National Security

Islamic State Commander Key Figure Behind Recent Military Gains

Chechen jihadist shows battlefield expertise

Abu Umar al Shishani
Abu Umar al Shishani / AP

A Chechen jihadist is emerging as a key Islamic State military commander credited with a series of recent military gains in central Iraq that has left the capital of Baghdad increasingly vulnerable to attack.

Abu Umar al Shishani, a former Republic of Georgia soldier turned jihadist, conducted what security analysts are calling brilliant battlefield maneuvers, involving feints and encirclement, that helped the Islamist forces seeking to take over Iraq win key battles against Iraqi government forces and anti-Islamic State militias in recent weeks.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said Shishani is one of the Islamic State's (IS, also known as ISIL and ISIS) most capable military commanders.

"He seems to have a strong following among rank and file fighters and has shown on the battlefield he understands how to blend strategy and tactics," the official said. "There are multiple ISIL attacks that have his fingerprints all over them."

Last month, Shishani-led IS forces succeeded in trapping an entire elite Iraqi military unit in central Iraq, and killed up to 300 of its fighters, a major setback for Iraqi government efforts to retake parts of the country controlled by the Islamic State  since a June incursion from Syria.

Analysts of the conflict say Shishani has skillfully directed IS forces in eastern Anbar province during an offensive there that prevented Iraqi forces from retaking strategic towns along the Euphrates River, including Anah, Haditha, Hit, and Fallujah—all key locations on a route leading to Baghdad.

"Umar al Shishani appears to be central to ISIL's Anbar offensive," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a Washington-based counterterrorism analyst.

The IS commander is using tactics far different than those used by IS fighters elsewhere in the region, he said.

"The group, in the majority of areas, has fought like a conventional military, but Shishani has emphasized speed and agility, and his tactics have several layers of complexity, including regularly utilizing feints and harassing attacks to try to force his opponents to chase him and thus place themselves in a vulnerable position," said Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The battlefield successes led by the IS leader in Iraq contrast sharply with those used by other IS forces in northern Syria, where the group has been fighting to take control of the ethnic Kurdish town of Kobani near the Turkish border.

As a result, Shishani’s military style combining insurgency and traditional military tactics will likely be adopted by other IS units, or the group’s current military offensive risks stalling, Gartenstein-Ross said.

Pro-government Iraqi military troops are struggling against IS forces, which were bolstered by the capture of two Iraq army divisions and their arms and equipment in June, after the Iraqis fled rather than fight.

U.S. defense officials said IS continues to make gains in Anbar province where the fighters are currently located on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Ramadi.

A senior U.S. defense official described the Iraqi army hold on Anbar, a gateway to Baghdad, as "tenuous."

"[Iraqi army forces] are being resupplied and they're holding their own, but it's tough and challenging," the official told Agence France Presse in Baghdad. "I think it's fragile there now."

IS forces also took control of the Euphrates River city of Hit, north of Ramadi, and control Fallujah, located 30 miles west of Baghdad.

U.S. and allied forces stepped up air strikes against IS positions on Monday and Tuesday, mainly in Syria, conducting 22 bombing raids with aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. All but one of the strikes was in Syria.

Bill Roggio, another counterterrorism expert and editor of the online Long War Journal, also credits Shishani with key battlefield expertise. Roggio said it is not clear that Shishani is leading the fight in Anbar as a cadre of his fighters were spotted in Kobani, on the Syrian border with Turkey.

"Omar Shishani is an effective field commander and many of the Islamic State's tactical and strategic wins in Syria and Iraq can be credited to him," Roggio said. "His fighters, many who are from [Russia’s] Caucasus, are often at the Islamic State's vanguard in the most important battles in both countries."

Roggio said Shishani was added to the U.S. government’s list of global terrorists for good reason: "He is a dangerous and capable commander."

The U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria include armed drone strikes, an indication Shishani is likely a high value target on the CIA’s list of key terrorist leaders slated for missile strikes, if his location and identity in either Iraq or Syria is confirmed.

Shishani’s military prowess was on display during recent fighting in eastern Anbar province, west of Baghdad, where IS forces initially were pushed back from areas outside Ramadi, where U.S. special operations forces reportedly arrived to support anti-IS forces, and from within Haditha. Pro-Iraqi government forces engaged in the fighting included the Iraqi military and several tribal militias.

In early September, some 300 IS fighters also were forced by fighting to flee from Fallujah.

