A recent statement by a Chechen militant who fought alongside Islamic State (IS) militant group commander Umar Shishani in Aleppo in 2013 casts doubt on whether the man lauded as the “ginger-bearded Chechen warlord from the Pankisi Gorge” is the exceptional military strategist he has been portrayed as in the Western and Arab media.
In recent weeks, Umar has been lauded in the Western and Arabic press as an “outstanding” military strategist, responsible for some of IS’s major victories in various parts of Iraq. Other articles have suggested that Umar, who fought in the Georgian Army during the 2008 war against Russia, “served in intelligence units trained by the Americans.”
As yet, there has been no real evidence to support many reports and rumors that Umar -- who was appointed IS military commander in Syria -- has been transferred to Iraq, let alone that he is responsible for IS’s military advances there.
The statement by Umar's former associate suggests that the IS military commander is relying on the fact that IS has a great many inexperienced but highly motivated recruits in order to use a simple “cannon-fodder” tactic, sending waves of militants to storm enemy positions with little regard for casualties.
The Russian-language statement, posted on November 6 on Russian pro-jihadi networks, was written by a militant named as Khalid Shishani, who now fights with the Uzbek-led faction Seyfullakh Shishani’s Jamaat, part of Jabhat Al-Nusra in Aleppo.
Khalid fought with Umar in Aleppo Province before Umar formally joined Islamic State by pledging allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, in December 2013. At that time, Umar was the leader of a predominantly Chechen faction, Jaish Al-Mujahireen Wal-Ansar, which rose to prominence in August 2013 when the faction fought alongside IS (then known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham) to capture a Syrian government air base, known as Menagh.
During that operation, Khalid claims, Umar’s lack of military knowledge and tactics led to him using militants as “cannon fodder,” resulting in hundreds of deaths.
“Umar Shishani is a person who is absolutely useless in military terms,” writes Khalid. “He lacks knowledge of military tactics -- and that’s putting it nicely. Take note that it’s only the infidel (i.e. the Western) mass media that has written about Umar Shishani’s military genius. They have greatly inflated his identity and presented him as a genius military specialist, which is the complete opposite of the real picture. This person only knows how to send mujahedin as cannon fodder, and that’s it.”
It was the Menagh air base victory that catapulted Umar to fame -- or notoriety -- in the Western media. His distinctive image appeared in the midst of a group of foreign militants who participated in the capture of the air base.
Yet, if we are to believe Khalid, the Menagh air-base capture was a hollow military victory and was not achieved because of Umar’s skills as a military tactician. Umar decided to take over the base because he thought it would be a good source of “ghanimah” -- war booty -- Khalid claims, not because it was a tactical move. He achieved his goal by sending waves of enthusiastic but poorly armed militants to their certain deaths as “cannon fodder” for the Syrian Arab Army’s guns and tanks.
In another Umar-led offensive against the Khan Tuman air base in northern Syria in summer 2013, Umar asked his men to storm Syrian Arab Army positions by climbing one by one through a gap in the base's perimeter fence -- despite the fact, according to Khalid, that there was a Syrian tank with its gun trained on the gap. Forty militants were killed climbing through the fence, Khalid claims.
“When I went to [Umar] for a talk and I told him that it’s impossible to do things this way, that this is a mistaken tactic, he replied that this is an excellent tactic and the problem was that several people don’t obey their commander,” Khalid wrote.
Khalid also accuses Umar of refusing to divide captured weapons and ammunition equally between the militants who took part in a battle.
“He only started to distribute war booty after [he was already in IS and] his emir, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, ordered him to distribute it,” he writes.
Can Khalid’s account be trusted?
While there is no way to verify all his accusations, it is interesting to note that a similar criticism about the Islamic State group’s use of “cannon fodder” was made last year by another Chechen militant, Muslim Abu Walid Shishani, the commander of the Latakia-based faction Junud as-Sham.
While Muslim Abu Walid Shishani is careful not to mention any particular individual in his criticism, it is not unlikely that he was referring to Umar Shishani.
“We see here [in Syria] that jihad is being led by those who have no military experience. And these [commanders] make big plans, which involve a large number of [militants], and we see, unfortunately, the negative results of these operations. Surprisingly, the operations here are measured by number of people killed. The more people killed, the greater the operation is considered,” he wrote.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk