How a Chechen from Georgia became a feared leader of ISIS

Marcin Mamon writes: “Christ is risen, Christ is risen!” says Temur Batirashvili, father of one of the most notorious leaders of the Islamic State.

Temur welcomes me into his modest house with the phrase that is a common greeting among Eastern Orthodox Christians. Then he takes a drink from a glass of homemade Georgian wine.

“Truly, He is risen,” he continues. “Truly …”

Temur Batirashvili is a Christian, like his ancestors. He has three sons, all of whom converted to Islam, against their father’s wishes. Temur blames himself; when the children grew up he was rarely at home, traveling for work all over Russia. He had to support his family. The children’s mother, an ethnic Chechen Muslim whose family immigrated to Georgia hundreds of years ago, raised the couple’s sons mostly on her own.

“I never thought that my son …” Temur starts, then grows silent and takes a drag from a cigarette. He chains smokes one after another.

Today, Temur lives alone and in poverty in a village hidden from the world in the Pankisi Gorge, located in northeastern Georgia near the border with Chechnya. The Pankisi Gorge is a bucolic valley of shepherds and picturesque mountains. But in recent years, it became better known internationally as a safe haven for Chechen fighters, and now as a recruiting ground for the Islamic State. It’s estimated that dozens of the valley’s youth have left for Syria, and some of the group’s most famous commanders, including Temur’s son, have come from here.

Temur Batirashvili’s 29-year-old son, Tarkhan, better known by his nom de guerre, Omar al Shishani, is one of the most wanted jihadis in the world. His father calls him the minister of war of the Islamic State, and in 2014, the U.S. Treasury Department labeled him a “specially designated global terrorist.” In May 2015, the State Department announced a reward of up to $5 million for information on Tarkhan, who was listed as, among other things, overseeing a prison that possibly held foreign hostages.

Sometimes Temur sees his son on television, in news programs about massacres, executions and beheadings — all of the barbarity associated with the Islamic State. Despite the news, Temur tells himself that his son isn’t capable of killing, because he was always so sensitive to the suffering of others, so merciful. “It was not him, only people under his command are responsible for this evil,” he says.

But Temur is at a loss then to explain how his gentle son got involved with a group that is perhaps best known for its slickly produced videos depicting decapitations and other gruesome executions. “I never got involved in my children’s personal affairs, because they weren’t thieves, hobos or junkies,” he says. “They were good people, very serious, normal people.”

Tarkhan’s story, it turns out, is hardly unique in the region. He joins a growing list of recruits from Georgia who have risen up the ranks of jihadi organizations fighting in Syria, including the Islamic State. Other well-known names from Pankisi include Murad Margoshvili, Fayzullah Margoshvili and Ruslan Machalikashvili.

All have taken the pseudonym “al Shishani,” or “the Chechen,” even though they are ethnic Kists from Georgia, a distant relative of the Chechens from the Northern Caucasus. A Chechen on jihad sounds proud. Individually or by group affiliation, all have been included on the State Department’s list of specially designated global terrorists, and have had great influence on the fate of the war in Syria. Within that narrative, Tarkhan’s path from a mixed Muslim-Orthodox Christian union in Georgia to the front lines of Syria is a larger story about the tremendous inroads the Islamic State has made in recruiting around the world. [Continue reading…]

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