While the jihadist terror group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is regarded one of the most media-savvy jihadist organizations to ever exist, its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a recluse that rarely poses for the group’s many propaganda videos. Enter Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen Georgian that may be the military leader of all of ISIS.
The Associated Press reports that ISIS’s former overall military strategic leader died weeks ago, leaving a vacuum many believed to be filled by Shishani. Shishani, 28, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, spent years fighting Russian military and recruiting for jihad in Georgia before leaving to join the fight in Syria and Iraq. Before his time as a jihadist, al-Shishani even served in the Georgian military, where he gained the rank of sergeant. He was discharged from the Georgian military after contracting tuberculosis, a disease he gained fighting Russia during the 2008 invasion of Georgia by the Kremlin.
In the years since joining jihad, Shishani has been promoted to the military chief of the Syrian warfront – a job at which he was extremely successful. As chief of fighting in Syria, Shishani is believed to command between 500 and 1,000 troops.
Syria and Iraq, in the eyes of ISIS, are no longer separate fronts, however. After the establishment of a caliphate under al-Baghdadi, ISIS claims that the borders no longer exist. As such, many experts believe that one man could be leading both the efforts in Syria and Iraq, and that man is al-Shishani. Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow with the Brookings Doha Center, tells the Associated Press that, as ISIS’s two fronts become “more and more inter-dependent by the day, it is more than possible that someone like (al-Shishani) could assume overall military leadership.”
With the exception of the reclusive al-Baghdadi, ISIS has established an organization mostly bereft of high-profile leaders, making it more difficult for those fighting jihad to target leaders and destroy the group from the head down – as the United States has done with Al Qaeda. The rise of al-Shishani could change that, particularly as he appears frequently in videos for ISIS and, as a red-haired ethnic Chechen, is easily identified in the crowd of ethnic Arabs that make up most of ISIS.