Islamic State Leader Omar al-Shishani Fought Under U.S. Umbrella as Late as 2013


Omar the Chechen fought under U.S. command structure in Syria.

This article first appeared at Levant Report and AntiWar.com.

Abu Omar al-Shishani, the red-bearded face of ISIS terror lately described in such headlines as ‘Star pupil’: Pied piper of ISIS recruits was trained by U.S. for the fact that he received American military training as part of an elite Georgian army unit in 2006 and after, did not stop playing for “team America” once he left his home country in the Caucuses. He actually enjoyed U.S. backing and American taxpayer largesse as late as 2013, soon after entering Syria with his band of Chechen jihadists.

Abu Omar al-Shishani is now widely reported to be Islamic State’s chief of military operations.

A new book about ISIS chronicles the terror group’s earliest successes when it first made a name for itself on the Syrian battlefield by tipping the scales in favor of rebels in Northern Aleppo who had spent nearly a total of two years attempting to conquer the Syrian government’s seemingly impenetrable Menagh Airbase.

Benjamin Hall, journalist and author of Inside ISIS: The Brutal Rise of a Terrorist Army, was embedded in Northern Syria during part of the 2012–2013 siege of Menagh, even staying in FSA camps outside the base as attacks were underway.

At that time the Revolutionary Military Council of Aleppo was the US/UK officially sanctioned command structure in the region headed by FSA Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, described in international press at the time as “a main recipient” of Western aid.

Burning helicopter: the rebel siege of the government Menagh Airbase was at its most intense during Spring and Summer 2013.

Hall, who throughout his book expresses sympathy and occasional outright support for the insurgent groups within which he was embedded, describes the pathetic state of a rebel movement in disarray and lacking morale. He identifies a singular turning point which renewed both the tide of rebel military momentum and morale in Northern Syria:

That day in Minnah [or alternately Menagh], I was reminded that nothing happens on time in the Middle East. It took ten months for the rebels to finally capture that base, but it only fell when the FSA were joined by the ISIS leader Abu Omar Shishani and his brutal gang of Chechens. When we had been there, it had been under the sole control of badly funded, badly armed rebels with little knowledge of tactical warfare–but when Shishani arrived, he took control of the operation, and the base fell soon after. [1]
Massive suicide car bombing at Menagh, Summer of 2013: foreign fighters and their extreme tactics ensured victory for the FSA and Islamic State of Iraq and Sham.

Hall further relates that Omar Shishani’s (or Omar “the Chechen”) presence evoked a certain level of mystique and awe among his FSA associates as he “systematically obliterated Menagh defenses by sacrificing as many men as it took” and rightly concludes that, “it is no exaggeration to say that Shishani and other battle hardened members of ISIS are the ones who brought the early military success.” [2]

Omar the Chechen (center) is interviewed by Al Jazeera after a joint FSA/ISIS operation on Aug. 6, 2013. Photo circulated on jihadi social media accounts.

The final collapse of government forces at Menagh on August 6 due to Shishani’s sustained suicide bombing raids, sending his men in makeshift armored vehicles to crash the base’s heavy fortifications, resulted in an outpouring of battle wearied emotion and celebration among all rebel groups represented.

The rebel victory at Menagh was key to opening a permanent rebel corridor from Turkey into Northern Syria.

Regional media, including Al Jazeera, was there to record the victory and congratulatory speeches that followed, and the fighters weren’t shy about giving interviews. These interviews reveal America’s true battlefield alliances at this key point in the lengthy rebel advance in Aleppo Province at a time long prior to ISIS becoming the “household terror brand” that it is today. The New York Times reported the following:

After the battle, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, the head of the United States-backed opposition’s Aleppo military council, appeared in a video alongside Abu Jandal, a leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
In camouflage, Colonel Okaidi offered thanks to “our brothers al-Muhajireen wal Ansar and others,” adding: “We’re here to kiss every hand pressed on the trigger.” He then ceded the floor to Abu Jandal and a mix of jihadist and Free Syrian Army leaders, who stood together, each praising his men, like members of a victorious basketball team.

The group singled out for praise in the video, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, was precisely Omar Shishani’s own brutal Chechen group (“Army of Emigrants and Helpers”) which turned the tide of the battle. Most significant about FSA Col. Okaidi himself, clearly the operational head of this jihadi “basketball team,” was that he had been paid a personal visit by his State Department patron, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, just months prior to the final victory at Menagh.

