As militants from the so-called Islamic State (IS) advance across Syria and Iraq, the battlefield exploits of a 28-year-old field commander known as Omar al-Shishani—“Omar the Chechen”—have become a prominent narrative in the conflict. Born Tarkhan Batirashvili, the IS fighter is increasingly credited by observers as a superlative tactician who has overcome the group’s disadvantages in size and equipment to score a string of recent victories in Iraq.
Batirashvili is an unlikely war hero for the radical Islamist brigades. Only a few years ago, after serving as a sergeant in the Georgian army during the 2008 war with Russia, Batirashvili was wasting away in a Georgian prison on illegal gun charges that his father claims were trumped up by the government.
But imprisonment proved a transformative and radicalizing experience for Batirashvili, who left for Turkey—and then Syria—after his release. In Syria, Batirashvili quickly rose through ranks of the rebel jihadis and made a name for himself as a capable fighter and effective commander of an Islamist faction of Chechen and other Russian-speaking foreign fighters known as Jaish al Mujahireen wal Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Supporters, or JMA). His fame only grew after defecting to IS in late 2013.