Propaganda & Scandal: The Strange Tale Of Umar Shishani & The Former Head of Chechnya’s Migration Service

In November 2013, a scandal broke in Chechnya surrounding the head of the Republic’s Federal Migration Service, Asu Dudurkaev. The scandal has since become stranger and has widened to involve Umar Shishani, Austria, the Pankisi Gorge, and all kinds of odd claims. Let’s try to get to the bottom of it.

The Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, fired Dudurkaev, announcing the move (as is his habit) on his Instagram account. Dudurkaev “as the head of one of the most important structures, has no moral right to speak with employees about morality and patriotism and religion. His own daughter is in the ranks of the Wahhabis and bandits, shedding blood of civilians, blowing up Islamic shrines in Syria. We offered him assistance with the return of his daughter, but he stated that this issue would be resolved. His daughter is still among the bandits,” Kadyrov wrote.

I wrote about the scandal as it unfolded here.

That Durdurkaev’s 20 year old daughter had gone to Syria was clearly a huge embarrassment for Kadyrov, both because it implies a lack of control over his senior staff, and the infiltration of extremist Islam into the families of said staff.

Yet the story of the runaway daughter is far stranger than it initially seemed.

In the first place, according to reports, 20-year-old Seda Dudurkaeva ran away sometime in May 2013, to join a young man she had met, who had gone to fight in Syria:

Как оказалось, 20-летняя Седа Дударкаева влюбилась в молодого человека, исповедующего нетрадиционный ислам. В апреле 2013 года он уехал воевать в Сирию, а Седа, выбрав удобный момент, отправилась вслед за ним.

At it turned out, 20-year-old Seda Dudurkaeva fell in love with a young men who followed non-traditional Islam. In April 2013, he left to fight in Syria and Seda, choosing a suitable moment, left after him.

В конце мая она вылетела вместе с подругой из аэропорта Минеральных Вод в Турцию, где их встретила неизвестная женщина и увезла с собой. На сирийской границе Седу зафиксировала камера наблюдения, но после этого ее больше не видели.

At the end of May, she and a girlfriend flew from the Mineralnyi Vody Airport to Turkey, where they were met by an unknown woman and left with her. At the Syrian border, Seda was caught on a surveillance camera but after that she was not seen again.

Дударкаев обратился за помощью к оперативникам, которым удалось найти брата молодого человека, из-за которого сбежала дочь бывшего главы УФМС. Он согласился помочь и выехал в Сирию, где нашел своего брата вместе с девушкой. Никакие уговоры на них не подействовали – они оба наотрез отказались возвращаться. Кроме того, Седа попросила передать своим родным, что она вышла замуж по мусульманскому обычаю и без своего мужа никуда не поедет.

Dudurkaev asked for help from operatives, who managed to find the brother of the young man for whose sake [Seda] had run away. He agreed to help and went to Syria, where he found his brother and the girl. Nothing worked on them, they both refused to return. Apart from that, Seda asked him to tell her parents that she had gotten married according to Muslim tradition and wasn’t going anywhere without her husband.

So far, so murky. The scandal broke in November, when Kadyrov fired Dudurkaev, but Seda ran away in May, so why did it take so long to fire him? Were the “operatives” mentioned in this story Kadyrov’s men? And was Dudurkaev fired when it became clear that Seda wasn’t coming home? Or did Dudurkaev try to cover things up while he tried to get his daughter to come home?

Keep these questions in mind for now: there are more twists to this curious story.

December 2013: A Medina Scholar Rebukes Umar Shishani Over Seda

Perhaps you were thinking that the story of Seda was a local scandal in Chechnya?

Well, apparently not. The story reached the ears of one Sheikh Suhaibani from Medina, who went so far as to make an address to Umar Shishani in December 2013.

Bear in mind, if you will, that Umar was the leader of the Chechen group Jaish Al Muhajireen Wal-Ansar and NOT IS at the time of Seda’s running away to Syria — so she did not join the then-ISIS as this message claims.

