The death of DAESH's Shishani may disrupt its operations, a senior U.S. military officer said yesterday, and an Iraqi security expert said it could damage DAESH's important recruitment efforts in ex-Soviet republics.
Abu Omar al-Shishani (the Chechen), a close military adviser to DAESH leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in combat in the Iraqi district of Shirqat, south of Mosul, Amaq, a news agency that supports DAESH, said on Wednesday.
It was the first confirmation of Shishani's death, which the Pentagon said in March had probably occurred as a result of a U.S. air strike in eastern Syria.
The commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling DAESH, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, expressed confidence in the intelligence that led to the recent strike on Shishani in the Tigris River valley where Shirqat is located, but declined on Thursday to declare him dead.
There was no immediate word from DAESH about who would take over for the ginger-bearded extremist who held as many as three senior posts and was a strong force for recruitment from Russia's mainly Muslim North Caucasus region and Central Asia.
"(DAESH) lost something important: the charisma that he had to inspire and seduce people from Chechnya, the Caucasus and Azerbaijan - the former Soviet republics," Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises Iraq's government on extremist armed groups, said.
Asked about the potential impact, MacFarland said it could disrupt DAESH operations if Shishani were indeed dead. "They would have to figure out who's going to pick up his portfolio," he said.
Shishani was one of only a few extremist leaders with a professional military background and had several hundred fighters, mostly from ex-Soviet republics, under his command when he came to prominence in a 2013 battle against Syria's Bashar al-Assad's forces in northern Syria.
His role in the capture of Menagh air base, which since has been ceded to regional Kurdish forces, was one of the first big victories by Russian-speaking militants in DAESH's rapid capture of large swathes of territory in Syria's civil war. Hashimi said it was not clear who DAESH would choose to replace Shishani, but it was likely to be someone with a similar ethnic background.
According to photographs circulated online, road signs erected in areas controlled by DAESH are sometimes written in three languages - Arabic, English, and Russian - testifying to the important role of Russian speakers.
In many cases these rebels have been influenced by insurgencies at home, pushed out of their own countries by security crackdowns, and won advancement in DAESH through their military skills and ruthlessness.
In June, a Russian official said up to 10,000 militants from ex-Soviet republics were fighting in the ranks of extremist groups in the Middle East.
Shishani's group grew to about 1,000 fighters by the end of 2013, according to a notice issued by the U.S. government, which offered up to $5 million for any information that would help to track him down. Shishani also may have helped DAESH seize the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, the victory which established the group as the most potent extremist security threat in the Middle East.
The suspected attackers in last month's attack on Istanbul airport had ties to DAESH and were from Russia and the formerly Soviet Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Turkish officials say.
About the author
Research Associate at Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University