Based on the IS withdrawals in Anbar province the Iraqi military deployed its Rapid Intervention Force, an elite military unit used for short term attacks, to a town near Fallujah.

According to Gartenstein-Ross, Shishani tricked the Iraqis by allowing the elite unit to advance for several days in mid-September before he launched a counter attack Sept. 18 that involved battles between Iraqi forces and the pro-IS General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries (GMCIR), a military group made of up former Saddam Hussein troops.

Shishani delayed attacking while the Iraqi forces battled the GMCIR and used up ammunition and supplies. He then moved in and succeeded in surrounding the Rapid Intervention Force for six days.

"Using chlorine gas and captured Iraqi military vehicles, Shishani was able to massacre 300 to 500 Iraqi troops and bring 180 back to Fallujah as prisoners," Gartenstein-Ross said. "This was the biggest IS victory in two months and a major blow against the state of Iraq."

The victory helped IS block Iraqi government forces from retaking Fallujah.

After that victory, from Sept. 22 on, Shishani began reinforcing his forces with fighters and gear sent from Syria, and on Oct. 2, launched new attacks on several Iraqi towns north of Ramadi.

Those attacks were preceded by a brief diversionary attack further south near Fallujah against an Iraqi military training site.

"The attack on Hit occurred simultaneously with attacks against other targets, too: Kubaysah, Dolab, Muhammadi, Al Sejar, Saqlawiyah, and Hamidiyah," said Gartenstein-Ross. "Shishani also briefly encircled a second Iraqi army company north of Ramadi."

The military objective was to separate Hit from Ramadi and Haditha, which in turn sought to prevent Iraqi government forces from retaking another town further north called Anah, where IS forces had been threatening tribal militias.

Shishani was at the top of the list of 11 designated international terrorists published by the Treasury Department Sept. 24, but under his Chechen name, Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili.

A Georgian national, Shishani, 28, was identified by Treasury as a senior IS commander and a member of its ruling Shura council based in Al Raqqah, Syria.

He was first revealed as an IS military commander in a video released in late June. Among his positions was overseeing an IS prison facility near Al Raqqah where IS was believed to be holding foreign hostages.

Shishani also worked with IS finances and his base of operations was located in Manbij, Syria, about 75 miles northeast of Al Raqqah.

He helped organized IS fighters in early June travel to Iraq to gain control of captured Iraqi vehicles, weapons, and ammunition following the IS military offensive.

"According to an official social media account for ISIL in the Syrian Hasakah Governorate at this time, Batirashvili 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," Treasury said in its designation notice.

Shishani also facilitates foreign jihadists from Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus and joined IS in mid-2013.

Shishani revealed his role as a field commander in November during an interview with an unofficial IS news outlet when he described five military operations he led, including an attack on a Syrian government-controlled Ming Airport.

A Wall Street Journal profile of Shishani in November 2013, based on interviews with relatives and two of former Georgian military commanders, reveals that Shishani learned his military skills as a soldier in the Georgian army and joined the Syrian rebels in 2012 after being released from prison, where he was serving a sentence for illegal weapons possession.

His rise in the IS ranks was likely due to his experience fighting the Russian military in the Caucasus.

Shishani was born to a Christian father and Muslim mother and worked in a Georgian army intelligence unit.

He has described Americans in published interviews as "enemies of Allah and the enemies of Islam."

Shishani joined the Georgian army after high school, rising to the rank of sergeant.

During the 2008 conflict between Georgia and the Russian-backed province of South Ossetia, Shishani worked in reconnaissance and spied on Russian tank columns, relaying the locations to Georgian artillery units.

Shishani was forced to leave the military after being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2010, and in September of that year was arrested on illegal weapons possession and sentenced to three years in prison. When he was released in early 2012, he told a jihadist website that if he survived the prison ordeal "I'll go fight jihad." He then traveled to Turkey and into Syria where he joined a largely Chechen rebel group that aligned with IS.

Bill Cowan, a former Army special operations commando with extensive Iraq experience, said IS forces are gaining ground but he doesn’t believe Baghdad will fall. However, it is very likely the city could be divided into Sunni and Shia sections.

"Those Sunni neighborhoods to the southwest of Baghdad are under extreme duress," Cowan said. "They’ve got teams of people in Baghdad."

Cowan said he believes IS is conducting clandestine infiltration operations in areas near the Baghdad airport in preparation for taking control of the airport.

Also, IS fighters are moving into Abu Ghraib, located east of Fallujah, he said.