Caucasus Jihadis in Syria/Iraq: The royal flush

Abu Ibrahim Shishani
Died 05/02/2015
01-10_of_spades-Salahuddin_Shishani-Ruslan Machalikashvili
Georgiy Kushtanashvili
a.k.a. Salahuddin Sishani
Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili
a.k.a. Abu Omar Shishani
Died 03/14/2016
Murad Margoshvili
a.k.a. Muslim abu Walid Shishani
Islam Seit-Umarovich Atabiyev
a.k.a. Abu Jihad
Abu Bakr Shishani

High value Chechen targets in Iraq/Syria: The Pankisi connection

[Updated 03/17/2016]

The lawless Pankisi Gorge
Turkish  television announcing the “murder” of  terrorist Dokka Umarov , shown in front of the Imarat Kavkaz banner.
isis-omar-photoBatirashvili (2nd from left) with McClatchy reporter Mitchell Prothero during the 2008 Georgian invasion of South Ossetia, remniscing about their days with the US Army 82nd Airborne.
Batirashvili-Menagh_presserBatirashvili with his multinational gang after his victory at Menagh airbase
Menagh_Aug_2013_VBIEDsBatirashvili’s VBIEDs exploding at Menagh airbase in August, 2013, each one the equivalent of the bomb-load of an F-16.
Al_Absi-ISIS_flag-Bab_al_Hawa-2012July 19, 2012: The Al Absi gang  flying the ISIS black flag seize control of the Bab al Hawa border crossing and start receiving European jihadis sent by Sharia4Belgium
Abu-Omar-al-Shishani-Abu_Jihad-ODAmr al Absi (left), who persuaded Batirashvili to join ISIS. The old guy on the right is Batirashvili’s contact with Daghestan, Abu Jihad, who founded ISIS’s Vilayat Kavkaz.

ISIS’s famous red-bearded commander Abu Omar Shishani was again wounded recently in a US airstrike, finally giving up the ghost on March 14, and bringing his bio once again into the media spotlight. Like the other HVTs (High-Value Targets) in the SYRAQ (Syria/Iraq) theater, Abu Omar is a Kist Chechen hailing from the notoriously lawless Pankisi Gorge of NATO-allied Georgia, a staging area and support base for Chechen terrorist operations in the Russian Federation.

Pankisi is home to the Al Qaeda-affiliated Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) founded by the now-defunct Dokka Umarov, whose Syrian branch is Georgiy Kushtanashvili’s (a.k.a. Salahuddin Sishani a.k.a. Feyzullah Margoshvili) Jaish al-Usra. ISIS’s Caucasian operation Vilayat Kavkaz is of more recent date and is based in Daghestan. It is these Caucasian extensions of the Chechen terrorist gangs in the SYRAQ theater that constitute their main avenue of exporting terrorism into the industrialized world. The Chechen terrorists operating in the Caucasus are far more lethal than any other terrorist formations in the world, owing to their Russian and Georgian military training, foreign (mainly US) assistance, and the natural selection operated on them by the even more lethal Russian counterterrorist forces.

Chechen terrorism issued forth from the CIA’s Afghanistan Jihad, whose veterans were repurposed by US, UK, Saudi, and Turkish intelligence, to inflict further damage on the USSR and later the Russian Federation, this time on its own soil. Doku Umarov thus fought in the 1st and 2nd Chechen wars and Murad Margoshvili a.k.a. Muslim abu Walid Shishani fought by his side. Abu Bakr Shishani, who is Margoshvili’s military commander in Syria, likely participated in those conflicts as well, and probably has more military experience than Margoshvili. Judging by his military knowledge, Abu Ibrahim Shishani of ISIS, the commander of its Baiji operations in Iraq was also a seasoned veteran, having built an artillery rocket factory and taken over the training of ISIS recruits in Baiji.It is their unparalleled experience, gained by facing the full force of a superpower’s military and intelligence apparatus, and sometimes their military training in the Russian/Soviet spetsnaz, into which Chechens were often selected, that makes them the highest-value targets in the SYRAQ theater. Of course in Batirashvili’s case, it was the U.S. spetsnaz, or special forces, that turned him into a killing machine.

