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Middle East

Iraq crisis: Umar al-Shishani - the face at the forefront of the new terror wears a chilling smile

Diplomatic channels: Umar al-Shishani describes the US as ‘enemies of Allah and enemies of Islam’

The photograph circulating on social media is of a man with a striking long, red beard, dressed in a simple robe and prayer cap, emerging smiling from a vehicle.

The picture is of Umar al-Shishani, one of the most feared commanders of Isis, the Sunni militia that had stormed through a swathe of Iraq, spreading alarm through the international community; he had been test-driving a captured American-supplied Humvee, abandoned by fleeing government troops in Mosul.

Shishani is an ethnic Chechen, a leader among the fighters from abroad who had flocked to join the jihad against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and who are now the shock troops of the insurgency across the border. After a period of absence, foreign Islamists, often fanatical, who had played an important and bloody role in the savage war that followed the US-led invasion, are once again back in Iraq.

Some of those foreign fighters had left Iraq to fight on other front lines, others were eased out by Isis’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), as their presence became increasingly unpopular in the community, a factor that helped the US organise the tribes in the “Sunni Awakening” against the insurgency alongside the American military “surge” under General David Petraeus.

Warning: This video contains footage some viewers may find distressing

All that has changed: the “martyrdom” message board of Isis on the internet lists 202 foreign fighters killed in Iraq. The dead came from the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, the Caucasus, the Balkans, the US, Canada and Western Europe. The numbers do not yet include those killed this year.

British Muslim deaths, until the current offensive, have been confined to Syria; the dead Western jihadists in Iraq have been from France, Denmark, Canada and Norway, eight in all. Others killed include 57 Tunisians, 38 Saudis, 27 Moroccans, and 10 Libyans. Most of the fatalities were in Anbar, where Isis has set up base in the city of Fallujah, with 56, northern Baghdad province with 51, Diyala 41, and Nineveh 29, the last figure bound to rise from the battle for Mosul.


The Chechens only joined the Iraq expedition in numbers during the current Islamist “surge” although, it is believed, they had played a key role in drawing up operational plans. Many of them, along with volunteers from neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia, had previous military experience which helped them move into lead roles in combat missions. Shishani is said to be staying inside Syria, going across the porous border when necessary, because he believes that he may be targeted in American air strikes, or by the Iranians on the behest of the Kremlin. There is an unverified claim that he had been shot by a Kurdish peshmerga sniper near Kirkuk.

US intelligence put the total of foreign fighters in Syria at around 17,000; other figures vary between 14,000 and 20,000. The local population, I found during my visits to opposition-held parts of the country, differentiate between the characteristics of the nationalities – the Libyans were viewed as the friendliest, the Saudis the most pious, the Pakistanis the most spiteful, the Chechens the toughest and the most implacable.

Shishani, who was born with the name Tarkhan Batirasvili in Georgia, was pointed out to me at a town on the outskirts of Aleppo last autumn. At the time he was basking in the approbation over Menagh airbase which the Free Syrian Army had sought to take, but failed, for months. The coming of the Chechens was followed by the base being stormed.

Shishani had initially formed his own group, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) with around 3,000 men under arms from the north Caucasus, Crimea and Ukraine, as well as a small group of Arabs. He later pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of Isis, and was appointed the head of the group’s “special unit” as well as commander of the northern region.

The presence of the foreign fighters in Iraq is likely to have an impact on the relationship between Isis and al-Qa’ida, which is already fractious. Some of the most direct criticism of al-Qa’ida had come from the Chechens; this, in turn, had led to verbal attacks on them by fellow jihadists. Shishani has been the subject of online postings pointing out that he is of “tainted” mixed Christian and Muslim descent and also that he served in the Georgian army where he was trained by the Americans. No evidence has been produced for the latter.

Shishani insists that his motivation was a hatred of Russia and thus the desire to fight against its ally, President Assad. But, in an interview with a jihadist website, he also described America as “enemies of Allah and enemies of Islam” who must be confronted.

States neighbouring Syria and beyond had sought to influence and manipulate foreign volunteers on either side of the civil war. But, as the conflict has spread across borders, the more tenuous those controls have become. The international brigade of jihadists is now a force of significance, their destructive power adding to the turbulence in the region and with ominous signs of some, especially those from the West, taking the war home.