terrorists. As the Islamic State continues to weaken within its core territories, more and more fighters will disperse—for many fighters from the Caucasus, this may mean returning home to wage violent jihad against the Russian state. The Islamic State has already declared Wilayet al-Kawkaz in the Caucasus region, indicating a desire to reignite conflict there. Wilayet al-Kawkaz leader Rustam Asilderov aka Abu Muhammad Kadarsky released a video message in October 2015 calling on Russian jihadists to stay and fight the Russian state rather than travel to Iraq and Syria—similar to official Islamic State calls for North African jihadists to travel to Libya.
Wilayat al-Kawkaz has already demonstrated its lethality, claiming responsibility for a car bombing at a checkpoint in Dagestan in February 2016. The group has also been drawing fighters away from other established militant jihadi groups in the area, most prominently the Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE), which is affiliated with al-Qaeda. Kadarsky, the leader of Wilayet al-Kawkaz, was formerly a leader of the Wilayet Dagestan wing of ICE. However, many claim that the Islamic State presence in the North Caucasus is relatively weak, and is exaggerated by the group in order to draw recruits.
Despite this, the return of hundreds, or even thousands, of veteran fighters from Syria to the Caucasus poses a serious threat to the Russian state. Given its military intervention in Syria, and particularly its brutal air campaign, Russia has elevated itself as a terror target. Already, the Islamic State targeted Russian citizens when Wilayet Sinai brought down a Russian airliner flying out of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Even with enhanced security measures, some fighters will be able to return to Russia, or to remote areas along the border with Georgia or Azerbaijan. Russian forces in the North Caucasus could face increasing numbers of insurgent-style assaults against government and civilian targets.
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