Slain ISIS ‘war minister’ trained by US in Georgia?

An ISIS commander described by the Pentagon as the group's "minister of war" was announced to have been likely killed in a US air-strike in Syria on March 8. Abu Omar al-Shishani AKA "Omar the Chechen" ranked among the most-wanted militants under a US program that offered up to $5 million for information leading to his removal from the battlefield, Reuters reports. The conspiranoid website Levant Report responds to this development with the headline "ISIS Leader Omar al-Shishani Fought Under US Umbrella as Late as 2013." As is often the case with conspiranoid claims, there is a grain of truth here worthy of examination, but it hardly justifies the click-bait headline…

Levant Report links to a Sept. 16 2015 McClatchy article in the Seattle Times which profiled al-Shishani. It seems he was born Tarkhan Batirashvili in 1986, in the Pankisi Gorge—the Chechen enclave within what was then Soviet Georgia. He fought in the Chechen insurgency against Russia, but later joined the Georgian army—in that capacity again fighting against Russia in the 2008 war. Which brings us to the money quote. "We trained him well, and we had lots of help from America," one (anonymous, of course) former Georgian defense official is quoted by McClatchy. "In fact, the only reason he didn't go to Iraq to fight alongside America was that we needed his skills here in Georgia."

Let's assume this is true. It isn't verifiable, but neither is it implausible. Does it, or al-Shishani's subsequent career, justify the claim that he "fought under the US umbrella as late as 2013"? Nope. McClatchy tells us Georgian military records show that he was discharged, ostensibly for medical reasons, in 2010. He seems to have arrived in Syria in 2012, and before winding up in ISIS fought in the Jaysh al-Muhajireen. As we've noted, this was a militia of jihadist volunteers from the Caucasus, which last year formally allied with the Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front. So it is a bit of a stretch (at best) to assume it was under any US "umbrella." Shishani is named as having led the force that captured northern Syria's Menagh air base in 2013—the same year he signed up with ISIS, leaving it ambiguous whether he undertook this mission for the Islamic State or Jaysh al-Muhajireen. Levant Report also links to an Aug. 8, 2013 New York Times story suggesting it was a joint operation involving fighters from both groups, which was applauded by Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, named as "the head of the United States-backed opposition's Aleppo military council." Levant Report next links to an Aug. 13, 2015 McClatchy story in which former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford boasts of having chewed out al-Okaidi (rendered there as Oqaidi) over his collaboration with jihadis. Seems to us, any objective reading of this compels the conclusion that the US was trying to keep jihadis out of its "umbrella," amid a murky battlefield situation.

As conspiranoids go, Levant Report aren't the worst offendors. (E.g., nothing readily apparent on their website about 9-11, thank goodness.) But they run much material embarrassingly friendly to the Assad dicatorship, and they are obviously touting these claims about al-Shishani to fuel the notion that the US (or Israel) has been behind the rise of ISIS—dismissed as a "fairy tale" by secular and progressive supporters of the Syrian revolution.

As we've stated before, the conspiranoids get credit for catching such nuggets and bringing them to light before they slip down the Orwellian memory hole. But they can rarely resist the lure of distorting the facts to fit their a priori conclusions. We noted similar distortions when it came to light last year that another ISIS commander, Gulmurod Khalimov, was trained by Blackwater in Tajikistan.

And, once again, a case can be made that it is the West's failure to meaningfully support the rebels that has led to the disaster in Syria. The betrayal of Syria's secular opposition by the entire world is exactly what led to the emergence of ISIS. The jihadists, with their own arms networks, filled the vacuum. Those who argued against support for the Syrian opposition because they were jihadists engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy. And not always unwittingly.

  1. Omar the Chechen dead —again

    Omar al-Shishani, a top ISIS commander, has been killed in Iraq, according to Amaq News Agency, the ISIS media arm. The statement did not specify when Shishani was killed, so it is uncertain if this is just a belated acknowledgement of the March air-strike. (Al Jazeera)