Who is Salakhuddin Shishani aka Feyzullah Margoshvili (aka Giorgi Kushtanashvili?)

Salakhuddin Shishani, the Emir of Jaish al-Mujahireen wal Ansar (JMA) — the faction that considers itself the Caucasus Emirate’s affiliate in Syria — has always been something of a mystery. Recently, I have uncovered some fresh information that might shed some light onto Salakhuddin’s past in the North Caucasus, and which also demonstrates the complicated relationship between Russia and Georgia regarding militancy in the North Caucasus and links with the Pankisi Gorge.

UPDATE: After I published this I received confirmation from a source in Georgia that Salakhuddin Shishani was indeed Giorgi Kushtanashvili and that he was later known as Feyzullah Margoshvili. He changed his name in the 2000s or late 1990s from Giorgi Kushtanashvili to Feyzullah Margoshvili. It is also believed that he had another passport or ID documents in Chechnya where he called himself Baysarov, which identifies him as the defendant in the court case detailed below.

What we already know

First, let’s take a look at the few key facts that were already known about Salakhuddin:

— Salakhuddin took over JMA in November 2013 after Umar Shishani and his followers left the group to move over to IS.

— He has remained staunchly loyal to the Caucasus Emirate and has a bay’ah to Caucasus Emirate emir Ali Abu Mukhammad.

— Salakhuddin is reputed to have experience fighting in the North Caucasus, which is borne out by his experience as an insurgent military leader; there is one photo of Salakhuddin that appears to show a younger man in a medical facility recovering after an injury.

— Salakhuddin has been named as Feyzulla Margoshvili — a name that places him as a Kist (ethnic Chechen) from the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia.

Salakhaddin by any other name?

Recently, however, another name has emerged in relation to Salakhuddin: a report on a criminal trial of a Naberezhnye Chelny man referred to only as I.

The report was published in a Russian language news outlet, Chelnyltd.ru and gave details that appear to come from the indictment against I. — and it is worth considering in itself, because it contains a lot of information about Russian speaking militants in JMA and IS at the time when Umar Shishani was leaving that group.

The report says that I., a Tatar, went to Syria in November 2013 — in other words, just as Umar Shishani was leaving JMA for IS — and took part in a the “Kavkazkyi” or Caucasus training camp in Sheikh Suleiman near Haritan in Aleppo province. (Militants including foreign fighters from Central Asia took over the Sheikh Suleiman military base in Aleppo in December 2012).

I. joined IS and then in December 2013 he switched to JMA and was based in Atarib in Aleppo province. To me, this indicates that I. was in JMA all along and stuck with JMA after Umar Shishani left that group for IS. (Umar Shishani had made JMA militants fight alongside IS in Aleppo, a fact that caused a split within the group.)

The indictment says that the leader of JMA is “Amir Salakhuddin, who is Georgiy Kushtanashvili.”

salahuddin shishani

So who is Georgiy or Giorgi Kushtanashvili?

Was this a mistake in the indictment (which would have been put together by the FSB?) Or was the name of Feyzulla Margoshvili, originally attributed to Salakhuddin by individuals from Pankisi who should know, wrong?

After some digging in Georgian language media reports and documents — thanks to Michael Cecire — it appeared that the answer to BOTH of these questions is -probably no, but with caution.

According to these reports, it seems that Georgiy Kushtanashvili could be another alias of Feyzulla Margoshvili.

Michael Cecire writes:

One particularly interesting Georgian-language media reference to a “Giorgi Kushtanashvili” is a September 2012 interview with then Chechen Premier-in-Exile Akhmed Zakayev by Voice of America’s Georgian Service. In the interview, which is reprinted in the Georgian Public Defender’s groundbreaking 2014 report on the August 2012 Lopota incident, Zakayev notes two individuals that remained missing after the incident, one being Duisi village resident “Giorgi Kushtanashvili” whom he says is also known as “Beizulla Margoshvili,” a Georgian transliteration of Feyzulla. Another report named Kushtanashvili as a member of the “Pankisi Jamaat” involved in Lopota, reportedly recruited and supported by Georgian intelligence.

Imprisoned for illegal border crossing?

There are more references in the Russian media to an alleged Pankisi militant from Duisi going under the pseudonym of Georgiy Kushtanashvili.

