- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
BATUMI, GEORGIA — Hours after the Islamic State confirmed the death of Georgian-born Abu Omar al-Shishani — one of the group’s most ruthless and influential battlefield commanders — the top defense official from his country of birth hailed his killing as an important but perhaps fleeting victory in the global fight against the terrorist outfit.
“He signed his own destiny when he joined the Islamic State,” Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli told Foreign Policy in an interview. “Unfortunately, these kinds of problems don’t disappear with the killing of one guy or another. Osama bin Laden was killed a long time ago but the threat that he created and put in front of the civilized world is still there.”
Shishani, considered one of the most wanted Islamic State terrorists apart from leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, held several senior military positions within the group, including “minister of war.” The U.S. Treasury Department targeted him for sanctions in 2014 and in 2015 the State Department offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to his arrest.
Khidasheli noted that Shishani has family that remains in Georgia that may be subject to questioning. “There are relatives we need to deal with,” she said, speaking on the sidelines of her country’s annual European Way conference, .
Shishani, also known as Omar the Chechen, was a source of embarrassment for the Georgian government, a tiny Christian-majority country that has strong military ties to the United States. He is credited with a number of battlefield successes in Syria, including the capture of the Assad regime’s Menagh Air Base following two failed attempts by the Islamic State.
The U.S. Defense Department said in March that he was killed in a U.S. airstrike near northeastern Syria. At the time, the Islamic State denied the claim, but on Wednesday, the ISIS-affiliated Amaq news agency confirmed that he was killed in combat in the town of Shirqat, an area south of Mosul.
Rami Abdelrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Reuters that the Islamic State likely waited to confirm his death to buy more time to find a successor.
Born in Georgia’s restive Pankisi Gorge region in 1986, the red-bearded jihadist originally named Tarkhan Batirashvili was believed to be a highly trusted adviser of Baghdadi.
He reportedly gained fighting experience as a rebel in Chechnya before becoming a conscript in the Georgian army in 2006. He gained more battlefield expertise fighting Russians in 2008 during Moscow’s brief war with Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
The U.S. government has combatted persistent rumors that Shishani was trained by American special forces units during his time as a conscript for the Georgian army between 2006 and 2008.
Khidasheli strenuously denied those reports, noting that Georgian conscripts never come into contact with foreign military partners as a matter of policy. “That story was a complete lie,” she said.
After spending a year in jail in 2010 for weapons possession, Shishani reportedly left Georgia in 2012 for Istanbul and Syria where he eventually linked up with the Islamic State.
“More than anything else, [Shishani] legitimized ISIS in the Caucasus by the power of his exploits, which is amplified by slick ISIS propaganda,” Michael Cecire, an analyst of extremism for the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, told McClatchy last September.
After Shishani became an international figure affiliated with ISIS, the Georgian government made efforts to integrate minorities in the troubled Pankisi Gorge region, a den of smuggling and illicit activities. “After I became minister one of my top priorities was dealing with Pankisi Gorge,” Khidasheli said.
In particular, the government focused its efforts on integrating minorities, such as Chechens, and getting them involved in national service. Khidasheli said she made five trips to the region to discuss with young men about the “opportunities the military gives them,” which has resulted in 34 new military applicants from the region.
“I’m really proud that for the first time after a decade, we’ve managed to have young men from the Pankisi Gorge recruited in the army,” she said.