Loss of iconic leader will hurt ISIS but war goes on
Beirut - The Islamic State (ISIS) is having a rough time these days. It is reported to have lost 47% of its territory in Iraq and 20% in Syria after two years of fighting while more of its self-proclaimed caliphate is being overwhelmed as US-backed forces move on its main strongholds, Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
Brett McGurk, US President Barack Obama’s top adviser on the war against ISIS, told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 28th that the US-led coalition is killing one ISIS leader every three days — a crippling attrition rate if true.
The jihadists continue to fight on tenaciously despite the Americans’ growing access to high-grade intelligence, much of it garnered from top-ranking ISIS operatives snatched in raids by US special operations troops or from a growing haemorrhage of defectors.
However, the loss of one warlord in particular, an iconic Georgia-born jihadist known as Abu Omar al-Shishani — Abu Omar the Chechen — reported killed in Iraq in July, “may change the face of the Syrian insurgency”, according to one Caucasus expert on Russian jihadists.
Shishani, with his distinctive ginger beard, was the pre-eminent ISIS commander fighting in Syria and had a $5 million US bounty on his head to prove it.
Born into a Christian family in Georgia, Shishani — real name Tarkhan Batirashvili — and his two brothers converted to Islam. As an intelligence specialist in the Georgian Army he fought the Russians in Georgia and Chechnya before going to Syria in 2012.
He had become an almost mythical figure, particularly among the 2,000-5,000 Chechen fighters, including veterans of Russia’s wars in Chechnya. There are large numbers of fighters from other Russian republics and their importance to ISIS is underlined by the road signs in ISIS territory that are written in Arabic, English and Russian.
Shishani’s military successes in Syria alarmed Moscow, which feared he could ignite a new conflict in the Caucasus region on Russia’s mountainous borderlands.
In Syria, Shishani quickly rose to prominence and was given command of the Muhajireen Brigade, a hard-line militia composed mainly of Chechen and Russian-speaking fighters.
He became a senior commander in mid-2014 and pledged allegiance to ISIS’s self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to whom he became very close. The United States said he was ISIS’s “minister for war”.
He was by far the most successful of the group’s field commanders and was repeatedly sent in to reverse military setbacks and invariably triumphed. With ISIS facing a potentially disastrous defeat in northern Syria, his loss is expected to be sorely felt by the jihadists.
By all accounts, he was seriously wounded in a March 4th US drone strike on an ISIS convoy outside Shaddadi in north-eastern Syria that may have specifically targeted him.
He was widely thought to have died from his wounds — the United States actually declared him dead — but apparently survived. Then, on July 13th, ISIS announced Shishani had been killed near the Iraqi town of Shirqat, south of Mosul, but gave no details.
Iraqi analyst Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises the Baghdad government on jihadist groups, said Shishani was killed in an air strike near Shirqat while fighting encircling Iraqi forces.
Shishani was a successful and popular war leader and his demise could undermine the morale of ISIS fighters, particularly among the Russian speakers who are considered the fiercest.
“I think his death will spark an outflow of many of the fighters from the Caucasus and Chechnya who were becoming less convinced about the fight,” observed Hashimi.
“It will cause a crisis because this is a time when it’s hard to replace a leader they can use as a source of inspiration and charisma. That’s what he had that was so important, and which others don’t have.”
Caucasus analyst Mairbek Vatchagaev said the loss of Shishani will mean “the weakening of the Chechen leadership in ISIS and the (likely) appointment of Arab commanders for the Chechen fighters will likely cause conflicts among the militants, since the Chechens do not normally consider the Arabs to be authoritative military leaders,” he wrote in an analysis for the Jamestown Foundation in Washington.
US officials have repeatedly claimed ISIS is in its death throes, but it would be unwise to write off the group.
“It’s true that coalition air strikes and coordinated movement by ground forces in Iraq and Syria have diminished the group’s manpower, finances, supply of equipment and territorial control,” observed analyst Scott Stewart of US-based global intelligence consultancy Stratfor.
But “the bottom line is that… it will be a long time before the Islamic State is defeated… It is not possible to completely eradicate the Islamic State or other jihadist groups as long as their ideology survives and continues to attract new adherents.”