UPDATE: While I was initially unsure of whether this individual was Salakhuddin, the information in the reports matches information from a source in Georgia, so I now believe that it is almost certainly the same person, and that Salakhuddin was arrested in 2002 together with Chechen militants.

The reports from 2002 talk of a Kushtanashvili who was arrested in August that year as one of a group of 13 alleged militants who had been detained in an incident on the Georgian-Chechen border.

It is perhaps worth exploring this case to see whether the man involved in the incident could be the same Kushtanashvili as mentioned in the above reports. In any case, this story sheds light onto the complicated political situation in the early 2000s between Russia and Georgia regarding Chechen militants, and why militants (or those accused of such) who had Georgian passports were in a better position than those from the Russian Federation.

As this case and others show (including the case of Muslim Shishani aka Murad Margoshvili) a common tactic of Chechen militants in Russia was to use pseudonyms to avoid detection or make it harder to identify them and to help them give cover stories and plausible deniability. It is worth noting in this regard that several of the men involved in the 2002 incident with Georgiy Kushtanashvili had several aliases.

Kushtanashvili was held in Georgia alongside another man, Robinzon Margoshvili, both Pankisi residents. (http://grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.17247.html) Five of those arrested were Russian citizens from Chechnya and so were handed over to Russia; Kushtanashvili and Margoshvili were remanded and later tried in Georgia because they had Georgian citizenship.

Like the 2012 reports, the Kushtanashvili in this case was also from the Pankisi village of Duisi and he also claimed that his name was a pseudonym and his real name was Feyzullah, though he said his surname was Baysarov, not Margoshvili.

In the 2002 case, there was a disagreement between Georgia and Russia over the offenses allegedly committed by Kushtanashvili and Margoshvili.

Kommersant reported in December 2002 that Georgia had begun criminal proceedings against Kushtanashvili and Margoshvili, and had charged them with crossing the border illegally and trafficking explosives and weapons. (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/354593)

“The Russian Prosecutor General is certain that the defendants are guilty of attacks on Federal forces and that they deserve more severe punishment,” Kommersant reported, referring to the ten year prison terms that the two Kists would receive if they were found guilty.

According to Kommersant, “In August [2002], Kushtanashvili and Margoshvili, natives of Duisi village, were arrested on the Chechen part of the Russian-Georgian border with 11 militants. The gang tried to hide in Georgia after it was defeated in the Itum-Kalinsky region of Chechnya.”

Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar Emir Visited IS In Raqqa To Ask For Truce

Shepherds or militants?

However, the FSB believed that the two men were guilty of more serious crimes, “terrorism, participation in gangs and an attack on a convoy of federal forces.”

“According to the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, Russian investigators have irrefutable evidence against the Georgian terrorists,” Kommersant said.

The Chechens who had been arrested with Kushtanashvili and extradited to Russia were accused by the FSB of being associates of Chechen militant Ruslan “Hamzat” Gelayev, as I note below.

So, Russia would have been extremely displeased by the outcome of the trial against Kushtanashvili and Margoshvili, whom it was not able to extradite because they were Georgian citizens.

In 2003, Kushtanashvili and Margoshvili were tried in a Tbilisi court. The two were charged with crossing the border illegally while carrying weapons. (http://m.ria.ru/politics/20030219/323694.html)

They were acquitted, however, when the court “found them not to be Chechen militants but Georgian shepherds.” The court said that the two Duisi men were local shepherds who had accompanied others who had crossed the border but had been unarmed. (http://www.gazeta.ru/2003/04/08/4e4enskieboe.shtml)

Like the Russians, the Georgian prosecution was also unhappy with the outcome of the trial, insisting that Kushtanashvili and Margoshvili had indeed been armed.

The court said that it had found material provided to it by Russian investigators “inconclusive.” That material had included allegations that Kushtanashvili and Margoshvili had “participated in illegal armed groups involved in acts of terrorism, murders of military personnel and law enforcement officers.” More details of these allegations is below, when I look at the Russian trial of the five Chechens Georgia did deport to Russia in connection with this incident.

