McClatchy reports: The 15 Chechens looking to cross the border from Turkey to Syria didn’t strike Abdullah as particularly important or unusual.
It was early summer in 2012, and as a smuggler based in the Turkish border town of Killis, Abdullah, who’d fled his home village in Syria because of fighting on the outskirts of Aleppo, was used to secretive groups of foreigners – journalists, aid workers and many recently aspiring jihadists – hiring him to cross Turkish military lines at the border while avoiding what was then still a significant Syrian government presence in northern Syrian.
“In 2012, everyone was coming to Syria and we had too much work leading all kinds of people across the border,” he explained over lunch in Killis, a Turkish town just a few miles from the rebel-held Syrian city of Azzaz. “A lot were Muslims who had come to support the revolution against Bashar Assad from every country. So many from Europe, Russia, Germany, France. . . .”
The 15 men had reached Abdullah through a network of contacts that were funneling new fighters to northern Syria, and Abdullah recalled they said they were going to Syria to assist in the fight against Assad. They were quiet, disciplined and for the most part spoke only a bit of crude formal Arabic.
Only later did Abdullah realize that the network that funneled these men to him was the beginnings of the Islamic State, and that one of the 15 would turn out to be the most important non-Arab figure in the Islamic State hierarchy, a former American-trained noncommissioned officer in the special forces of the nation of Georgia, who’d led his men heroically during the 2008 Russian invasion of his homeland.
Abu Omar al Shishani, as he’s now known, had been born Tarkhan Batirashvili 27 years earlier in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, a tiny enclave of ethnic Chechens, known locally as Kists, whose roughly 10,000 residents represent virtually all of the Muslims in predominantly Orthodox Christian Georgia.
But analysts of extremist groups said Batirashvili’s impact has been far greater than the small numbers of Muslims in Georgia would suggest. Since he swore allegiance to the Islamic State in 2013, thousands of Muslims from the Caucasus have flocked to Syria to join the extremist cause. [Continue reading…]