Abu Omar al-Shishani, a top Islamic State leader, was likely killed in a series of coalition airstrikes near a strategic town in Syria last week, according to Pentagon officials.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement that the U.S. military was still “assessing the results” of the operation. The strikes were conducted by both manned and unmanned aircraft, said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operational details.
The official said 12 other Islamic State fighters were also killed in the strike, which hit near the town of Shadadi. No civilians were killed, the official added.
Shishani’s death, if confirmed, would represent a strike at the organization’s group of operational leaders. Shishani was a skilled tactician who helped Syrian rebels to victory in a number of key battles earlier in the war. He was also likely a key decision-maker for Islamic State combat operations in the region. By contrast, the 2015 attack on Mohammed Emwazi, the ISIS executioner known by many as “Jihadi John,” eliminated a more symbolic member of the terrorist group.
Shadadi has been the site of heavy fighting in recent weeks as the Syrian Democratic Forces and Kurdish YPG fighters have fought to retake the town from Islamic State forces. Backed by U.S. airstrikes and advisers, the two groups managed to take the town — a key intersection for Islamic State forces moving into Iraq — relatively quickly.
“It is unusual and noteworthy that [Shishani] — who was the ISIL equivalent of the secretary of defense — had traveled to the al-Shadadi area from Raqqa,” the official said.
Shishani’s presence near Shadadi “was likely to bolster the sagging morale of ISIL fighters there,” the official said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
A Georgian by birth known also as “Omar the Chechen” and by his birth name of Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili, Shishani fought in the Georgian armed forces during the country’s short war in 2008 against the Russians. After serving out his time in his home country’s military, Shishani joined a number of rebel brigades fighting in Syria following the start of the country’s civil war in 2011. Sometime in 2013, Shishani joined the Islamic State. In September 2014, Shishani was added to the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of specially designated global terrorists.
“Batirashvili is a battle-tested leader with experience who had led ISIL fighters in numerous engagements in Iraq and Syria,” Cook said in an emailed statement. “His potential removal from the battlefield would negatively 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.”