ISIS’s New Chechen Warlord
ISIS minister of war Abu Omar al-Shishani looks dead and gone for good, but his brother may be smarter and more dangerous. Will he step out of the shadows?
TBILISI, Georgia — It’s been less than a month since news broke that the so-called minister of war of the so-called Islamic State, Tarkhan Batirashvili aka Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen) had been killed… again. And this time, since weeks have passed without a resurrection, it might just be true. But that news is not quite as good as it sounds.
The famous red-bearded warlord originally from the troubled Pankisi Valley on the Georgian frontier with Chechnya allegedly perished in early July while fighting on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq.
Eight times previously, he was reported killed, and eight times it turned out he was still alive, burnishing his reputation as an almost superhuman survivor. But the ninth life probably was his last.
This time, ISIS’s very own “official” news agency, Amaq, bemoaned his passing as “a great loss for the caliphate.” More credible still is what we’ve heard from Pankisi, where we have interviewed Tarkhan (“Omar”) Batirashvili’s relatives, sympathizers and intelligence contacts extensively over the last two years.
According to three knowledgeable sources there, who did not want to be named for obvious security reasons, Tarkhan’s family got a phone call from Syria from none other than his surviving older brother, Tamaz, who confirmed Tarkhan’s death and offered his condolences.
So, while Tarkhan is gone, which is good, Tamaz is still around, which most definitely is not. As The Daily Beast reported in detail in October 2014, in the Pankisi valley Tamaz is believed to be much more important to the Islamic State’s organization, its intelligence operations, and its military strategy than Tarkhan/Omar ever was.
“Tamaz is everything, the main actor; Tarkhan is nothing,” the father of the two men, Temur, told us in 2014. It was Tamaz who went off to fight the Russians in the Chechen wars of the 1990s; it was Tamaz who became an experienced combat leader; it was Tamaz who most interested the Georgian intelligence services.
“They are together,” said the father. “Tamaz is his mentor. He survived the huge Grozny war and came back alive. [But] in Syria, Tamaz doesn’t show himself.”
Frequent—almost daily—phone calls from the fighters in Syria to their contacts and family in Pankisi have tended to confirm that picture over the last two years.
The Pankisi recruits in Syria credit Tamaz with planning the successful ISIS offensives his younger brother’s fame was built on, including the conquest of Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq in 2014, which led directly to the announcement by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that he was creating an “Islamic Caliphate.”
We spent two years trying to get some definitive impression of Tamaz's appearance, but could not find anything conclusive. We were told that Tamaz, like his brother, had a red beard. We were told at one point that, while Tarkhan allowed himself to be photographed frequently in military gear, Tamaz prefers to dress simply, in a gown with a scarf on his head.
Then, recently, from another source we received the above photo of Tamaz, second from the left, pictured with the ISIS "minister of justice" among others. No robes, and no red beard in this image. In fact, he strongly resembles his father.
Tamaz’s military prowess and importance to Georgian intelligence was confirmed to us in 2014 by a former Georgian military official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified by name.
The government in Tbilisi obviously had a huge interest in the fight going on next door in the 1990s as the Chechens fought to gain their independence from Russia, and Russia in the meantime supported rebellious breakaway territories in Georgia.
Over time, Georgian intelligence enlisted many Chechens, and according to the same security source there were much more important and capable Pankisi veterans than Tarkhan. “We only recruited him because we were interested in his brother Tamaz, and his friends, who were ‘real wolves,’ experienced soldiers, and veterans of the Chechen wars. We had certain interests toward them.” (The photograph here might well be considered a wolf pack of such veterans as they look now.)
Georgia’s Anti-Terrorism Center, or ATC, allegedly ran some jihadists out of Pankisi to fight against Moscow’s troops in Grozny, a charge the Georgian government has always denied.
What success Georgian intelligence had recruiting Tamaz himself is unclear, but he continued to gain fighting experience and distinguished himself as a talented up-and-coming guerilla warfare planning specialist. He joined another warlord from the Pankisi valley, Muslim (Murad) Margoshvili. Even after Russian President Vladimir Putin engineered the brutal reconquest of Grozny, the Chechen capital, the group continued what became known as the “partisan wars” in the forests and hills of Daghestan and Chechnya for another decade, which is to say until about 2009 or 2010.
After that, according to his father, Tamaz spent some time in Ukraine under a false identity. We do not know what he was doing there. His father says he oversaw construction projects. We do know that business often is associated with the Chechen mafia.
In 2013, Tamaz and Tarkhan went to Syria. Tarkhan had washed out of the Georgian security services and been imprisoned, he said, on trumped up charges. Tamaz took his wife and two children to the front, and began working closely with the array of jihadists and former Iraqi military men who are the core of the ISIS intelligence apparatus.
After the establishment of the “caliphate” in the summer of 2014, both brothers garnered important positions in the government of the putative state—Tarkhan becoming minister of war, while Tamaz took the position of counter intelligence and reconnaissance chief, all the while controlling and administering most of the prisons on the ISIS territory, according to members of the Pankisi network we questioned.
For a time, new recruits were pouring into ISIS from the impoverished farms and villages of Pankisi, not least because the new Islamic State promised what came to be called five-star jihad—a world of luxury for true believers, including houses and businesses confiscated from infidels, and even slave girls.
But in the last few months those dreams have evaporated under mounting pressure from the U.S.-backed coalition fighting ISIS from the air, and a mix of forces, mainly led by Kurdish factions, on the ground.
Enthusiasm for the ISIS cause has waned in Pankisi, so has the number of willing recruits, and the surviving veterans in Syria are getting increasingly hostile toward their own countrymen.
Over the last two months, audio recordings have been released cajoling and threatening Pankisi’s stay-at-home Muslims. Adam (Guram) Guramashvili, the so-called justice minister of ISIS, starred in the first of these. (In the photo, he has a thick beard, wire rimmed glasses, and his bare foot outstretched.) He accused the Pankisi Muslim Council, a group of respected elders, of “sacrilegial inactivity and cooperation with infidels.” Guramashvili called for Pankisi’s Muslims to swear fealty to the caliphate en masse. To underscore the seriousness of his message, he warned, “It’s not just Adam saying this.”
In Pankisi, the more authoritative figure lurking in the background of that statement was assumed to be not Allah or Muhammad, but, most likely, Tamaz.
A subsequent, even more threatening message was delivered by Ruslan (Hamza) Tokhosashvili (third from the left, next to Tamaz in the photo). He was Tarkhan’s one-time driver and close ally, and is now in charge of his own military detachment in ISIS-land.
“Every day our boys are killed here, much blood is shed, your sisters and children are bleeding,” said Tokhosashvili. “If you don’t come now, then when will you? If you stray from the righteous path, rest assured, you’ll regret it. Time will come and we will come to Georgia, if not us, our brothers will. And you know full well that it will be hard for you.” Those who do not enlist in jihad will be seen as enemies, he said.
But in the Pankisi valley these days. even hotheaded young men are reluctant to fight on a losing side. That’s what ISIS has started to look like from their perspective, and Tarkhan’s demise drives the point home: his nine lives have run out.
That’s the problem with symbols: whatever Tarkhan’s talents, or lack of them, he’d been made the face of the Chechens in ISIS—the face of leadership, bravery, brilliance: a superhero of sorts. And being a face like that requires its own sort of talent.
Today, even if Tamaz wants to step into that more public role as Abdurahman al-Shishani, his nom de guerre, he may find it’s hard to do. Some men are just made for the shadows.