Syria crisis: Omar Shishani, Chechen jihadist leader

By Murad Batal al-Shishani
BBC Arabic, Pankisi Valley, Georgia

Media caption,
Murad Batal al-Shishani reports on Chechen Jihadists fighting in Syria

There are believed to be about 200 Chechens fighting alongside rebels in Syria, led by commanders from the Pankisi Valley in north-east Georgia.

One of the most prominent is Omar Shishani, who was appointed by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) as commander of the northern sector in Syria.

Until recently Omar Shishani was leader of the Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar (Army of the Emigrants and Helpers), an al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group comprising local and foreign fighters, including Chechens.

Omar Shishani was replaced by another Chechen commander, Salahuddin, as most Chechens in Syria refuse to pay allegiance to Isis.

Villagers here know each other, and some knew Omar Shishani ("Shishani" means "the Chechen" in Arabic).

One man, known as Abdullah, described Omar Shishani as "a good man".

Another, Ayoub Borchashvili, a local imam in Jokolo village, said: "Omar is a respected man, a noble person and I like him very much.

"He and his colleagues flocked to Syria for the sake of Allah to help oppressed people there and to protect their rights."

The BBC has learned that Omar Shishani had served in the Georgian army a few years ago and was later jailed.

Someone who had served with Omar Shishani in the army told us: "He was a sober, respected person, who never showed signs of religious fanaticism or extremism."

No-one explained why Omar Shishani became motivated by religion, although his relation with the Georgian army could have played a role.

Military service

Through a middleman, the BBC managed to see a Georgian defence ministry official about Omar Shishani - or Tarkhan Batirashvili, his real name.

The record says Tarkhan Batirashvili was born in Birkiani, one of the major villages in the Pankisi valley, in 1986.

He performed national service in the Georgian armed forces in 2006-2007.

Image caption,
The Pankisi Gorge has about 15,000 ethnic Chechen residents

Afterwards, he joined the army at the end of 2007 as a rifleman.

The record says he took part in combat during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and was promoted to the rank of sergeant.

Tarkhan Batirashvili was never decorated, according to the record. In 2010 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was considered unfit for the military service.

He was dismissed from the army and arrested a few months later, accused of illegally purchasing and storing weapons.

He was released from prison before completing his three-year jail term due to deterioration of his health.

According to people who knew him, Omar Shishani had "difficult times" with Georgian intelligence, causing him to move to Turkey.

From there he went to Syria, where armed conflict began, and there, thanks to his military skills, Omar Shishani - or Tarkhan Batirashvili - became one of the most influential military leaders of the Syrian opposition forces.