This article maintains that Abu Omar al Shishani was “radicalized” in a Saudi-funded mosque that challenged the moderate Islam that had hitherto prevailed in that region. Yet despite this supposedly prevailing moderation, its men gained a “reputation as crazy Islamic warriors.”
If this scenario is true, U.S. officials should think very carefully about the implications of the fact that there are hundreds of Saudi-funded mosques in the U.S. But they won’t.
And whether or not it is true that Abu Omar al Shishani was a “moderate” when he was trained by American special forces units, this story should make U.S. officials think carefully about the wisdom of such training, given that there is such a very fine line between “moderation” and “extremism.” But they won’t.
“U.S. training helped mold Islamic State’s top military commander,” by Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy, September 15, 2015:
…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 a incubator of extremism.
Batirashvili’s exploits in the 2008 war with Russia are the stuff of local legend. Why he left the military isn’t clear.
“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….
EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is of Abu Omar al Shishani.