Kushtanashvili was then rearrested in May 2003 and placed in pre-trial detention regarding allegations of acts of violence against Georgian government employees. Those acts of violence were reportedly carried out after he and three other Chechens had attacked prison wardens who tried to remove them from their cell in 2002, after they had “seen on television that some Chechens were to be deported to Russia,” according to material presented to the European Court of Human Rights (see below). The four had been armed with “metal objects which had been removed from the bed frames and plumbing and with projectiles made from pieces of brick wrapped in clothing.” The defendants said that they had been beaten by the prison authorities and that one of them had been killed.

In May 2004, he was found guilty and sentence to four years.

What’s in a (fake) name?

The problem with the FSB’s case, according to Gazeta.ru, was that the Russian dossier used the “pseudonyms used by the Georgians when they were arrested.”

The Russians had slipped up. Because they referred to the men’s fictitious names, they had effectively provided “no evidence that [the two Kists] personally were implicated in crimes in Russian territory.”

Another clue to how well the fictitious names trick worked is provided by Gazeta.ru, who noted that another three Chechens arrested at the same time as Kushtanashvili and Margoshvili were “still sitting in jail because it has not yet been possible to verify their identities — when they were arrested they also gave themselves fake names.”

Kushtanashvili told the ECHR that hе was also called Feisul (Feyzulla) Bayssarov and that he had been a shepherd who had stumbled on some wounded Chechens on the border and helped them. When he was arrested he told Georgian police he was a Chechen fugitive in order to get free medical care, and said he had been hit on the head and did not have clear memories of his arrest.

Kushtanashvili was released from prison in February 2005 after a review of the Tbilisi District Court ruling by the Supreme Court of Georgia. (http://army.lv/ru/V-Tbilisi-iz-sledstvennoy-tyurmi-osvobozhdeni-eshche-dvoe-chechentsev/395/3035) His fate afterwards is not clear.

The Supreme Court, the European Court and kidnappings

The story of the mysterious Kushtanashvili does not end here, however.

The 13 Chechens detained in August 2002 brought an unprecedented case against the Georgian government in the Georgian Supreme Court, which was attended by a mission from the European Court of Human Rights. The ECHR ruled on the case, Shamayev et al v. Georgia and Russia, in 2005.

The detainees complained about being arrested on the Georgian border and about extraditions to Russia of some of the defendants.

Complicating matters further was the fact that two of the defendants, Bekkhan Mulkoyev and Khuseyn Alkhanov, disappeared in Tbilisi following a visit by then-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s to Russia. Relatives and Chechen activists said that the two men had been kidnapped by Georgian special services and secretly extradited to Russia. A translation of a news report about the case can be read here. (https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/RMSMC/conversations/messages/3342)

Here is the ECHR ruling from 2005, in English. I will look at this in more detail below. (http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/sites/eng/pages/search.aspx?i=001-68790#{“itemid”:[“001-68790”]})

The ECHR ruling also noted that two defendants Islam Khashiev (aka Rustam Elikhadjiev and Bekkhan Mulhoyev) and Timur or Ruslan Baymurzayev (aka Khusein Alkhanov) had been arrested in Russia after disappearing in Tbilisi.

There have been other allegations of kidnappings or attempted kidnappings by Russian security services against North Caucasian militants — including Pankisi Kists. The most relevant of these is the case of Muslim Shishani, who rights defenders from Memorial claimed had been the victim of an abduction and later a failed abduction after he had been acquitted in court.

What happened to the extradited Chechens?

The 5 Chechens who were extradited to Russia, including Husein Aziyev, were put on trial in Russia in 2004, though the defendant tried to have his case heard in Georgia (which would have been far more lenient). (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/462966)

The indictment alleged that the 5 were close associates of Ruslan Gelayev and were a detachment based in Pankisi, armed with Kalashnikovs, sniper rifles, grenade launchers and more. In July 2002, a gang of the miiltants secretly crossed the Russian-Georgian border and entered Russia in Itum-Kalinsky. The squad was discovered on July 27 and a battle ensued, in which 8 Russian soldiers were killed and 7 wounded. The militants then retreated to the Georgian border.

Aziyev was then arrested by Georgian border guards on August 3.

Kommersant reported that the group in which Aziyev was allegedly involved was part of a group led by Husein Izabayev, a brigade leader in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.