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The Chechen Leader With A Grudge And The IS Commander With Nine Lives

Islamic State military leader Umar al-Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili) (center) has been "killed" in Syria and Iraq at least four times.
Islamic State military leader Umar al-Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili) (center) has been "killed" in Syria and Iraq at least four times.

The head of Russia's Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, likely had no idea about the extent of the media hurricane he would unleash when he made one of his daily posts to his Instagram account.

Kadyrov -- who uses his Instagram account to make daily announcements and updates -- wrote on November 12 that "the enemy of Islam Tarkhan Batarishvili [Umar al-Shishani's name is actually Batirashvili], who calls himself Omar ash-Shishani, has been killed. Thus it will be with everyone who gets it into their head to threaten Russia and the Chechen nation. Thus it will be with everyone who spills Muslim blood. Allahu Akbar! [God is great]."

Kadyrov later deleted that Instagram post, but not before it went viral on news reports all over the world. Not only the Russian press, but mainstream Western news agencies reported that the Chechen leader had announced the death of the ethnic Chechen Islamic State (IS) military commander, while some Syria watchers speculated that perhaps Kadyrov had intelligence from his sources in the field in Syria.

So was Kadyrov's claim credible? And if not, why did the Chechen leader make such a report (only to later to delete it)?

There are several reasons why Kadyrov's claim should be treated with the utmost caution.

The most obvious sign that the report was nothing more than speculation or bravado is the photograph of an apparently dead ginger-bearded man that Kadyrov used to illustrate his claim.

There is a problem with that photograph.

Apart from the fact that it is not a photograph of Umar al-Shishani, the same picture has been used on at least one previous occasion to "prove" Umar al-Shishani's death. Umar al-Shishani has been "killed" in Syria and Iraq at least four times.

Kurdish sources in Iraq and Syria have claimed to have killed Umar Shishani on several occasions. In June, the Kurdish Peshmerga claimed to have killed him "near Kirkuk."

A video, released on June 12 and shared on social media, even claims to show the moment of the Georgian-born IS commander's death.

The Peshmerga then claimed to have killed him again in August, this time near the Mosul dam.

In October, the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) sources claimed to have killed Umar al-Shishani again, this time in Kobani (but using the same image as they had done back in August when the Peshmerga "killed" him near Mosul).

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is extremely sensitive to the fact that Chechen extremists are fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is extremely sensitive to the fact that Chechen extremists are fighting in Syria and Iraq.

It is not only the Kurds who have killed Umar al-Shishani, however. Jabhat al-Nusra forces claimed to have shot the IS military commander near Deir Ezzor in Syria in May.

Why did Kadyrov claim Umar was dead?

Ramzan Kadyrov's claim that Umar al-Shishani had "been killed" makes sense if considered in the context of the ongoing battle of words between the Chechen leader and Chechen (and other North Caucasian) militants in Syria, including Umar al-Shishani.

Kadyrov, who has contended with a domestic insurgency led by the extremist Caucasus Emirate Islamist group, is extremely sensitive to the fact that Chechen extremists are fighting in Syria and Iraq. The Chechen leader has spoken out against what he sees as a media preoccupation with Chechens in Syria, saying that most of those calling themselves Chechens are not from the Chechen Republic.

A staunch Kremlin loyalist, Kadyrov has also reacted with anger to reports that Islamic State militants in Syria threatened to carry out attacks against Russia.

Yet Kadyrov's feelings about Chechen militants in Syria are deeper and more personal than simply concerns about national security and the media image of his republic.

Kadyrov, who has promoted the traditional, Sufist form of Islam that has been the dominant strand in Chechnya for about two centuries, openly execrates the Salafist extremism adhered to by Islamic State.

More than that, however, Chechen militants in Syria have made direct, personal taunts and threats against Kadyrov, prompting the Chechen leader to react publicly, demonstrating the depth of his detestation for these "enemies of Islam" as he sees them.

The Chechen militant most outspoken against Kadyrov was Seyfullakh al-Shishani, who insulted and taunted the Chechen leader in various video addresses, calling on Kadyrov and his security authorities to come to Syria for a showdown.

That Kadyrov was rattled by this was clear in an Instagram post he made upon learning of Seyfullakh's death in Aleppo in February:

"Seyfullakh asked on the Internet, where are Kadyrov's security services, he asked that they be dispatched to him. The bandits didn't know that Kadyrov's intelligence services can be on every piece of earth, they are ready to explode under the feet of those devils wheresoever they may be. The call of this devil was probably heard and death overtook the bandit...he got what was coming to him," Kadyrov wrote in a post that -- like the recent one about Umar al-Shishani -- was hastily removed.

Umar al-Shishani has also threatened Kadyrov, including in a rare December 2013 interview when he said he and his fellow militants would come to Chechnya "even stronger and more prepared."

More recently, a group of militants from Seyfullakh al-Shishani's jamaat (the group retained the name of its dead commander) in Aleppo made a video address taunting Kadyrov. "We've killed so many infidels and you are still not here," the militants said.

Kadyrov's claim that Umar al-Shishani was "killed" is likely just the latest episode in this ongoing saga, therefore.

Unsurprisingly, Chechen militants in Syria responded to the reports about Kadyrov's claim, saying that the Islamic State commander was "alive and well."

One social-media account linked to Chechen militants in Islamic State posted what it claimed was a recent photograph of Umar al-Shishani. "He doesn't have a clue that Kadyrov had him killed," read the caption.

-- 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.


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