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The Pentagon Says the Islamic State's 'Minister of War' Is Dead — For Real This Time

A week after the Pentagon said it had likely killed Omar al-Shishani, officials are confirming that the Islamic State commander is indeed dead.
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Two senior Pentagon officials are promising that Omar al-Shishani, an Islamic State operative who once served as its "minister of war," has been killed. Last week, the Pentagon said that Shishani had been "likely killed" near the Syrian town of al-Shaddadi in a massive US airstrike — but days later, Shishani was reported to be alive.

Two days after the strike, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights cited sources in Syria who claimed Shishani had managed to survive. Rami Abdulrahman, the Observatory's director, told Reuters that the Islamic State operative was seriously wounded and struggling to breathe on his own. "He did not die," he said, adding that Shishani had been moved to the Islamic State's capital of Raqqa for treatment.


After last week's strike, the Pentagon was cautious not to sound too certain about Shishani's fate, in case "Omar the Chechen" — that's what his nom de guerre means in Arabic — managed once again to reappear alive after reports of his demise.

The Islamic State-linked media outlet Amaq reported on Tuesday that the commander was totally fine. It quoted internal Islamic State sources as saying that he "had not been exposed to any injury."

Briefing reporters on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook spoke in hypotheticals, and refereed to Shishani's "potential removal from the battlefield." But on Monday, two senior Pentagon officials told CNN that Shishani had succumbed to his injuries, though they would not specify how they knew he was dead.

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.


Shishani 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 last week, 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 against 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. On Monday, the two senior Pentagon officials told CNN that Shishani was involved in a "shura," or meeting with other Islamic State officials at the time of the attack. The US was not planning to attack the shura, but decided to call in the strike when intelligence reports indicated Shishani was present. After the attack, a Pentagon official said, Shishani's communications went dark.