Chechens proved their game-changing HVT credentials in August 2013, when Tarkan Batirashvili a.k.a. Abu Omar Shishani, trained by US special forces in Georgia, who fought in the US Army 82nd Airborne in Iraq as well as in the Georgian army during its 2008 South Ossetia invasion, reversed the fortunes of the FSA-led sickly siege of Menagh airbase near the Turkish border by taking over the command of operations and promptly capturing the base with suicide bombers and VBIEDs, which have since become the hallmark of the foreign terrorists in Syria. Similarly, freelancer Murad Margoshvili a.k.a. Muslim Abu Walid Shishani, who rents out his Junud al Sham gang to Al Qaeda’s Northern Syria paymaster Sheikh Mohammed al Muhaysini, made his mark in several successful Al Qaeda offensives in Northern Latakia and Idlib.

ISIS’s first Chechens

Batirashvili entered Syria in the the spring of 2013 with a gang of freelancers just like Margoshvili’s, called Kataib al Muhajireen, the Immigrants Battalions, made up, he claimed, of Georgian Chechen survivors of battles with Russia in the Caucasus, as well as jihadis of other nationalities, gathered together by Saudi handlers such as a certain Abdul Aziz in Istanbul. He had arrived in Turkey in the spring of 2012 after his release from prison in Georgia, where his military career had reached a dead end. By March 2013, his Kataib (battalions) had expanded into a Jaish (army) with the addition of other two other Saudi-formed gangs, and possibly also Amr al Absi’s “Belgian Brigade,” providing him with an ample supply of suicide bombers, which he used as smart weapons to capture Handarat and Menagh airbases in Northern Aleppo.

Flush with success, Batirashvili decided to join ISIS. He had come into contact with the Al Absi gang of Azaz, which flew the first ISIS flag in Aleppo over the Bab al Hawa border gate, where it famously clashed with the FSA’s Farouq Brigade over the kidnap of journalists John Cantlie and Jeroen Oerlemans. Amr al Absi, who took over the gang after his brother was killed by the FSA, had been with the Islamic State of Iraq since its earliest days, long before the 2011 Syrian uprising. The Al Absi “Belgian Brigade” was the Syrian end of the Sharia4Belgium jihadi pipeline that spewed out French, Belgian and UK jihadis eager for martyrdom.

UK and French intelligence services, following the US-Saudi playbook of using Sunni radicals to roll back Iran’s influence, had outsourced their Syria jihad to Belgium, much like global corporations did their head offices, to benefit from that disarrayed country’s lax laws and even laxer law enforcement. Sharia4Belgium thus funneled thousands of battle-winning human smart weapons to ISIS and Al Nusra that the FSA could not offer. Chechens, on the other hand, were not only few in number but weren’t that crazy about martyrdom. There were loud grumblings about the number of Chechens and Crimean Tatars that Batirashvili had sacrificed to take Menagh, including a Pankisi boy called Khamzat whose newly-wedded beautiful celebrity widow he took for his own wife. These facts and the excellent introduction that Amr al Absi provided to the ISIS leadership prompted Batirashvili to join them.

The mysterious Abu Ibrahim Shishani

Abu Ibrahim: The elusive older brother Tamaz Batirashvli?

We know far less about another experienced veteran Chechen whose nom de guerre was Abu Ibrahim Shishani, killed by the Iraqi Hashd al Shaabi militia at Baiji refinery, where he was both a field commander and a trainer. A redhead like Tarkan Batirashvili, there is a slight chance that this experienced war veteran might be his older brother Tamaz because he is the only known Russian-speaking older redhead Chechen with battle experience in ISIS – not that redhead Chechens are a rarity. He doesn’t fit the portrait drawn by his father for The Daily Beast too well: “The two brothers have similar features, the same nose, same red beards, yet we are told that Tamaz doesn’t typically wear military fatigues. He dresses simply, in a gown with a scarf on his head.” Moreover, Tamaz is supposed to be a supreme warrior, yet Abu Ibrahim was the first HVT killed so far, admittedly in a difficult battle against vastly superior forces. Still, even if he is no relation at all to Batirashvili, he was the commander of all ISIS operations in the key Tikrit-Baiji sector, so he was an important HVT.

Al Nusra’s Chechens

Unfortunately in those early months of 2013 when Batirashvili’s star was rising, ISIS’s Syrian expeditionary force, called Al Nusra, had been co-opted by Qatar and split from its Saudi-backed Iraqi parent organization. The Qataris got Pakistan’s “guest” Ayman al Zawahiri to back Al Nusra and “excommunicate” ISIS. Many of Batirashvili’s Chechens, his right-hand-man Georgiy Kushtanashvili a.k.a. Salahuddin Shishani most of all, had been sent there by Dokka Umarov, who was dependent on Al Qaeda, i.e. Saudi support, as evidenced by Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan’s threat to use Chechen terrorists “controlled by us” to attack the Sochi winter games. Consequently Kustanashvili and many others, including Batirashvili’s protégé Seyfullah, refused to follow Batirashvili. Kushtanashvili took over the command of Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (JMA) when Batirashvili joined ISIS.