McClatchy News: “The problem was that the American-backed colonel had been filmed celebrating his men’s joint victory with al Qaida-affiliated fighters, creating a public relations nightmare for the Obama administration…”
FSA Col. Okaidi and Ambassador Robert Ford video montage: Footage and translation authenticated by Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma and prominent Syria expert.

A translated video montage of footage covering events at Menagh, authenticated by Middle East expert Joshua Landis, shows a clip of Robert Ford’s prior visit to Col. Okaidi inside Syria, with the two standing side by side in an image meant to seal official U.S. support for Okaidi as its top brass on the ground.

Left: Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford with FSA Col. Okaidi. Right: FSA Col. Okaidi with ISIS emir Abu Jandal — part of Omar the Chechen’s group of fighters at Menagh Airbase.
The State Department’s top FSA officer on the ground exercised battlefield command over ISIS units in 2013. In this Aug.6, 2013 victory speech footage, an ISIS fighter (to Okaidi’s left) is presented as Okaidi’s number two man. In separate footage from the same day the same man is seen claiming victory on behalf of ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Okaidi’s subsequent victory speech at Menagh proves that Okaidi, while on the U.S. government’s Syria support payroll, fought alongside and publicly praised ISIS fighters (calling them “heroes”), and presumably exercised some degree of operational command over them. There is no mistaking the documented facts of the Menagh campaign: in the summer of 2013 the rising Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and the FSA fought as one, with a unified command structure, which happened to have direct U.S. backing.

New York Times: “After the battle, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, the head of the United States-backed opposition’s Aleppo military council, appeared in a video alongside Abu Jandal, a leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”

Thanks to Abu Omar’s willingness to speak to Al Jazeera, we also have video confirmation of his emerging star status within rebel ranks and relationship of direct cooperation with the U.S backed FSA commander. Omar Shishani’s interview was archived online by Al Jazeera Arabic. While offering a simple statement about conquering all of the Syria from “the kuffar,” Abu Omar is surrounded by some of the same men, including emir Abu Jandal (identified above by the New York Times) — the same Abu Jandal that is presented as second in rank under Robert Ford’s friend Col. Okaidi in the latter’s victory huddle.

In another video where he stands proudly amidst a mix of fighters, Omar addresses the camera in Russian and recognizes the FSA’s valiant efforts in its eight months long siege of the government airbase. In a later statement given to the Russian-language pro-jihad site Beladusham, Shishani explained his pragmatic view toward working with U.S. backed FSA forces even while pledging loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: “We aren’t in a position of conflict with the whole FSA right now, but just against those groups who oppose our aims of an Islamic State.”

The U.S. State Dept.’s own numbers: read the full report HERE at STATE.GOV

Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has since admitted that the rebels funded by the State Department included ISIS and other Al-Qaeda fighters in their ranks. He recently told McClatchy reporter Hannah Allam that he had called Okaidi to tell him that his public cooperation with Abu Omar Shishani and associates was “extremely unhelpful, extra unhelpful”:

Ford was referring to Col. Abdel-Jabbar al Oqaidi [or alternately Okaidi], then-commander of the Aleppo branch of the Free Syrian Army. The problem was that the American-backed colonel had been filmed celebrating his men’s joint victory with al Qaida-affiliated fighters, creating a public relations nightmare for the Obama administration, which was trying to show Congress and the American public that it was boosting moderates and isolating extremists on the battlefield.

Amazingly, Okaidi’s courtship with the West didn’t end in 2013, even after such top U.S. officials confirmed that the rebel leader had been in a position of operational command over ISIS terrorists, some of which now fill out the top tiers of Islamic State’s ranks.

CNN/screenshot: Col. Okaidi remains a media darling of the West, appearing on CNN as recently as 2015 — this even after he was caught commanding ISIS units on the Syrian battlefield.

As recently as last July 2015, CNN gave Okaidi lengthy and virtually uninterrupted air time in a Christiane Amanpour interview to make a public appeal for a U.S. imposed no-fly “buffer zone” over Syria in support of “moderate” rebels — this on what the network bills as its “flagship global affairs program.”

In a recent and much talked about poll conducted inside Syria by ORB International, an affiliate of WIN/Gallup International, it was revealed that “82% of Syrians Blame U.S. for ISIS.” While the increased prominence of this view has perplexed many pundits who dare not admit anything counter to the official prevailing wisdom, it could simply be that Syrians pay closer attention and are able to process what U.S. clients like Okaidi utter in plain Arabic and without apology.

[1] Hall, Benjamin. Inside ISIS: The Brutal Rise of a Terrorist Army (New York: Center Street, 2015) p. 74.

[2] Hall 76.

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