This is the question as put to the sheikh:

I have a question regarding the girl from Chechnya who ran away from home in order to make Hijra on the path of Allah, and she went to Syria without a mahram and joined the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham and afterward married one of them, and they were joined by a local Sheikh, Abu Hafs, and the form of this marriage was thus:

The Sheikh asked the girl, do you have a father? To which the girl replied, yes, but he is a Sufi and works in a department for giving out foreign passports in Chechnya in the Russian regime

Because of this Sheikh Abu Hafs relieved the father from the right of responsibility and asked the girl, do you have any other responsible person besides your father?

And she replied yes, but I cannot get in touch with him and she did was not right in this because there is the possibility of phoning and she was calling home practically every day.

And her brother is a Muslim and is a student of Sharia who studies in an Islamic institution in Syria.

And Sheikh Abu Hafs let the Emir of the local group have the responsibility and joined the marriage and after that her brother found her and wanted to take her home,

But Amir Abu Umar Shishani did not agree and said, we will asked Sheikh Suleiman al-Alvani. He said that this wedding is void and they had to split up and she had to observe the iddah [the period of waiting in Islam during which a woman must not marry another man after divorce or the death of her spouse].

But Emir Abu Umar did not agree with this and everything remained as it was.

And after that her husband died and her idda ended and she lives with the wives of the martyrs in Syria, she has no mahram there, and her relatives visited her in order to bring her from the military post into a peaceful place but Umar Shishani would not agree to that and said that she made Hijra and he had accepted her. And she gave me an oath of allegiance and she has no right to leave without my permission and I will not allow her family to take her if she does not agree to it.

And the girl said that her parents had oppressed her from the start about her religion and she has no witnesses to that and her brother denies it and there are many witnesses to that.

And the girl said, I don’t want to leave here for anywhere, and she answered her mother and brother thus.

OK, so from this we learn that:

1. Seda’s husband died at some point after she came to Syria and married him.

2. Seda had gone through her period of iddah and was living with other women in the jamaat.

3. Her mother and brother had gone to Syria to try to bring her home.

4. Umar as the Emir of the jamaat says that Seda had pledged an oath of allegiance to him and was therefore under his protection.

Bear these points in mind, because they will become important later.

Back to the recording, where things take a turn for the odd:

Her brother and relatives said that she had been treated three times for sicknesses of jinn and her brother wanted to read her hand but she would not let him.

So Seda’s brother said the girl was possessed by a jinn.

And now the question is:

What law is there about leaving home without a mahram?
What is the law on marriage in this situation?
What is the law on jihad for her?
What is the law on Hijra? Should she stay in the military base or return home with her family?
What is the law about pledging allegiance to the Emir of a jamaat?
What should Umar do? Should he return her home with her parents or leave her under his protection knowing that she has no one in the military base?

The Sheikh goes on to answer the question and says that Seda had no obligation for jihad and her leaving home was against Sharia Law.

So there are several points here, the first being that this story was a big enough deal to attract the attention of Sunni scholars in Medina who said that Umar had done wrong in allowing Seda to remain in his jamaat.

But there are two other questions here:

1. What about the timing of these events?
2. What about the claims that Seda married a Chechen associate of Umar Shishani, Abu Abdullakh Shishani and then married Umar after he died? (The latter claim was made by a woman claiming to be Abdullakh Shishani’s mother, Leila Achishvili. Achishvili first told her story to a Georgian journalist Nino Burchuladze in Georgian outlet Kviris Palitra some months ago. Achishvili was interviewed again, and gave the additional information that Umar had gone on to marry Seda, in an October Daily Beast article in which Burchuladze is given a joint byline.)

Achishvili says that Abu Abdullakh, real name Khamzat, went to Austria as a small boy to live with his father. Sure enough, we can find photos and video of Khamzat/ Abu Abdullakh in Austria, on Chechen radical Islamist sites.

Abu Abdullakh in Austria1

Abu Abdullakh in Austria2

Abu Abdullakh in Austria3

In this video, Abu Abdullakh and a man named Abu Aysha are singing in Austria:

Abu Abdullakh Shishani is a familiar figure to those who watch Chechen jihadis in Syria. He was the star of this video, made in summer 2013 — shortly before his death (but we are getting ahead of ourselves: we will come to his death in a moment):

From what we know of Abu Abdullakh, he was not only someone who had adopted a radical form of Islam, but he was well-known among people in Austrian Chechen circles who also followed that stream of Islam. He and another man, Abu Aysha (I can find no trace of him in Syria) made recordings with Islamic themes and in Syria, Abu Abdullakh made a video address about Islam.

He was a member of Umar Shishani’s inner circle, along with Seyfullakh Shishani, and was a popular guy in the jamaat, likely charismatic and commanding respect (possibly because he had a superior knowledge of radical Islam). Here he is with Umar at Umar’s villa in Haritan, in around June 2013:


June 13

Abu Abdullakh died on 22 July 2013 during the storming of the Menagh Airbase in Aleppo by Umar Shishani, (who would later be accused of sending hundreds of his men to their deaths in that offensive).

We do not know if Abu Abdullakh new Umar before he came to Syria (it is unlikely that the two could have met as adults, since Abu Abdullakh spent most of his life in Austria including before coming to Syria. There is nothing in the interview that Kvirispalitra did with Abu Abdullakh’s mother to suggest that he and Umar had known each other as small boys before Abu Abdullakh went to Austria. However, Abu Abdullakh considered himself part of the Chechen cultural space and like Umar he had never fought for the Caucasus Emirate; at that time, most Chechens of that background coming to Syria congregated around Umar. According to Abu Abdullakh’s mother, her son was useful to Umar because he knew various languages. (His mother also says that Abu Abdullakh was married before he left Austria, which may explain the photo of him with a baby.)

This is the last known image of Abu Abdullakh, taken inside Menagh Airbase.


So what does this tell us about the timing of events, assuming that the story of Seda marrying Abu Abdullakh is true:

1. Abu Abdullakh went to Syria in April 2013, according to Achishvili. Seda went in May 2013, and it would have taken her some time to get from Turkey to Aleppo. So that would mean the two had only 2 months together before Abu Abdullakh was killed.

2. Kadyrov fired Dudurkaev in November 2013, after Seda refused to come home and months after Abu Abdullakh was killed, and as Dudurkaev had refused his help to go and get Seda, saying that he would do so himself. There is no mention that Seda has remarried in this story.

3. In December 2013, the audio recording of the question to the Medina Sheikh is released, which says that Seda has remained in the jamaat and that she is living with the wives of the martyrs and that her period of mourning has ended.

The rules of idda vary but it seems to be four lunar months and ten days after a husband has died:

1. A woman has to observe ‘iddah for four lunar months and ten days on the death of her husband irrespective whether she is a major or minor (i.e. she being a child or past the age of menstruation) or even if the marriage has not been consummated.

So this would place the timing of the question to the Sheikh at around late November, which would have been after Seda’s mother had visited her and around the time that Kadyrov fired Dudurkaev.

So did Umar Shishani marry Seda?

4. In the BBC Russian interview from 8 July 2014 with Umar Shishani’s father, Temur, the latter says that Umar had telephoned him to say that he had become a father to a girl named Sofia. We do not know when the phone call took place, but clearly before July. So even if the baby was born in mid-June, and if Seda married Umar immediately after her period of mourning ended, there would not have been time for her to gestate a child, unless it was extremely premature.

I am assuming that the question to the Sheikh is accurate in terms of its content, since it gets a lot of the details that we already know correct and it fits with other data. It makes sense that Kadyrov would become angry and fire Dudurkaev in late November, after he failed to bring Seda home — and having fired him, Kadyrov would have to give the reason why, which is why the story came out when it did.

Therefore we can conclude that either Umar has several wives (bear in mind that Umar was reportedly married before December 2013, and that he also has a baby son; that he moved into the villa in Haritan with his family); that Seda’s period of mourning somehow ended well before four months and ten days; or that Seda didn’t marry Umar and the tale of her being under his protection is somehow misinterpreted.

Either way, there are a lot of rumors surrounding Umar Shishani, many of them (as is the way of rumors, I suppose) based on conjecture and have not been questioned or examined within any context.

One question that has not been answered is how Seda, a Grozny resident, met Abu Abdullakh at all, given that he was in Austria and possibly briefly in Pankisi. So did she meet him online?

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