The Chechens’ “Displaced Conflict” in Syria

say-with-umar-and-sonBatirashvili with his son and aide Sayfullah Shishani in front of his purloined BMW with Imarat Kavkaz plates. According to Joanna Paraszczuk, it was ironically Batirashvili who started the Imarat Kavkaz tagging fad in Syria, even though he claimed that he had never pledged allegiance to its emir.
Abu_Jihad-russian_SOF_GorkaIslam Seit-Umarovich Atabiyev
a.k.a. Abu Jihad in a Karachay-language propaganda video accompanied by an Ingush terrorist preacher. Wearing a status-symbol spetsnaz Gorka uniform, Abu Jihad appealed to his ethnic kinsmen to join ISIS’s jihad.

The split between the Chechens wasn’t just because of the importance of Saudi support, though this was certainly the main factor. There was also what Joanna Paraszczuk calls the “phenomenon of the displaced conflict,” i.e. the displaced revenge of the Chechens against Moscow’s ally Syria, after they dragged themselves bloody and beaten from the Caucasus. They were, in a sense, re-fighting in Syria the Caucasus battles that they had lost against Russia. Certainly, this displaced revenge motivation was visible in the large Imarat Kavkaz logos displayed on their walls, clothes, and vehicles, despite the fact that they officially called themselves Jaish al Muhajireen. Batirashvili was able to think strategically and see how he could have a better shot at the Russians by allying himself with ISIS but most of the other Chechens clung to their past.

Batirashvili’s Caucasus Gambit

I’m not done with ISIS’s Chechens yet because a crucial aspect of the Imarat Kavkaz story is how Batirashvili is using ISIS to wrest control over Caucasus terrorists from IK. The gray-beard often described nowadays as Batirasvili’s “right-hand man” is not his lieutenant in the Syria/Iraq Jihad but the ethnic Karachay-Balkar veteran jihadi Islam Seit-Umarovich Atabiyev a.k.a. Abu Jihad who is setting up Batirashvili’s “Vilayat Kavkaz.” This is the guy Putin should be most worried about because he has already obtained the bay’ah of most Caucasus terrorist imams and appointed his own Vilayat Kavkaz emir,  Rustam Asilderov alias Abu Muhammad Kadarsky. Atabiyev is quite a talented propagandist, not at all the rigid salafist mullah type you would expect him to be. Despite ISIS’s strict salafist rules against music, he made use of a german rapper Deso Dogg, from among ISIS’s many German recruits, to produce a music video featuring all the Caucasus preachers who had given bay’ah to ISIS.

The Rise and Fall of Giorgi Kustanashvili a.k.a. Salahuddin Shishani

Georgiy Kushtanashvili a.k.a. Salahuddin Shishani saw himself as the future emir of Imarat Kavkaz

When Batirashvili’s Katibat al Muhajiroun arrived in Syria, Kustanashvili, with whom he had presumably fought in the Caucasus under Ruslan Gelayev, was his field commander. He immediately launched into several high-profile operations from the KM/JMA base in the luxury villa in Hraytan seized by Batirashvili. He captured Kafr Hamra and attacked Layramoun, reaching the outer ring road of Aleppo, and pushing east to organize several SVBIED attacks against the Canadian i.e. Al Kindi Hospital,  making a name for himself.

Kustanashvili was eventually pushed out of Al Nusra-allied JMA by Saudi sheikhs, led by Sheikh Mohammed Muhaysini, the Saudi envoy who would gradually wrest back control of Al Nusra from Qatar. Kustanashvili and his Crimean Tatar lieutenant Abdul Karim Krymsky then formed Imarat Kavkaz fi Shame, the Caucasus Emirate in the Levant. However he was pressured out of this command as well, this time by the new emir of Imarat Kavkaz Abu Usman Gimrinsky, who probably wasn’t too happy about Kustanashvili setting up his own parallel emirate in Syria. Kustanashvili then left his command to a younger Chechen fighter, Khayrullah Shishani, and formed Jaish al Usra, again allied with Jabhat Al Nusra. These successive ousters prevented Kustanashvili from expanding his operation to the measure of his ambitions. We never again heard of such thunderous exploits from him as during his whirlwind entry into the Syrian jihad in the spring and summer of 2013. He partnered with Murad Margoshvili in Latakia and they were reportedly on good terms but he got no coverage at all in the victory videos.  His Jaish al-Usra is reduced, at this writing, to bombarding Kurdish civilians in the Sheikh Maqsoud quarter of Aleppo in revenge for the  vast territory captured from Al Qaeda and its Turkish allies by the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces of Afrin.

