What the death of Omar Al-Shishani could mean for the war against ISIS

The news comes as ISIS appears to be losing territory in Syria and Iraq.

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A file image made from undated video frequently used for communications by the self-styled Islamic State militant group shows Omar Al-Shishani standing among IS fighters as they declare the elimination of the border between Iraq and Syria.

A news agency affiliated with the so-called Islamic State militant group has confirmed the death of the group’s “minister of war,” Tarkhan Batirashvili – known by nom de guerre Omar Al-Shishani, or Omar the Chechen – saying the key leader had been killed in combat in the Iraqi town of Shirqat, south of Mosul.

The report, published on the website of the Amaq news agency the Islamic State fighters frequently use for announcements, conflicts with a March claim from the Pentagon that Mr. Al-Shishani had died in a US airstrike in Syria. Neither the United States nor IS have provided further details as to when his death may have occurred. 

Appearing unmasked and red-bearded in propaganda videos, Al-Shishani was one of the group’s most distinctive faces, and perhaps one of its most important recruitment tools – particularly for non-Arab Muslims attracted to his image as a prototypically fierce Chechnyan fighter. Rumors of his death frequently swirled around him. And for the US, he was one of the most wanted jihadist figures, a fact that no doubt increased his stature among supporters. In 2014, the State Department placed him on a list of “specially designated global terrorists” subject to financial sanctions, and a year later they announced a bounty of $5 million for information.

Amaq’s report of Al-Shishani’s death comes as American officials say an influx of US troops on the ground and stepped-up air strikes has swung momentum in the military campaign against ISIS in favor of the US. By some estimates, as many as 6,000 American troops will be present in Iraq once the Pentagon deploys 560 additional troops in coming days.

And as IS loses territory, it could threaten the cohesion of its leadership, says William McCants, a scholar of militant Islamism and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. 

“There’s been a steady drumbeat of senior ISIS leaders killed over the past few months, which means the [US-led] coalition’s intelligence is getting better and better,” Dr. McCants told The Christian Science Monitor in an email. “That’s going to increase paranoia among the senior leaders that remain and increase the likelihood of infighting and factionalism.”

It might also mean that IS is rethinking its strategy. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that the group had begun to prepare for the loss of its territorial sanctuary, with one longtime operative telling the Post that members were advising potential recruits to launch terror attacks at home rather than journeying to Iraq or Syria. 

“You’re not an ‘Islamic state’ if you don’t control territory,” says David Schenker, a former Pentagon official and current director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Mr. Schenker says the recent spate of ISIS-affiliated massacres in Bangladesh, Baghdad, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey were emblematic of the group’s retreat from territory. “They’re putting emphasis on other locales and going after the West, outside of their core and outside their state.”

The death of Al-Shishani, adds Mr. Schenker, was a “highly symbolic” loss.

“He was a poster child for the Islamic State,” he says.

Born in 1986 to a Kist Chechnyan mother, Al-Shishani grew up in a village in eastern Georgia, close to the Chechnyan border. After graduating from high school, he joined the Georgian Intelligence Service, working behind enemy lines during the short-lived 2008 war with Russia, according to a 2015 profile by the Intercept. But he was dismissed from his unit following a bout of tuberculosis, and not long after his return to his village of Pankisi, he was sentenced to two years in prison for weapons smuggling.

That time in prison transformed him, partly through contact with a Saudi inmate who had a thick Rolodex of contacts among global jihadists, and upon his release in 2012, Al-Shishani left Georgia to join the fight against the Syrian government. In September of that year, the Guardian described him as the leader of a unit of foreign jihadists. That unit would later pledge allegiance to the Islamic State's top leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and by mid-2014, Al-Shishani had ascended to the senior command in that group.

His leadership in operations that captured Iraq’s Anbar province and parts of eastern Syria are said to have helped Al-Baghdadi declare his caliphate in June 2014.

The timing of the announcement may reflect murky deliberations on the part of IS's press wing. In confirming the Pentagon's March report of Al-Shishani's death, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights spoke with his doctor, the Guardian noted on Wednesday.

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