The US military said it targeted and may have killed a senior military commander in an airstrike on March 4 in northern Syria. The commander, Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili, who is better known as Omar al Shishani (the Chechen), played an important role in the Islamic State’s military operations, and was listed by the US as a specially designated global terrorist in 2014.
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook issued a statement today announcing the airstrike, which took place in the Syrian city of Shaddadi. According to Cook, Shishani “had been sent to al Shaddadi to bolster ISIL [Islamic State] fighters following a series of strategic defeats by local forces we [the US-led Coalition] are supporting, cutting off ISIL operations near the Syria-Iraq border.”
The US military could not confirm that Shishani was killed and “is still assessing the results of this operation,” Cook said. The Islamic State has not released a statement announcing his death.
Shishani “held numerous top military positions” for the Islamic State, including “minister of war,” and “Shura Council member.” The Islamic State has never publicly identified Shishani as its war minister, and it is likely he did not hold that position. Shishani has led an elite mobile combat unit that is positioned on key battlefronts to shore up Islamic State military operations. Many of the fighters in Shishani’s unit are from the Caucasus and other foreign countries.
Cook said that if Shishani has indeed been killed, his death would “impact ISIL’s ability to recruit foreign fighters – especially those from Chechnya and the Caucasus regions — and degrade ISIL’s ability to coordinate attacks and defense of its strongholds like Raqqah, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq.”
However, the Islamic State, like al Qaeda, has weathered the loss of key leaders and both groups continue to conduct effective military operations throughout the globe. For instance, the US killed Nasir al Wuhayshi, the emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who also served as al Qaeda’s general manager, in the summer of 2015. Yet AQAP has taken over a large region in southern Yemen since Wuhayshi’s death.
The US added Shishani to its list of global terrorists in September 2014, after the Islamic State routed the Iraqi Army in northern and central Iraq over the summer.
Shishani entered Syria in 2012 and led the Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar, or the Army of the Emigrants and Helpers, which has a large cadre of fighters from the Russian Caucasus. Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar is closely allied with the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, and other Syrian jihadist groups.
He pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State, in 2013. This caused a split within Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar. Most of the group opted not to fight for the Islamic State, and remained an independent fighting force under the command of Salahuddin al Shishani. Al Shishani’s pledge to al Baghdadi was controversial, as he had previously given bayat to Doku Umarov, who at the time was the emir of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate.
If Shishani is confirmed killed, he would likely be replaced by his deputy, Islam Seit-Umarovich Atabiyev, who is also listed at a global terrorist. Atabiyev is said to be a capable military commander who has been influential in recruiting foreigners to join the Islamic State.