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Cannon Fodder In Baiji: The Lives & Deaths Of IS Militants

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

Chechen IS militant Alikhan (left) was 23 when he was killed. He had a little fighting experience -- IS sent him to fight in Kobani in Syria. He survived that, but he didn't survive in Iraq.

Chechen IS militant Alikhan (left) was 23 when he was killed. He had a little fighting experience -- IS sent him to fight in Kobani in Syria. He survived that, but he didn't survive in Iraq.

Said was 19 when he died in May, six months after he ran away from his home in Chechnya to join the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

He was killed fighting U.S.-backed Iraqi forces in Baiji. He had no previous fighting experience.

Another Chechen, Alikhan, 23, was also killed in Baiji. Unlike Said, he had a little more fighting experience -- IS sent him to fight in Kobani in Syria. He survived that, but he didn't survive in Iraq.

How did IS manage to convince these two young men to travel to a faraway country and die on the front lines of battle?

Some clues to their lives -- and deaths -- can be found in "obituaries" written for them by their acquaintance, an IS activist named Abu Usama al-Shishani.

The "obituaries" are among several that Abu Usama has shared online this month, telling the stories of IS militants who have been killed recently in Syria and Iraq. The obituaries have been shared among pro-IS accounts on the VKontakte (VK) social network.

They show how IS sends inexperienced young men to their deaths in the name of its extremist ideology.

Said's Story: From Maas To Syria, Via VKontakte

According to Abu Usama, Said came from the village of Maas (also known as Kalinina), a suburb of the Chechen capital, Grozny. He first became involved with IS over the Internet, operating as a sort of informal media activist for the extremist group before he joined them in Syria.

The teenager joined radical, pro-IS and pro-jihad groups on the VKontakte social network and even started his own extremist groups, acting as the administrator of a VK page named Vilayat Nohchiycho ("Chechen Province"), which spread IS propaganda to people in Chechnya and beyond.

Supporting IS on the Internet was not enough for Said.

Supporting IS on the Internet was not enough for Said.

There are scores of such groups on VK, most of which include militants who are already in IS-controlled territory, as well as the "wanna-bes" -- many of whom seem to be men in their teens and early 20s -- who are persuaded to join them. If one of the groups is banned, two or three new ones spring up in its wake.

It seems Said was useful to IS's Russian-speaking contingent not just because of his zeal, but because he had spent time in Egypt and knew Arabic. According to Abu Usama, who got to know Said before he went to Syria, the teen had translated "nasheeds" -- the Arabic chants used by IS as propaganda music -- and "articles about jihad" into Russian.

But supporting IS on the Internet was not enough for Said -- or, for that matter, for IS. The teenager began to want to go to Syria.

"One day, Said went to his mother and told her, 'You have other sons apart from me, sacrifice me on the path of Allah and send me off to jihad,'" Abu Usama wrote.

But his parents and brothers "reacted not in the best way" when he told them of his wishes, the obituary says.

Ignoring his family's wishes, in December 2014 Said ran away to join IS's Russian-speaking contingent in Syria. Six months later, he was dead.

Making Explosive Belts

When he first got to Syria, Said was assigned to the "Explosives and Mines" group in IS, where he learned to make antipersonnel mines and "fida'i [an Arabic term meaning one who sacrifices his life] belts."

Half a year later, Said -- who by this time had adopted the nom de guerre of Abu Qosim al-Shishani -- was dispatched to IS's Russian-speaking fighting group, Jaish Khilafa ("Army of the Caliphate") and assigned to the Al-Aqsa Brigade, a group led by a fellow Chechen, Abu Umar Grozny.

That was in May.

'The Heart Weeps'

IS sent Said and Al-Aqsa to fight Iraqi forces in the northern Iraqi oil refinery town of Baiji. It was the Chechen teen's first time on the battlefield. It was also his last.

Said died in Baiji, one of many young, inexperienced recruits who lost their lives fighting U.S.-backed Iraqi forces there.

Abu Usama ends his obituary of Said by addressing the young man's mother. God will bless her for her son's sacrifice, he explains.

"The tears fall, the heart weeps but we say nothing except what is pleasing to Allah," Abu Usama adds.

Alikhan's Story

A Moscow State University graduate, Alikhan had a bright future ahead of him. But that ended in August 2014, when he ran away to join IS in Syria.

According to Abu Usama -- who said Alikhan radicalized him before the latter went to Syria -- the 23-year-old had started out as an IS supporter on VKontakte, running a number of pro-IS groups.

But when IS declared a "caliphate" in June 2014, Alikhan wanted to travel there. Like Said, Alikhan ran away from home.

"He told his parents he was going to get his diploma, flew to Moscow and then...to the final point," Abu Usama wrote.

Alikhan's family, like Said's, was opposed to his joining IS. Twice his mother traveled to the Turkey-Syria border to try to fetch him, but Alikhan was "very afraid that he would be knocked off his path" of "jihad." He stayed in Syria.

By the time he went to Baiji in May, the young man -- who adopted the nom de guerre Hamza Abu Usman -- had gained a little battle experience in Kobani. He had also married an "ansarka," a Russified Arabic term for a local Syrian woman.

But in May, Alikhan met the same fate as Said. He died in Baiji, killed in a U.S.-led air strike.

Cannon Fodder

Why did IS send fresh recruits like Said and Alikhan to fight battle-hardened Iraqi troops in Baiji?

One explanation is that the extremist group was suffering a personnel shortage in May. Fighting on numerous fronts, the majority of its militants are young men without military experience. High casualty rates are inevitable.

Another explanation is that IS simply does not care whether its raw recruits live or die. IS is known for using young, highly radicalized enthusiasts as "cannon fodder" in a tactic that involves sending waves of fighters at the enemy in order that some will break enemy lines.

This technique is favored by Umar al-Shishani, the ethnic Kist military commander, his former associates have said.

Remembering The Dead

While Abu Usama's obituaries glorify Said and Alikhan as "martyrs," they are also part of an emerging trend among Russian-speaking IS militants of expressing grief for friends who have died.

Though IS's "jihadi" ideology does not allow "mujahedin" (jihadi fighters) to admit to loss and grief, in reality, militants have found ways to mourn.

Abu Usama is also memorializing young men whose lives and deaths would otherwise be forgotten among the masses of IS "cannon fodder" who are fast replaced by new recruits.

"This is one who wrote about many, but about whom no one has yet written," Abu Usama wrote of Alikhan.

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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