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'Umar Is Not Even A Real Chechen, Anyway' -- The Politics Of 'Shishani' In IS And Syria

Abu Umar al-Shishani (left), reportedly in Syria

Abu Umar al-Shishani (left), reportedly in Syria

One would be surprised to find there was any area on which Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, and veteran Chechen militants now fighting in Syria, could find common ground.

One would be even more surprised to discover that not only does such a area of agreement apparently exist, it concerns Umar Shishani, the Islamic State (IS) group's military commander in northern Syria.

The area of agreement has -- broadly speaking -- to do with whether Umar Shishani can claim a right to the Chechen ethno-cultural space -- in other words, whether he is in fact a "Shishani" (the Arabic term for Chechen) at all.

For while Umar Shishani considers himself a Chechen, as reflected in his nom de guerre, both Kadyrov and some militants from the Chechen Republic fighting in Syria would disagree with him.

In recent comments, Kadyrov insisted that so-called Chechen militants in Syria are not actually born and raised in the Chechen Republic at all, but elsewhere, including Western Europe.

Meanwhile, Chechen militants in Syria from factions that are ideologically opposed to IS have accused Umar Shishani of not being a real Chechen, and of appropriating the identity by adopting the nom de guerre "Shishani."

Both Kadyrov and these Chechen militants have objected to what they say is Western media branding of all Russian-speaking militants in Syria as "Chechens from Chechnya," when they are not.

Umar Shishani (real name Tarkhan Batirashvili) was not born in Chechnya but in the village of Birkiani in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, an area that is home to around 5,000 Kists, a Chechen and Ingush sub-ethnic group who migrated to the region from lower Chechnya in the 1830s. (Local legend has it that the first Chechen migrants ended up in Pankisi after their sheep wandered into Georgia. Finding it lush and pleasant, they stayed).

According to Michael H. Cecire, a Black Sea and Eurasia region expert, the Pankisi Gorge and Chechnya are "basically part of the same cultural space," even though residents of Pankisi cannot legally cross through the land border to Chechnya. Many Pankisi residents do travel legally to Chechnya for work or to visit family, he added.

Despite the shared culture and ethnic heritage between Chechnya and the Kists of Pankisi, the rise of IS and the media attention given to the "ginger-bearded IS commander Umar Shishani" have created a battle over who has the right to call themselves a Chechen.

Umar The Chechen Or Umar The Georgian (And Does It Matter?)

Of course, Kadyrov and his sworn enemies, the pro-Caucasus Emirate Chechen militants in Syria have very different (though both are equally politically motivated) reasons for arguing that Umar Shishani (and other militants from Pankisi) are not "real Chechens."

While Kadyrov wants to underscore that his Chechen Republic is not a hotbed of Islamic radicalism and terror, some Chechen militants in Syria take issue with the ideology promoted by Umar Shishani and the Islamic State group. These militants, who are mostly associated with the pro-Caucasus Emirate faction Jaish Al-Muhajireen Wal-Ansar or with the Latakia-based faction Jamaat Khalifat, have retained strong emotional and practical ties to the anti-Russian and pro-Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus.

Although Umar Shishani has paid lip service to the North Caucasus insurgency (in a December 2013 interview, for example, he threatened Kadyrov), the IS ideology is firmly opposed to "nationalist" insurgencies and instead promotes the concept of a transnational Sunni Muslim ummah [nation] united under its self-proclaimed Caliphate. Some Russian-speaking IS militants have scathingly dismissed the North Caucasian insurgency as parochial, describing themselves as waging "five-star jihad" in the "Caliphate" while the Caucasus Emirate is "eating leaves" in Dagestan.

In response, anti-IS and pro-Caucasus Emirate groups used social media to accuse Umar Shishani of turning away from the Caucasus Emirate, slurring him by saying that he is not a real Chechen and referring to him as "Umar Gruzini ("Umar the Georgian") and, in an insulting play on words, as "Umar Gryzuni" (Umar the Rodent").

'Shishani' As A 'Brand'

Beyond the rift between Umar Shishani and North Caucasian militants in IS, and pro-Caucasus Emirate groups in Syria, Chechen militants in Syria have complained that the name "Shishani" has become a "brand."

According to these militants, some non-Chechen militants in Syria have appropriated the name "Shishani" because they think it is associated with bravery on the battlefield.

"The name 'Shishani' has become a brand," one Chechen militant in Latakia said in a conversation via Facebook. "Lots of people want to be a Shishani when they are not. Umar Shishani isn't a Chechen. We call him Umar Gruzini [Umar the Georgian]."

"I don't want to talk about Chechnya, because people will accuse me of being a nationalist. But people think Chechens are the best fighters, so they call themselves Shishani," he added.

The situation regarding who is entitled to call himself "Shishani" is further complicated by the fact that -- in addition to Umar Shishani -- two of the most prominent "Shishani" militant commanders in Syria are also from the Pankisi Gorge, including the leader of the Caucasus Emirate's Syrian branch, Jaish Al-Muhajireen Wal-Ansar.

Unlike Umar Shishani, however, Muslim Abu Walid Shishani (Murad Margoshvili) and Salakhuddin Shishani (Feyzulla Margoshvili -- no apparent relation to Murad) both fought in the insurgency in Chechnya. There has been no suggestion that either should drop the name "Shishani" for "Gruzini."

There is another group of people who have insisted that Umar Shishani is not a Chechen -- local residents of the Pankisi Gorge, for whom Umar Shishani's newfound media celebrity has brought the stigma that their region is a hotbed of terrorism.

A recent "Daily Beast" article put this claim in dramatic terms: "The tiny valley is becoming a big problem. There is a feeling in the air that Pankisi is about to reach its tipping point.... The Gorge has always been a hotbed of radicalism and arms smuggling, but now it is fast becoming a shahid [suicide bomber] factory."

Residents of Pankisi, however, have denied that this is the case. Maya Kavtarashvili, a representative of the local administration in the village of Duisi, said that while locals are driven by unemployment to travel to Turkey for work, and while Turkey has become a "springboard for jihadis" to go to Syria, Pankisi authorities "know nothing about their [i.e. local residents who go to Turkey] participating in hostilities."

Another Pankisi resident said that while in the past, around 50-60 residents had gone to Syria, no one was going there anymore. "Recently, nobody has gone. We'd have known about it."

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena


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