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Where In The World Is Umar Shishani?


An image made available by jihadist media outlet Al-Itisam Media on June 29 allegedly shows Islamic State fighters, including military leader and Georgian native Abu Umar al-Shishani speaking at an unknown location.

An image made available by jihadist media outlet Al-Itisam Media on June 29 allegedly shows Islamic State fighters, including military leader and Georgian native Abu Umar al-Shishani speaking at an unknown location.

There have been a number of media reports circulating recently in the English, Arabic, and Kurdish press about militant group Islamic State's (IS) military emir (leader) for northern Syria, Umar Shishani.

While Kurdish sources claimed -- yet again -- that Umar Shishani had been killed by Kurdish YPG forces around Kobani, reports in English have credited him with IS's recent gains in Iraq. Arabic media reports have placed Umar Shishani in both Saladin Province and (a few days later) in Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

While there is no evidence to support the claim that Umar Shishani was killed near Kobani, are there any credible reports to suggest that the ginger-bearded IS military leader has moved from northern Syria to Iraq? And if Umar Shishani is in Iraq, in which part of the country is he in -- Anbar, Saladin, or Kirkuk?

The source for the Arabic media claims that Umar Shishani is leading IS forces around Kirkuk appears to be an October 8 report credited to the Arabic-language service of German media agency dpa. The report was carried in a handful of Arabic-language media outlets, including Youm7.

According to the report, anonymous security sources told dpa that "according to intelligence information" IS was seeking to attack Kirkuk on three fronts, and that Umar Shishani would be leading the attack on the Rashad area near Kirkuk in northern Iraq. That report came days after reports that Iraqi government troops and Sunni tribal forces were fighting IS militants in Rashad, on the highway linking Kirkuk with Tikrit.

However, there does not appear to be any other information to corroborate the dpa report that Umar Shishani is in Iraq or leading IS militants around Rashad or elsewhere in Kirkuk.

At the same time, there have also been no reports hinting at Umar Shishani's whereabouts on Russian-language social media linked to or run by Russian-speaking militants within IS. One of the main reasons for this is the mass banning last month of jihadi-related accounts on Russian-language social network VKontakte, and the removal of a website, FiSyria, that was linked to Russian-speaking fighters in IS.

Before Umar Shishani and a core group of his loyal mujahedin (many but not all of them Chechens) moved to IS in December 2013, after swearing an oath of allegiance to IS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Russian-speaking fighters close to Shishani had maintained an account on VKontakte, ShamToday, and FiSyria, which reported on the group's activities. These accounts were maintained following the move to IS, although they tended to report more "official" news, mostly put out by various IS Twitter accounts.

The last report issued by ShamToday was on August 15 and included a video (since removed from YouTube) showing Umar Shishani having his predominantly Russian-speaking jamaat within IS, Al Aqsa, swear allegiance to Baghdadi.

Prior to that, Umar Shishani and his faction were fighting in IS militants' offensive against the Syrian Arab Army's 121 Artillery Regiment in Hasaka Province.

While it is possible that Umar Shishani is in Iraq, there is so far no concrete information placing him or his jamaat there. If he is in Iraq, it is the first time that the ethnic Chechen IS commander has fought in that country, in terrain and against troops he is unfamiliar with.

-- 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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