ISIS 'defence chief' likely killed in US air strike in Syria

Last Friday's attack targeted Tarkhan Batirashvili, a Georgian who fought with ISIS in Syria under the name of Omar al-Shishani.
Last Friday's attack targeted Tarkhan Batirashvili, a Georgian who fought with ISIS in Syria under the name of Omar al-Shishani.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Omar al-Shishani on most-wanted list, death will hinder foreign recruitment efforts: US

WASHINGTON • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group's battle-tested equivalent of a defence minister is believed to have been killed in a United States air strike in north-eastern Syria, a US official said on Tuesday.

The target of the attack last Friday was Omar al-Shishani, a red-bearded Georgian fighting with the ISIS in Syria, the Pentagon said, cautioning that results of the operation were still being assessed.

A US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, later said Shishani, also known as Omar the Chechen, "likely died" in the assault, along with 12 other ISIS fighters.

Shishani is the nom de guerre of Tarkhan Batirashvili, who ranked among the most wanted terrorists under a US programme, with a US$5 million (S$6.9 million) bounty on his head.

The US stopped short of declaring him dead. The lack of a US presence on the ground makes it difficult to assess the success of operations targeting militants in Syria, and Shishani's death has been falsely reported several times.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook described Shishani as "a battle-tested leader with experience, who had led ISIL fighters in numerous engagements in Iraq and Syria", using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook described Shishani as "a battle-tested leader with experience, who had led ISIL fighters in numerous engagements in Iraq and Syria", using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

His death, if confirmed, will hinder ISIS' foreign recruitment efforts, especially from Chechnya and the Caucasus regions, and its attempts to defend its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, said the Pentagon.

The US Treasury designated him a foreign terrorist fighter in 2014, and said he maintained a "unique authority" within ISIS.

The Georgian was "the ISIL equivalent of the secretary of defence", the US official said.

In the recent assault, waves of US aircraft struck near Al-Shadadi, a town in north-eastern Syria that was retaken from ISIS last month by local anti-ISIS fighters allied with the US-led coalition.

The US official said it was "unusual and noteworthy" that Shishani had travelled from ISIS' self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa to Al-Shadadi.

"This was likely to bolster the sagging morale of (ISIS) fighters there, who have suffered a series of defeats by Syrian Democratic Forces," the official said, alluding to one of the local, US-allied fighting groups.

Shishani comes from a town in Georgia that is populated mainly by ethnic Chechens, the official said.

He fought as a Chechen rebel against Russian forces before joining the Georgian military in 2006, and fought Russian forces again in Georgia in 2008.

After being discharged from the Georgian military on health grounds, he entered Syria in 2012 and joined ISIS the next year.

Among his feats on his way to the top ranks of ISIS military operations, Shishani turned one rebel group into an effective fighting force to take on the Syrian army by "mixing Syrians who knew the terrain with the Chechens' fighting ability", the US official said.

Shishani is believed to have commanded a prison in Tabqa, near Raqqa, where foreign hostages may have been held.

He later headed ISIS military operations in northern Syria, said the US official.

According to US-based intelligence consultancy The Soufan Group, many foreign ISIS fighters hail from the former Soviet republics - in almost equal numbers as those from Western Europe.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2016, with the headline 'ISIS 'defence chief' likely killed in US air strike in Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe