WASHINGTON — U.S. warplanes targeted a top Islamic State commander in an airstrike in northeastern Syria last week, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.
An initial U.S. assessment said it is likely that the targeted militant leader, known within the Islamic State as Omar al-Shishani, was killed along with 12 additional IS fighters, according to a senior U.S. defense official who discussed details of the attack on condition that he not be identified. The official said the attack was carried out March 4 by multiple waves of planes and drone aircraft.
In announcing the strike, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said it occurred near al-Shaddadeh, a former Islamic State stronghold that was captured in February by the U.S.-backed, predominantly Kurdish Syria Democratic Forces. He said the ISIS leader, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, held numerous seniormilitary positions within the group, including "minister of war," and was based in Raqqa, Syria.
Cook said that at the time of the strike al-Shishani was in al-Shaddadeh to bolster ISIS fighters who had suffered a series of defeats at the hands of local forces supported by the U.S.
Cook said the Pentagon was still assessing the results of its strike.
Al-Shishani is one of hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria. He is an ethnic Chechen from the Caucasus nation of Georgia, specifically from the Pankisi Valley, a center of Georgia's Chechen community and once a stronghold for militants.
He is sometimes called Omar the Chechen. Cook described him as a "battle-tested leader" with experience in numerous clashes in Iraq and Syria. He said that his potential loss to IS would hurt the group's ability to recruit foreign fighters, especially those from Chechnya and the Caucus region.
The senior defense official who provided details about the March 4 airstrike said the Chechen had joined the Georgian military in 2006 and fought against Russian troops in 2008 in the South Ossetia region of Georgia. He was discharged from the Georgian army in 2010 for medical reasons, the defense official said, and in 2012 left Georgia for Istanbul, Turkey. From there he went to Syria and commanded rebel forces against Syrian government forces.
He joined the Islamic State in 2013, the official said, and at one point oversaw an ISIS prison in al-Tabqa near Raqqa where the group may have held foreign hostages. In May 2013 he was appointed northern commander for IS with authority over the group's military operations and forces in northern Syria.