North Caucasian Fighters: Umar Shishani Was Brave, Honest & Talented Even If He Made Mistakes

North Caucasian fighters in Syria have commented on social media about Umar Shishani, with interesting reactions to comments by other fighters that Umar was not a good military commander. While the debate over Umar has been incredibly polarized, with anti-IS North Caucasians slamming him and IS mythologizing him (and reports in the Western press doing the same, more on that below), here we have some context from North Caucasians who experienced the conflict first hand. I have translated the comments below.

The fighters offer a balanced view of Umar:

Like other people and commanders, he had his pluses and minuses, his successful decisions and [his] mistakes. He really was a good, competent commander. Especially compared to many others here [in Syria]. Especially as he did not complete a military academy for senior officers. Nevertheless, he had a talent at management. And the brothers loved him.

This comment is particularly interesting because it places Umar’s rise within IS within a context: he was better than many others in Syria. IS was not choosing commanders whom it had trained within an army structure, it had to deal with the pool of fighters, many foreign fighters, it had wound up with.

The fighters go on to react to the questions raised in the letter by Khalid Shishani, a Chechen fighter who had been in JMA with Umar and then left with Sayfullakh Shishani. Khalid had slammed Umar’s military skills in particular in relation to the summer 2013 offensive at Mennagh Airbase in Aleppo, which left many North Caucasian fighters dead and where Khalid accused Umar of using them like cannon fodder. I wrote about this here in a bit of a different style. Khalid went on to join Jabhat al-Nusra along with the rest of Sayfullakh’s Jamaat.

Khalid also looks at things in a lopsided [manner]. At this beginning stage of the war, Umar and other amirs did not have sufficient military and organizational experience. Naturally, there were inevitable mistakes and big losses when the rebels stormed fortified military objectives. Although in some things [Khalid] is probably right. As ever, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

This is another fascinating look at the development of the conflict and of Umar (and other military commanders, not just in IS). Although the Western media has tended to over-egg the pudding with its lauding of Umar (this is not surprising, given the difficulties in having access to sources who will talk about him at all, coupled with the need to make stories dramatic and exciting, but still it is something I have struggled with*), what has been left out of the story is the reality that Umar, who was really an inexperienced commander at the start of the conflict, naturally made mistakes from inexperience. The commenters above, though, suggest that Umar learned from his mistakes and gained experience over time.

The fighter goes on to discuss events after Mennagh and after Umar had gone over to IS, noting that he “did not support the later participation of Umar in operations against other mujahedin.” This has been a sticking po

The fighters said that Umar “as a person was honest and brave.”

Commenting on why Umar left JMA and joined IS, (i.e. pledging bayah to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) the fighters said that “apparently IS representatives managed to convince him.” This comment reflects those I have seen elsewhere which blamed a “psychologist” for convincing Umar to join IS. Some North Caucasians have strongly hinted that this was Abu Jihad. This comment is more measured!

*I still think Alan Cullison’s piece has been the best, and it has held up over time.