A young, red-bearded ethnic Chechen has rapidly become one of the most prominent commanders in the breakaway al-Qaida group that has overrun swaths of Iraq and Syria, illustrating the international nature of the movement.
Omar al-Shishani, one of hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, has emerged as the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, appearing frequently in its online videos _ in contrast to the group’s Iraqi leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdad, who remains deep in hiding and has hardly ever been photographed.
In a video released by the group over the weekend, al-Shishani is shown standing next to the group’s spokesman among a group of fighters as they declare the elimination of the border between Iraq and Syria. The video was released just hours before the extremist group announced the creation of a caliphate _ or Islamic state _ in the areas it controls.
“Our aim is clear and everyone knows why we are fighting. Our path is toward the caliphate,” the 28-year-old al-Shishani declares. “We will bring back the caliphate, and if God does not make it our fate to restore the caliphate, then we ask him to grant us martyrdom.” The video is consistent with other Associated Press reporting on al-Shishani.
Al-Shishani has been the group’s military commander in Syria, leading it on an offensive to take over a broad stretch of territory leading to the Iraq border. But he may have risen to become the group’s overall military chief, a post that has been vacant after the Iraqi militant who once held it _ known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari _ was killed in the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June. The video identified al-Shishani as “the military commander” without specifying its Syria branch, suggesting he had been elevated to overall commander, though the group has not formally announced such a promotion.
As the militant group’s operations in Iraq and Syria grow “more and more inter-dependent by the day, it is more than possible that someone like (al-Shishani) could assume overall military leadership,” said Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow with the Brookings Doha Center.
The extremist group began as al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, and many of its top leaders are Iraqi. But after it intervened in Syria’s civil war last year, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its operations in Syria. Now with victories on the two sides of the border, the two branches are swapping fighters, equipment and weapons to an even greater extent than before, becoming a more integrated organization. Its declaration of the caliphate _ aspiring to be a state for all Muslims _ could mean an even greater internationalization of its ranks.
Alexei Malashenko, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment’s continued…