In late June, a number of news reports in Russian and Georgian (I can’t read the latter) noted that a 39-year-old militant from Duisi in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia had been killed “in Syria.” Some of the reports said that the militant had been in the “Yarmouk brigade” and had fought alongside Akhmad Chatayev. The first fact is almost certainly not true (he died in Iraq) and the second is flimsy and unverifiable, but let’s unpick it.
One of the trickiest things is to match reports of militants’ deaths by their fellow fighters, which only use the dead fighter’s kunya and rarely say where they were from, with news reports of deaths which use the fighter’s real name. In this case, it was less tricky though again, one needs to use caution and bear in mind that it is not possible to obtain 100% clear information.
The news reports about the death of 39-year-old Umar Margoshvili coincided with posts on social media, particularly among IS supporters and fighters from Pankisi, that a popular militant known as “Abu Ali Pankisi” or Omer had died. The reports suggested that this individual had been from Duisi. Some of the reports came from individuals who are still in Duisi. Some of the people reporting the death were named Margoshvili (though as this is a common name, one cannot immediately jump to the conclusion that these are relatives). Some were individuals whose social media profiles (tracked for many months) indicate that they are from Pankisi and are in IS controlled territory. So it seems that Umar Margoshvili and Omer/Abu Ali Pankisi are the same person.
However, those who knew Margoshvili said that he died in Iraq and not in Syria, possibly in a strike on a convoy.
So what do we know about him? First, he was a popular guy at least among the tight knit group of IS supporters and militants from Pankisi, many of whom changed their social media profile pics to Margoshvili’s picture.
Second, he was a friend of Al Bara Pankisi, the Georgian militant who had formerly been in Latakia and who had a very small group of his own there. He was badly injured in around late 2014 and went to Turkey for treatment. In the photo below Al Bara is on the left, then a guy named as Abdullah (it is not clear if he is also from Pankisi), an individual who I believe but cannot confirm is Iraqi and then Margoshvili.
Both Al Bara and Margoshvili were associated with, or known by, the popular Salafist Pankisi preacher Abdul Karim Pankisi (who, incidentally, has been to Syria and Turkey and was photographed in Syria with two other Georgians, Sayfullakh Shishani and Umar Shishani, in late 2012 but more likely early 2013). Al Bara has also been photographed with Salakhuddin Shishani in 2013, before Al Bara joined IS. Al Bara’s decision to join IS shocked those who knew him in Latakia (and some claim that he has since left IS, though IS Pankisi militants say he is still there, as the photos with Margoshvili show.)
There is a group of IS supporters from and in Duisi who form a network that Margoshvili was part of. Not all of these are in Syria/Iraq.
NewsGeorgia.ge reported that Margoshvili had gone to Syria in 2015, leaving behind two wives and ten children. Margoshvili also has an uncle who lives in Grozny in Chechnya.
Both NewsGeorgia.ge and Golos Ameriki reported that, “По неподтвержденным данным,” (“according to unconfirmed reports”), Margoshvili had been part of the Yarmouk Brigade headed by Akhmad Chatayev. First, let me say how much I dislike the use of “По неподтвержденным данным” in news reporting. If you don’t know the source, don’t use the information. At least, if you really can’t resist, please say the source of the “unconfirmed reports” so readers can make up their minds whether to trust them. Russian-speaking IS militants are closed-mouthed about which brigade they are in and even about the names of the brigades and where they fight. So it is very hard to obtain this information.
Anyway, the reports were made when Chatayev was the News Story Of The Day, so perhaps that’s why this came up. Let’s look into the rumor, since it is out there now. First, we know now that Chatayev’s brigade was almost certainly Katiba Badr not Yarmouk. Sources say that there are two Akhmad Shishanis (Chatayev is known as Akhmad Shishani) and one led Yarmouk, which was also at Kobani, like Badr. It is possible that Margoshvili joined Yarmouk or Badr. Badr brigade was decimated in Kobani in early 2015 so it would have needed new recruits. However it is not in Iraq right now but in Manbij in Syria where it has been involved in fighting for a while, and given that Margoshvili died in Iraq, it is less likely he was a current member of this group. In any case it’s current leader is not Chatayev but — according to information that I trust and which has been gathered over time but which is never totally verifiable because of the subject matter — Abu Umar Grozny.