If media reports are to be believed, Tarkhan Batirashvili, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Shishani – Omar the Chechen – has been killed by a United States air strike in Syria. He is one of the most well-known foreign fighters in ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Originally from the Republic of Georgia in the South Caucasus, his fair skin and red beard have become a regular feature in ISIL propaganda.
If true, his death would be a significant, but not fatal, blow to ISIL, which is also known as ISIS. It would also mark the death of the most senior ISIL commander by the US-led anti-ISIL coalition to date.
Do not let his nom de guerre fool you. Batirashvili is not a Chechen, but a Georgian citizen. Batirashvili’s father was Christian and his mother, a Kist (an ethnically Chechen and predominately Sunni Muslim people).
From foot soldier to commander
Batirashvili was raised as a Christian but later converted to Islam.
He was born and grew up in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, considered the epicentre of the country’s fundamentalist problem.
This tiny, remote valley, about 13km long and 3km wide, lies near the Chechen-Georgian border about 160km from the capital Tbilisi. The region is home to more than 100 Georgians who have joined ISIL’s ranks.
Batirashvili served as a non-commissioned officer in the Georgian armed forces and was deployed as a forward observer calling in artillery strikes against Russian soldiers during the Battle of Tskhinvali in the opening days of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.
In 2010, Batirashvili was diagnosed with tuberculosis, discharged from the army, and later jailed on illegal gun charges.
After leaving prison, Batirashvili made his way to Syria.
At the time of his alleged death, he served as a senior ISIL commander with authority over Aleppo, Raqqa, Latakia, and northern Idlib provinces in Syria. One US official described him as ISIL’s “minister of war”.
If he is dead, does it matter?
There is a lot of debate as to whether or not decapitation strategies – that is, taking out senior leaders – work against groups like ISIL.
The answer to his question depends on the kind of groups targeted.
Against insurgent groups such as the Taliban, decapitation strategies have had some success. One recent report looking at 90 counterinsurgencies since the 1970s found that taking out the senior leadership of insurgent groups actually increases the chances of a rapid end to conflict. The report also found that killing senior leaders even reduces the level of violence in the fighting.
But ISIL is not an insurgency group, it is a terrorist organisation. Due to the leadership structure and ideologically driven goals of terror groups such as ISIL, decapitation strategies have not had as much success.
|ISIL fighters hold up their weapons and wave its flags in a convoy on a road leading to Iraq, in Raqqa, Syria|
One only has to look at al-Qaeda. Five years after the death of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda is more active and has more franchises around the world than at any time before.
Last May, US special forces killed Abu Sayyaf, a senior ISIL commander described as the group’s “minister for oil”. His death had no notable impact on ISIL or its ability to export oil.
Batirashvili’s death, if true, will leave a gap in ISIL’s military planning, or at least in the organisation’s strategic thinking and will offer the anti-ISIL coalition an opportunity to exploit the situation.
If the US follows up by taking advantage of the situation before someone replaces him, then Batirashvili’s demise can have an impact on the organisation.
But the US will have to act quickly. Dead terrorist leaders are quickly replaced by someone just as committed to the cause. There is no reason to assume that Batirashvili’s death will be any different.
A broader strategy needed
It remains to be seen if Batirashvili really is dead. A quick search of the internet shows at least 10 old news stories saying that he had been killed, only later to be proved false.
While many foreign fighters are skilled at evading US drones and air strikes – they have learned the hard way over the course of a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan – it can also be said that US forces are getting increasingly better at identifying high value targets and taking them out.
If he is dead, the anti-ISIL coalition will get a short-term propaganda boost and a small tactical victory.
But until the US incorporates its targeting of ISIL’s leadership into a broader strategy aimed at defeating the terror group, and then acts quickly to exploit the gap left when leaders are killed, situations such as Batirashvili’s death are unlikely to have a long-term affect on the campaign.
Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.