While Islamic State's famously reclusive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains in hiding and is rarely photographed, another young Islamist fighter has come forward to publicly represent the group in videos and photographs shared on social media. This man, however, stands out from his largely Arabic fellow fighters.
That's because the militant known as Omar al-Shishani, a rising star in Islamic State's Islamist campaign across the Middle East, is from the Russian Republic of Chechnya. What's more, he's one of more than 500 militants from Russia who have joined the fight in Syria, according to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). And that estimate could be low; another from the Soufan Group suggests that more than 800 may have headed to the Middle East to fight.
The Associated Press reports that Shishani had been in charge of Islamic State's military operations in Syria and may now be the overall leader on the battlefield after the death of Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari in early June. Like other Chechens, he has come to be thought of as among the best fighters in the Islamist groups.
In many ways, this isn't a surprising turn of events: Chechnya and its people have a modern history of violence that has created a number of battle-hardened fighters. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the chaotic creation of the Chechen Republic, which in turn sought independence from Russia. The two sides came to war in 1994, in a particularly bloody conflict, with tens of thousands of civilians believed to have been killed before Russia finally retreated in 1996.
The Chechens, though Muslim, generally lacked an Islamist element: Dzhokhar Dudayev, the most prominent leader of the rebels, was fighting for nationalist reasons rather than religious ones. However, the chaotic and indiscriminate use of force by Russian forces against Chechens left a deep mark on many, and members of Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda came to the country, drawn by media reports. While the influence of these Islamist fighters may have been limited at the time (most did not speak Russian, and their religious practices bore little resemblance to the moderate Sufi practices of most Chechens), they do appear to have had longer-term influences.
After the First Chechen War ended, a period of insurgency followed, and in 1999, the Second Chechen War was sparked by Islamist attempts to invade the neighboring region of Dagestan and a series of apartment bombings in Russia and Dagestan. While Russian troops were eventually able to quash the Chechen rebels and regain control of Chechnya, it was another brutal, bloody war, leaving tens of thousands of civilians dead. This time, foreign jihadists had a far stronger influence, which was notable in a number of spectacular terrorist attacks, including the 2002 taking of hostages at a Moscow theater and the 2004 storming of a school in Beslan, North Ossetia.
After virtually two decades of fighting and insurgency in Chechnya, many Chechen fighters have extensive battlefield experience. They have already made contact with foreign Islamist groups that now fight in Syria and Iraq. They were well-versed in the use of guerrilla tactics that could be used against traditional armies that are technologically and numerically superior. They also understood how to use propaganda and terror attacks to win over converts and awe their enemies, clearly a key part of Islamic State's current strategy. In Iraq and Syria right now, these are all very useful skills.
For Chechens, too, taking their fight outside the Caucasus makes sense: It shows their solidarity with a global jihad movement and allows them to escape Russia (where many may be wanted by authorities) or Turkey (where many live in illegal exile). And, in the case of Syria, it allows them to battle an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin (Bashar al-Assad). Many may hope to pick up contacts for an eventual return to fighting in Russia, a possibility that clearly concerns Moscow.
For Islamists, it seems that being Chechen can be a badge of honor: You've already survived one of the most terrible conflicts of recent memory, so you must know what to do to withstand another. Hussein Nasser, a spokesman for the Islamic Front coalition of Syrian rebels, told the Associated Press that Chechens were feared because they will do whatever their leader tells them to do. “Even if his emir tells him to kill a child, he would do it," Nasser explains. And the Chechen reputation for toughness goes back even further,
"Chechen boys are raised as warriors and survivors, which should not be surprising given the turbulent history of Chechnya and the North Caucasus in general," Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and expert on Russia, told me. "Even Russian czars, who lost many troops conquering Chechnya, recognized these qualities. Hence, Chechens formed a cavalry sub-unit in the Savage Division that fought on fronts of World War I 100 years ago."
Shishani seems to understand this: The ethnic Chechen was known as Tarkhan Batirashvili when he worked in an intelligence unit of the Georgian army, the Wall Street Journal reports. At 28 years old, it's unlikely he ever directly experienced the fighting that made Chechens so notorious, but he knows its power. His nom de guerre, "Omar al-Shishani," means simply "Omar the Chechen."