The Pentagon is reporting that it may have killed Abu Omar al-Shishani, a foreign fighter that the US government says served as the Islamic State's "minister of war." A Chechen militant, who may have received some training from the US Special Forces nearly a decade ago, al-Shishani emerged as one of the Islamic State's most recognizable faces over the past two years, and his death has been falsely reported by the Islamic State's enemies multiple times.
The Pentagon said on Tuesday that Shishani was "likely killed" near the Syrian town of al-Shaddadi last Friday in a strike that involved multiple hits by both manned and unmanned aircraft. Briefing reporters on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook spoke in hypotheticals, and refereed to Shishani's "potential removal from the battlefield."
Al-Shishani — whose birth name is Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili — was born in 1986 in then Soviet-era Georgia. He arrived in Syria sometime after 2012, and served as the commander of the Muhajireen Brigade, an independent jihadist group made up of foreign fighters. Though the group eventually threw in its lot with the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Shishani himself pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2013.
The Pentagon's Cook said that Shishani held "numerous top military positions" within the Islamic State, and that his death would represent a significant blow to the group.
His death has been erroneously reported a number of times over the last two years. The Kurdish militia YPG claimed it killed him in October 2014, but al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, had by then already said it had killed him, in May. Then in November the president of Russia's Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, shared a picture on Instagram that he said showed Shishani's corpse. He later retracted the claim. The next month the Islamic State put a $5 million bounty on Kadryov's head.
Al-Shishani, also known as Omar the Chechen ("al-Shishani" in Arabic), ranked among America's most wanted militants and the US has pledged a $5 million reward for any information that helps remove him from the battlefield.
He spent years fighting the Russians as an insurgent in his youth. He also did a four-year tour in the Georgian military, where he was likely trained by American special forces. An investigation by McClatchy unearthed Shishani's former commander in the Georgian military, who said he was a skilled tactician and standout in a US special forces training program. "He was a perfect soldier from his first days, and everyone knew he was a star," the commander said. "We were well trained by American special forces units, and he was the star pupil."
When contacted by VICE News, the Pentagon would not confirm or deny that Shishani received training from US Special Forces.
According to McClatchy, when the Russians invaded Georgia in 2008, Shishani put his special forces training to good use. Former Georgian soldiers recounted to McClatchy how he was able to infiltrate enemy positions and helped stage a daring ambush that wounded a high -ranking Russian commander.
Shishani was eventually discharged from the Georgian military, and arrested on a weapons possession charge. He was released in 2012, and immediately fled the country.
He emerged in Syria later that year, where he quickly made a name for himself as a skilled battlefield commander. After joining the Islamic State, he helped professionalize the group's insurgent military tactics. He also appeared in multiple propaganda spots, and worked to recruit other foreign fighters from Muslim communities in the Caucasus.
The US strike on Friday that may have killed Shishani took place near the Syrian town of al-Shaddadi, where the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of mostly Kurdish fighters, has been pushing the Islamic State back with the help of US air support.
Tuesday, several US officials told Reuters that they were optimistic that the strike against Shishani was successful, although none were prepared to declare him dead with certainty. An official in the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which has been fighting Islamic State in the al-Shadadi area, told Reuters it had received information that Shishani was killed but had no details and had been unable to confirm the death.
The strike would be one of the most successful operations to take out Islamic State's leadership in Iraq and Syria since May, when US Special Forces forces killed the man who directed the group's oil, gas and financial operations.
Reuters contributed to this report