The Hired Gun

Shamir_Basayev-Murad_MargoshviliA young and beardless Murad Margoshvili with the Beslan butcher Shamir Basayev in the heyday of Chechen terrorism.
Margoshvili-Sheikh_MuhayssinyMurad Margoshvili with Al Qaeda paymaster Sheikh Mohammed Muhaysini

Unlike Kustanashvili, Murad Margoshvili a.k.a. Muslim Abu Walid Shishani never gave bay’ah to anyone and never had to put up with any political backstabbing. He probably owes his relatively comfortable status to his drug lord uncle the late Vephiya Margoshvili, head of the Margoshvili clan that owns the Pankisi Gorge and hosts the Imarat Kavkaz gangs that hide out there, who double as their personal army.

Margoshvili got his military training with the Red Army in Mongolia but when he returned home to the Pankisi, he set out into the terrorism sector rather than the family drug business. He fought with both Shamir Basayev and Ruslan Galeyev, both of them former spetsnaz, on many fronts. His last Russian caper was in 2002, an unspecified operation led by Aslan Maskhadov. He was captured in 2003 but only stayed in prison for 2 years, though it took him until 2008 to recover from whatever they did to him there.

Shanghaied to Syria

What happened after that is, curiously enough, in the public record: According to the Public Defender of Georgia Ucha Nanuashvili, a group of Kist Chechens, from among the 120 trained by the Georgian Interior Ministry in military bases for subversive operations, decided to enter the Tsuntin district of Russian Daghestan through the Lopota Gorge in August 2012. These men were from Murad Margoshvili’s jemaat in Tsuntin. Georgian special forces intervened and denied them passage, telling them to leave their weapons and go back to their military base. No reason that we know of was given. The men refused, a firefight ensued, and 8 of them, plus 3 Georgian handlers died. One of the dead was a relative of Murad Margoshvili called Aslan Margoshvili. The survivors were not returned to their bases but sent to Syria, at which point the incident starts to make sense: They were ordered to go to Syria but didn’t want to and tried to get to Daghestan. They were then forcibly prevented from escaping and packed off to Syria. Georgia being heavily under U.S. and Turkish influence, it may have been persuaded to relinquish the Pankisi Chechens it had intended to use against Russia for the Syrian jihad.

Batirashvili_villa_HraytanWhere it all began: The summer of 2013 in Batirashvili’s stolen luxury villa in Hraytan. Poor Pankisi boys and even less-poor Pankisi gangsters had the time of their lives.
Margoshvili and his aide Abu Tarib Shishani celebrating their brief victory at Tower 45 in Northern Latakia.

So that’s how Margoshvili ended up in Syria in 2012, where he was shortly joined by Batirashvili, who was apparently framed and jailed for 16 months just motivate him to go to Syria. In the warm months of 2013, they were one big happy terrorist gang living it up at the poolside of Batirashvili’s Hraytan villa, seized from an Aleppo businessman. Then Batirashvili joined ISIS and Margoshvili took more than 100 Chechens with him to Latakia for a whirlwind offensive in the summer of 2013 that would take him all the way to Durin, and which earned him the nickname Sopa Durin: Durin Hilltop. Unfortunately for him, Batirashvili got an even bigger billing at Menagh airbase.

Margoshvili did increase his fame during the March 2014 Kessab offensive, when Al Qaeda terrorists poured out of Turkey into that Armenian village founded by 1915 genocide survivors, thoroughly ethnically cleansing it. He helped briefly capture Tower 45, a dominating strategic location, and had the moment recorded for posterity on video. The next year, Al Qaeda poured out of Turkey again, this time into Idlib, sweeping away the Syrian army, and Batirashvili was there posing for the cameras again. However at the end of 2016, he was no longer celebrating but desperately calling for help in his videos as the Syrian army overran his training camps at Ateera on the Turkish border, forcing him to flee.

