The elderly father of the Georgia-born, ISIS senior commander known as Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen) says that he has no firsthand information about his son’s reported death in Syria after a March 4 US airstrike.
“Nothing. I don’t know anything,” Temur Batirashvili told a Rustavi2 correspondent who visited al-Shishani’s native village, Birkani, in the Pankisi Gorge, about a 45-minute drive outside of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. “I just came out of the house to see if perhaps someone knows something. . . This information will be a lie.”
Batirashvili added that he had not heard from his son, born Tarkhan Batirashvili, “in a long time.”
His neighbors, a primary source of information in Georgia, also know nothing, he added in a separate interview with PalitraTV on March 9. Compatriots of slain ISIS militants from the Caucasus reportedly often are the ones to relay news of their deaths to family members back home.
“God grant that he’s alive,” Batirashvili mumbled, looking down at the ground.
Omar al-Shishani's death has been reported multiple times, but never confirmed.
On March 9, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which regularly monitors the fighting in Syria, told AFP that the US airstrike badly wounded the ISIS commander, but did not kill him. Its director, Rami Abdel Rahman, cited unnamed sources for the information.
As yet, the Georgian government appears to have no additional information about the status of ISIS’s so-called minister of war. Georgian Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli on Wednesday told reporters that she had received information from the Pentagon in the morning about Batirashvili, but stressed to reporters that, for now, his death is only assumed.
“So far, exact information does not exist,” she said.
Little doubt exists, though, that in a society where ties between family and friends run strong, the end of Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen) would be a relief for Georgian law enforcement. Conservative Islamic influences have strengthened in Pankisi over the past few years, with officials debating how best to prevent the trend from turning into more recruits for ISIS, also known as ISIL.
The exact number of Pankisi residents who have left for Syria is unknown, but locals in 2014 estimated it at “50-60” – a range still used in current Western press reports. Muslim residents from other parts of Georgia – particularly, the Black Sea region of Achara and the southeastern area of Kvemo Kartli, home to a large ethnic Azeri population -- have joined the trend. Overall, 13 Georgian citizens are estimated to have died in Syria.
In a bid to strengthen locals’ identification with Georgian interests, Khidasheli herself has traveled to the Pankisi Gorge, where unemployment runs high, to talk to young men about joining the army, and promised to look into using local women’s felt crafts as official state gifts.
Aside from an army-recruitment campaign for Muslim Georgians, the defense ministry recently also opened the Georgian army’s first Islamic house of prayer. Two others are in the works, RFE/RL reported.
Law enforcement, meanwhile, over the past year has stepped up a campaign to arrest those in Pankisi suspected of helping ISIS recruit fighters.
Omar al-Shishani’s cousin, Merab Batirashvili, was picked up last June, but does not appear yet to have been sentenced.
On March 7, a former Pankisi-village iman, Aiyup Borchashvili, was given 14 years in prison for allegedly recruiting high-school students for ISIS. He has denied the charges. Three other men were sentenced with him to prison terms of one to 11 years.
Georgian interior ministry officials so far have refrained from commenting in detail about any link between Omar al-Shishani and such recruitment activities. The Pentagon, however, was plain. The ISIS commander's death “would negatively impact ISIL's ability to recruit foreign fighters - especially those from Chechnya and the Caucusus regions . . . “ said spokesperson Peter Cook on March 8.