A propaganda arm of the Islamic State says that Abu Omar al Shishani, the elite Islamic State commander who earned international infamy, was killed fighting south of Mosul in recent days.
The news of Shishani’s “martyrdom” was posted online by the Amaq News Agency, which is one of the Islamic State’s main media outlets. Citing a “military source,” Amaq reported: “Shaykh Umar ash-Shishani martyred in Shirqat as he participated in clashes to repel the campaign against the city of Mosul.”
Shirqat lies 70 miles south of Mosul and is considered a key location in the approach to the city. The town straddles Route 1, the main road from Baghdad to Mosul, which must be secured so Iraqi forces can advance and resupply from the south.
US officials told CNN that Shishani was targeted in “an airstrike near Qarayyah, Iraq, south of Mosul” sometime “in the last few days” and that the US was working to confirm his status. Iraqi forces retook control of the Qarayyah-West Airbase south of Mosul this week.
Shishani’s presence south of Mosul is a key indicator that the Islamic State is serious about defending the approaches to the northern city from an Iraqi military advance. Shishani commanded the Islamic State’s mobile forces that have fought in key battles in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, the Islamic State deployed suicide bombers against Iraqi forces near Shirqat today. This tactic has been used mainly against key targets as the Islamic State has lost territory over the past year. The group claims to have launched nearly 600 such attacks during the first six months of 2016.
Like other senior jihadists, Shishani (whose real name was Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili) seemingly had multiple lives. In March, for example, the Pentagon said that Shishani was targeted in an airstrike in the Syrian city of Shaddadi.
According to Pentagon Press Secretary Peter 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.” [See LWJ report, US targeted senior Islamic State military commander in airstrike in Syria.]
It is often difficult for even official US government sources to confirm that a key jihadist leader has been killed. But the report from Amaq is significant because it comes from the Islamic State itself.
If Shishani’s death is confirmed, it would mean that a popular commander who was especially influential among jihadists from the Caucasus region has been taken off the battlefield. Although he called himself “the Chechen,” likely because his mother was from Chechnya and he had other ties to the area, Abu Omar al Shishani was a Georgian national. McClatchy first reported that he was even once a member of Georgia’s US-backed special forces and “led his men heroically during the 2008 Russian invasion of his homeland.”
Shishani is believed to have relocated to Syria in 2012 and his legend in jihadist circles grew significantly in the years that followed.
He helped found Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (JMWA), or the Army of the Emigrants and Helpers, which drew fighters from the Caucasus region. Shishani and a group of his men broke off from the JMWA in mid-2013, swearing their allegiance to Baghdadi. The Islamic State’s ability to woo Shishani was a significant development for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization in its rivalry with al Qaeda. It probably helped Baghdadi’s so-called “caliphate” convince even more jihadists from the Caucasus region to defect.
The JMWA initially tried to remain neutral in the infighting between the Islamic State and al Qaeda. But the remaining JMWA cadres eventually swore allegiance to Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, in Sept. 2015.
In addition to holding senior positions within the Islamic State, Shishani also reportedly helped the group capture Mosul in the summer of 2014. “In early June 2014,” the Rewards for Justice page for Shishani reads, he “ordered ISIL [Islamic State] members to travel from Syria to Iraq to retrieve vehicles, weapons, and ammunition.” Shishani also “issued an important communiqué ordering the general mobilization of all ISIL provinces to support the group’s efforts in Mosul, Iraq, and to prepare for any emergencies.”
If Amaq’s report is accurate, then Shishani died defending the approach to Mosul just over two years after helping to seize it.