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How did the Georgian-born Chechen Omar al-Shishani, killed in Iraq this month, come to be one of Daesh’s key commanders in the ‘caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq? By John Martinkus.

How Chechens became key Daesh fighters

Just over two weeks ago, Daesh announced the death of one of their most senior commanders. Omar al-Shishani, otherwise known as “Omar the Chechen”, had a $US5 million bounty on his head. The Americans had announced his death on March 9 following an air strike in Syria but, although he had apparently been badly wounded then, he went on to die fighting near Mosul in July. Who was he and why was his death so important?

Al-Shishani had risen to the rank of Daesh’s minister of defence. He personally commanded more than 1000 Chechen troops, and was the senior military adviser to Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But what was this Georgian-born Chechen doing fighting Bashar al-Assad, the Americans, the Iraqis, the Russians, the Kurds and the Yazidis, in Syria and Iraq? Who were these Chechen fighters he commanded and how did they end up in Syria? It is both fascinating and frightening to follow the trajectory of these men and what they have become in the service of Daesh.

I first encountered these Chechens in Sadr City in 2004. They were like ghosts, urban myths. I was with the United States 1st Cavalry at their besieged outpost in the Shiite area of Baghdad when shots rang out as I went up on the roof to film the sunset. “Get down,” yelled a Hispanic US sergeant, “that is the Chechen sniper.”

My next encounter was in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, as the US 82nd Airborne Division fought insurgents through villages and palm groves as part of George W. Bush’s surge in the blistering northern summer of 2007. The unit talked about the Chechen bomb-makers planting new deeply buried improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They were designed to counter the increased armour the Americans were employing. Humvees had so much armour attached to them they would get bogged or their gearboxes would break. Larger armoured vehicles such as the eight-wheeled Stryker would be destroyed by the massive explosions. As the Americans put more armour on their vehicles, these Chechens just lashed more shells together.

When I arrived at the US base in Diyala there was a pile of gear in the corner of the press room: body armour, bags full of clothes and cameras, and a photo of a young pale-faced guy in an oversized black helmet. The image was of Dmitry Chebotayev, a Russian photographer working for Newsweek, who had been killed a few weeks before when heading out for a patrol from the same press office. The Stryker he was travelling in was destroyed by a huge IED, killing everyone on board. Again, the Americans blamed the mysterious Chechen bomb-maker.

I didn’t really buy it. I thought the whole Chechen thing was a bit of a myth, but it persisted. The following year, 2008, I was at a freezing cold US outpost on the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. The US soldiers were showing me the snow hole they slept in. They were laughing and joking – they didn’t get many visitors out there, especially at that time of year, when temperatures dropped to minus 30 degrees in the open. The soldiers started talking about how they had caught a “Chechen”. Apparently the guy was over six foot tall with a red beard. He had been trying to cross the border from Pakistan in a taxi wearing a full-length burqa to pass as a woman. I asked them his name or what had happened to him, but they were vague and said it was classified. Yeah, yeah, I thought, more freaked-out young US soldiers scaring themselves with the great big Chechen bogeyman.

But they weren’t wrong. The urban myth was real. There were ethnic Russian Muslims fighting alongside the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan as the US military threw all it had at conflicts from 2007-09. They were basically part of a stateless army of men who had grown up through the First Chechen War of 1994-96, when they had been crushed by the Russian military. Cities were left in ruins by artillery barrages that rivalled the ferocity of World War II. The capital, Grozny, was destroyed to such an extent it resembled the ruins of Stalingrad. Thousands were killed. The Chechen independence movement was temporarily smashed.

In 1994, as the conflict in Chechnya started, I was studying Russian in Moscow. The place was depressed. The currency was down, pensions were worth nothing, and the people were angry and blamed the West for the dismemberment of their empire. Nationalist politicians such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his loyal skinheads were becoming increasingly popular. Food was expensive. Jobs were vanishing. Everything was in flux. Meanwhile, the nascent separatist conflict in Chechnya was seen as the last straw in the series of secessions from the newly formed Russian Federation, reflecting the growing humiliation of Russia. When the conflict in Chechnya began, the Russians hit hard. Enough was enough. I remember the rhetoric. Media that were either progressive or sympathetic to the West painted the conflict as a grand struggle against the oppressive Russian state by the brave ethnic Muslims of the North Caucasus; the Russian media portrayed it as a rebellion that must be crushed. And so the Russians crushed it.

By brutally halting that first attempt at separatist rebellion the mostly conscripted, corrupt and demoralised Russian army sowed the seeds of the Second Chechen War, which began to develop an Islamist strand as it re-erupted about 1999. Some of the people, Muslims of Chechnya, began to emphasise an Islamist identity. The irony was that the West generally had been sympathetic to their cause of independence from Moscow and condemned the heavy-handed Russian military response. They were seen as freedom fighters not terrorists, and the human rights abuses against them were widely documented and condemned in the Western media. Journalists such as Carlotta Gall of The New York Times and later the Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya wrote extensively on the atrocities and injustices carried out by Russian troops in books and articles that were widely applauded.

Then came 9/11 and the Russians were able to paint their war in Chechnya as linked to the fight against Islamic terrorism. As the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan unfolded, the Russians savagely cracked down in Chechnya. Human rights abuses by the Russians were now a barely covered footnote. The Chechens, some of them, became more cornered and radicalised, resorting to extreme measures to try to hit back against the Russians. In September 2004, the horrific siege and subsequent massacre of schoolchildren and hostages in the North Ossetian city of Beslan revealed the brutality of both the rebels and the Russian response. Time magazine photographer Yuri Kozyrev covered it and spoke to me afterwards, back in Baghdad in October. “It was just horrible. Everybody – rebels, children, the military – everybody died.”

Kozyrev and I talked about the Chechens. We had an idea to follow the Chechen militants as they walked and drove overland to join the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He assured me they were doing it through Turkey and that with the right contacts it was possible. That was in 2004. The situation in Chechnya deteriorated under the Russians. Human rights abuses continued under Vladimir Putin and his proxy president in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who only three weeks ago called for Turkey to extradite Chechen independence leaders from exile. Anna Politkovskaya, a vocal critic of Putin and Kadyrov and a principal documenter of abuses by the Russian military in Chechnya, was murdered by contract killers in the lift of her apartment building in Moscow in 2006.

For the young Chechen men, Muslims, living in a Russian-dominated society and surrounded by brutality, the choice is to leave. And where do they go? At the moment it is to Syria to repeat the generational cycle of fighting demanded by their culture.

I’ve seen this before in Aceh, in East Timor, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Twenty years is normally the time it takes for an upsurge in violence by the next generation avenging their fathers and uncles. “Omar the Chechen” was only born in 1986, according to accounts. He has been mourned in his home village in Georgia and is most certainly dead, but the generational revenge will keep coming for many years. There are no doubt plenty more like him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 30, 2016 as "Foreign lesion". Subscribe here.

John Martinkus
is a foreign correspondent and author.