Abu Omar al Shishani is considered to be the most important non-Arab figure in the Islamic State hierarchy. Al Shishani, who was born Tarkhan Batirashvili, is a Georgia native from an area known as the Pankisi Valley.
Before swearing his allegiance to ISIS, Tarkhan Batirashvili was an American-trained noncommissioned officer in the Special Forces unit of the nation of Georgia, where he defended against Russia’s invasion in 2008.
In 2013, Tarkhan Batirashvili and 14 men crossed the Syrian border and pledged their allegiance to ISIS. Since he became a member of the group, thousands of Muslims from the Caucasus, a region at the border of Europe and Asia, have flocked to Syria to join his cause.
“More than anything else, Batirashvili has legitimized ISIS in the Caucasus by the power of his exploits, which is amplified by slick ISIS propaganda,” said Michael Cecire, an analyst of extremism for the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Cecire also added that Batirashvili’s battlefield successes, which include orchestrating the capture of Syria’s Menagh Air Base after two years of failed attempts, has helped to legitimize ISIS in militant circles.
“Batirashvili’s ability to demonstrate ISIS’ tactical prowess attracted fighters in droves from other factions and tipped the scales in foreign fighter flow and recruitment,” Cecire said.
Today, Batirashvili is reportedly a member of the ISIS governing council as well as the Islamic State’s supreme military leader in northern Syria and Aleppo. Batirashvili is also the most fearsome ground commander ISIS has.
“We trained him well, and we had lots of help from America,” said a former Georgian defense official who didn’t want to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the topic. “In fact, the only reason he didn’t go to Iraq to fight alongside America was that we needed his skills here in Georgia.”
The Miami Herald reports that even before the war between Georgia and Russia in 2008, Batirashvili already had a reputation for fighting Russians. Batirashvili’s father told local journalists that his son was a rebel fighter in Chechnya before joining the Georgian military at age 20.
When he joined the Georgian military, Batirashvili was quickly tapped to join Georgia’s U.S. trained Special Forces. A member of his unit who wished to remain anonymous said, “He was a perfect soldier from his first days, and everyone knew he was a star.” The soldier also added that “We were well trained by American Special Forces units, and he was the star pupil.”