Another rumor emerged a couple of days about the man who is allegedly overseeing ISIS in Iraq. According to an unconfirmed report, the Chechen known as Abu Omar al-Shishani (aka Tarkhan Batirashvili) had been ordered to Kobane in Syria. Whether Shishani ends up in Kobane remains to be seen, but people are certainly interested in this mysterious man and his origins.
By my count, no fewer than four different English-language journalists have gone to Pankisi in the last month or so. I have recounted and discussed the results of one journalist’s report on Pankisi that was published earlier this month here. Now, The Daily Beast has another article about the Pankisi fighters who are ISIS masterminds.
Frankly, the article reads like a Tom Clancy novel. It is hyperbolic and romantic, featuring a “mother of martyrs” and a young Chechen woman who “With big brown eyes, long lashes, and voluptuous features, she was once one of Chechnya’s most desired brides.”
There are just too many holes in this story for it to be believable, and it brings up more questions than it answers.
How likely is it that a 19-year-old girl living a privileged life in Ramzan Kadyrov’s Grozny is going to go searching for a Muslim fighter on the Internet? And why is there never any question of the veracity of the narrative of either parent?
The 19-year-old girl from Chechnya, Seda, is almost certainly a real person, anyway. Her story first came to prominence in November 2013, when Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov announced on his Instagram that he was sacking the chief of the local Federal Migration Service.
The bureaucrat Dudurkaev had held his position for more than 10 years at that point (longer than Kadyrov had been in power himself). In his note, Kadyrov first mentioned corruption in Dudarkaev’s office, a complaint that had dogged Dudurkaev for years (see this Memorial report from 2006). Kadyrov then launched into a scathing diatribe about Dudurkaev’s inability to control his own daughter, who had run off to Syria [text translated by Joanna Paraszczuk].
“Moreover, Dudurkaev, as the leader of one of the most important structures, has no moral right to speak with subordinates about morality and patriotism and religion. His own daughter is in the ranks of the Wahhabis and bandits, who are shedding the blood of civilians, and blowing up Islamic shrines in Syria.”
A month later, Russia’s LifeNews published another account of the story of Dudurkaev’s runaway daughter. In this version, Seda had met an unnamed boy and been communicating with him for over a year. It is unclear if they ever met in real life, or had been conducting their relationship solely online. In May of 2013, Seda had gone to Turkey with a friend, and run away to meet her “love” in Syria from there. She refused to return home even after she had been tracked down, saying that she was “married according to the Muslim tradition”. However, the article made no mention of whom she had married, nor of any connection to Pankisi.
Meanwhile, Tarkhan’s father’s interview most recent is also given to melodrama. No parent wants to say that their child is a mediocrity. A child’s actions reflect on the parent regardless of culture. Of course, a parent wants to make their child sound clever and powerful, and so on. As time has gone on, Tarkhan has gotten a bit more important, and a bit more skilled, until this interview when he is suddenly portrayed by his father as a victim of an older, more experienced brother.
In a BBC interview published this past summer, Umar’s father barely mentioned his middle son, Tamaz. And then only in passing. A casual mention of the fact that Tamaz had fought in Chechnya for two years. And another when he says all three of his sons are “Wahabbi”. In the summer interview, Temur is acting on his own. But now suddenly Tamaz has become the leader behind the scenes.
In addition, some have questioned the fact that Temur is in regular contact with his son, Tarkhan. In the BBC interview, Temur says Tarkhan phoned him once [English translation by Joanna Paraszczuk]:
He asked if I prayed. And I said, “Of course I pray. The St George holiday is coming up and I will buy candles and light them for my sons”. When he heard that I was continuing with Christian prayers, he hung up.
Is it likely that they would have talked again after that?
I don’t intend to disparage anybody or cast blame here. But I have a lot of questions, and this story does not answer them. Wouldn’t an interview format have been just as effective in getting the message across? It certainly would have given the readers the opportunity to make up their own minds about the veracity of the story. Sensationalism sells, of course, and that is clearly coming into play with these stories about Pankisi and the influence of its fighters in Iraq and Syria. It is just unfortunate that a wonderful place like Pankisi has been turned into a geopolitical battleground.
EDIT: It appears that the ‘interview’ with Leila was taken from this one that she gave to the Georgian press in January.