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Who is Abu Omar al Shishani?

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A closer look into former Georgian soldier Tarkhan Batirashvili's life

Tarkhan Batirashvili came from humble beginnings and grew to become an impressive military commander.

He was enlisted to join Georgia's U.S.-trained special forces, where he excelled until 2010, when he left the military under curious circumstances and reemerged as an ISIS commander under the name Abu Omar al Shishani.

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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA (Catholic Online) - McClatchy DC reported Batirashvili's story on Tuesday, clarifying details about the U.S.-trained ISIS militant and his role in ISIS. Michael Cecire, an analyst of extremism for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Batirashvili was "[a] man with a modest background, sickly and impoverished before he went to Syria," where he became "a great battlefield commander defying the world" in a "seemingly emulable rags-to-riches story." Georgian Armed Forces officials and journalists who knew Batirashvili said his military career was natural since his hometown Pankisi is small and isolated with little economic activity. The main choices Pankisi's youth could choose from were to fight Russians, become farmers, join criminal gangs or join the military.

A former Georgian defense official said, "We trained him well, and we had lots of help from America ... In fact, the only reason he didn't go to Iraq to fight alongside America was that we needed his skills here in Georgia." Batirashvili's ex-comrades in the Georgian military claimed "[h]e was the perfect soldier from his first days, and everyone knew he was a star ... We were well trained by American special forces units, and he was the star pupil." Georgian military records clearly show Batirashvili was discharged for the contraction of tuberculosis but colleagues and Pankisi residents claim he was actually discharged for familial reasons.

A Georgian defense official said, "The guy has two brothers, both of whom fought in Chechnya, and he is known to have helped the rebels before joining the army. 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."

Though his separation from the Georgian army remains muddy, Batirashvili's arrest for weapons possession in 2010 remains clear. His father told BBC the "weapons" were really an old ammunition box in the home but prosecutors requested a long jail sentence for fear of the radicalization of the young veteran.

After sixteen months in prison, Batirashvili was announcing his prison experience paired with the loss of his Muslim mother due to cancer had led him to religion. He disappeared in 2012 after telling his father he was traveling to Istanbul to escape Georgian military intelligence.

At the time, Istanbul was a popular destination and welcomed Chechens. It was easy for Chechens to hide within Turkey's largest city. 

A Pankisi resident said, "Istanbul had too many unemployed guys trying to be gangsters all at once ... But when Syria came along they had something to do."

Ramzan, a Chechen fighter, said, "We were all bored and starving here in Istanbul before the Syrian war ... 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 described how Batirashvili, who had already changed his name to Abu Omar al Shishani, simply went by emir (meaning commander) because no one used their Chechen names. 

"I fought with him in Aleppo," Ramzan said, "and at the capture of 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."

Yousef, a Syrian, said, "He was the most brilliant commander in the Syrian revolution ... I fought with him for two years, he was like a brother to me ... 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 added, "I fought alongside Abu Omar a lot and I respect him as a person and a leader, he's a good man."

Both Yousef and Ramzan decided to leave Abu Omar's side when he joined the Islamic State in November 2013.
While visiting family, Yousef said there was a streak of suicide bombings targeting Free Syrian Army units in his hometown of Tal Rifaat. "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," Yousef said.

"I called Omar and told him 'Stop, these are good men, why is this happening?' 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," Yousef recalled.

The next day a car bomb killed several of Yousef's friends. Again, he contacted Omar, who claimed to have no knowledge of any bombings outside FSA units that were targeted because of their ties to Western intelligence.

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Yousef tried talking to Omar again and was invited to speak to him and Omar's cousin to negotiate with the FSA and Islamic State.

"I thought the meeting was good and that we would resolve things," Yousef said. Unfortunately that night another suicide bomb struck and several top FSA officials were killed. When Yousef called Abu Omar again, he was told the car bombs had to have come from Assad forces.

"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."

It was then that Yousef made the decision to end his friendship with Abu Omar. "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 ... He's one of the best men and best Muslims I have ever known. 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."

Despite the clear respect his former colleagues felt for him, Abu Omar chose to stand with ISIS and worked hard to prove his military intelligence and boost ISIS' victory.

Michael Cecire admitted, "More than anything else, Batirashvili has legitimized ISIS in the Caucasus by the power of his exploits, which is amplified by slick ISIS propaganda. 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."

At 30-years-old, Abu Omar is a key military leader for the Islamic State in northern Syria and Aleppo. He, as well as other ISIS officials, currently has a bounty of up to $20 million on anything from information about him to his head.


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