The Young Lions

The Jack of our HVT royal flush isn’t a leader like the others but a very competent and experienced tactician nonetheless. Abu Bakr Shishani, whose real name is unknown, was Margoshvili’s field commander but transferred to the younger and more daring Abdul Hakim Shishani’s Khalifat Jamaat after the 2015 Idlib offensive. Abdul Hakim is thought to be Rustam Azhiyev, a young veteran Chechen terrorist (2000-2009) who fought under Shamir Basayev’s son Rustam and later had his own command in the central Nokhchiycho sector of Chechnya.

Young Chechnya veteran Abdul Hakim Shishani with a happy Sheikh Muhaysini after Al Qaeda captured Idlib in 2015.
Well-equipped and professional young Chechen terrorists of Ajnad al Kavkaz in Idlib.
Khamza Shishani, now dead, and Abu Bakr Shishani under an Imarat Kavkaz banner. Abu Bakr displays his status not only with with his Gorka special forces uniform but with an Israeli KPOS Glock pistol submachine gun converter. He is saying “I don’t need an assault rifle, I’m an officer.”
Kamov Alligator attack helicopter being assembled at Hmeymim on March 17, 2016.
Mi-28N Night Hunter attack helicopter overflying Hmeymim airbase on March 16, 2016.

If Abdul Hakim ever gets to be Batirashvili’s age, he will no doubt be the ace in the pack. Even now, he is a very dangerous. He and his young pack of Chechen wolves tore up Idlib , Ariha, and Jisr ash-Shughour, chasing the Syrian army all the way out of the Ghab valley, while capturing scores of armored vehicles and other heavy weapons in the process. They worked in perfect synchronization with CIA-backed FSA TOW missile teams, who destroyed the Syrian armor in their way as they progressed down the Ghab valley.

The man who has the experience to keep the young hothead Abdul Hakim out of fatal trouble is Abu Bakr Shishani. Abdul Hakim came to Syria in the company of Abdulvakhid Edelgireyev a.k.a. Khamza Shishani, a Chechen veteran like him who became his lieutenant. The youngsters were both heavily wounded in Chechnya and bonded in a Turkish hospital in 2009, Abdul Hakim emerging with a damaged left hand and eye and Hamza with his left leg 10 cm shorter. They displayed a gung-ho style throughout the Idlib offensive, with Abdul Hakim often leading the column. That style will no longer fly against the now better-trained and -equipped Syrian army and air force, even without Russian marines backing them up. Worse still, their anti-tank cover provider the FSA has laid down its weapons with the ceasefire in Syria.

Edelgireyev became the victim of his devil-may-care attitude when a Russian hit team gunned him down in Istanbul in January. According to his family, he utterly disregarded his personal security. Edelgireyev’s activites since he left Syria, however, showed clearly why he needed to be taken out. He had gone to Ukraine to fight with the Nazis against Donbass, then returned to Istanbul to recruit & seek funds for Abdul Hakim’s old Chechnya command the Nokhchiycho district. Now Abu Bakr is Abdul Hakim’s military commander, a more experienced and wiser one than Edelgireyev, which makes him a higher-value target to be eliminated ASAP.

Russians pulling out, HVTs still breathing: Mission not accomplished?

It would be foolhardy to second-guess what Russia intends to do about the Caucasian HVTs remaining in Syria but what we do know is that neutralizing them was one of the reasons that pushed it to intervene in Syria. Does the fact that it is pulling out all its SU-34  and SU-25 attack aircraft and some of its SU-24s, as well as 3,000 marines, mean that it has given up on that goal?

First of all, taking out HVTs is not a function of the number of mission flown or the tonnage of bombs dropped, but primarily of intelligence. Are Russia’s electronic surveillance assets still in place? Judging by the swarms of Russian drones monitoring the ceasefire since February 27, that’s a definite yes. Are GRU Osnaz ELINT units still there? They have been there since 1957 so it’s safe to assume they’ll be sticking around. Moreover, Russia has moved in assets more tailored to targeted killings than iron-bomb-dropping jets, namely Mi-28N Night Hunter and Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters, both top-of-the line aircraft bristling with sensors and stand-off weapons. When ground assets spot an HVT, these quasi-invisible sniper aircraft can be deployed at night to take it out. The withdrawal of most of its tactical aircraft has no obvious implications for Russia’s determination to go after Chechen HVTs in Syria and it has everything it needs there for the job.

As you may have noticed from the links, I am heavily indebted for this page to Joanna Parazcszuk @joaska_ for her excellent investigative reporting on Caucasus terrorists in Syria. I have merely tried to give a narrative flow to her reports.
Thanks also to Misha @filokalia for pointing me to the Guardian story on the assassination of Khamza Shishani.

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