Russia’s Unreliable Claims About the Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 1 October 2017

Gulmurod Khalimov

The Islamic State’s (IS) caliph, Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), appeared on Thursday to deliver his first speech in nearly a year. Other than the contents of the speech, al-Badri’s re-appearance was confirmation that the claim by the Russian government, on 16 June, to have killed al-Badri and 330 other IS jihadists in a 28 May airstrike in Syria, was false.[1] This is far from the first mendacious claim Moscow has made on this topic.

On 8 September, the Russian Ministry of Defence claimed it had killed “four influential field commanders”, one of whom was Tarad al-Jarba (Abu Muhammad al-Shimali), and forty other IS jihadists, in an airstrike near Deir Ezzor city. Later in the day, the Russians claimed day that another of the four commanders was Gulmurod Khalimov (Abu Umar al-Tajiki), named by the U.S.-led coalition as IS’s War Minister. In fact, it is likely that Khalimov was already dead and that al-Jarba is still alive.

GULMUROD KHALIMOV

Gulmurod Khalimov was born on 14 May 1975 in Varzob in the west of the Tajik Socialist Republic, now Tajikistan and then part of the Soviet Union.

Khalimov was handpicked by Tajik president Emomali Rahmon to lead the OMON, the special police forces under the Tajik interior ministry charged with suppressing Islamist insurgent and terrorist activity in Tajikistan. Khalimov has also worked in the presidential guard, and received training from the United States. Between 2003 and 2014, Khalimov attended five U.S.-funded courses, three of them in the United States and two in Tajikistan.

Khalimov disappeared on 23 April 2015, and appeared in IS’s ranks for the first time in a video of 28 May 2015, where he brandished a sniper rifle, made reference to the misery of Tajik labourers in Russia, and spoke of his eagerness to bring holy war back to Tajikistan, to overthrow “you dogs, the president and ministers”, and to impose the shari’a. Khalimov also threatened the United States. “Listen, Americans, you pigs. I’ve been three times to America, and I saw how you train fighters to kill Muslims,” Khalimov said, in reference to his prior U.S.-provided anti-jihadist training. “God willing, I will come with this weapon to your cities, your homes, and kill you”.

It is believed that 1,100 Tajiks have taken up jihad in the Levant, with 300 of them having been killed, a considerable number as suicide bombers. As the offensive began to push IS out of its Iraqi “capital”, Mosul, the caliph called on his troops to stand firm, as opposed to the tactics used elsewhere. Russian-speakers cadres were crucial in this defensive effort, and one of the means they adopted was waves of suicide car bombers, of which Tajiks were the largest individual contingent. About 100 Tajik jihadists are believed to have returned to their country.

The Tajik state was faced with an Islamist insurrection almost at the moment of independence. The form that political Islam has taken in Tajikistan is shaped in part by the games the late-era KGB played with the religious movements that were reviving just as the Soviet Empire collapsed. After defeating the Islamists militarily, Tajikistan set about marginalizing them socially and politically, including with the imposition of authoritarian secular measures, notably banning the hijab, shutting down all non-government-controlled mosques, publicly shaving the beards of 13,000 citizens at one point, limiting public prayer, and preventing under-18s from entering mosques. This has provided Islamists and jihadists further political room to claim that their demands are liberalizing for Muslims. The claim from the jihadists that their war is against tyranny in general has resonance in Tajikistan, one of the most repressive states even in the notoriously unfree former Soviet Central Asia. Dushanbe is slightly more merciful than the barbarous regimes in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, but significantly less free than Kazakhstan, and in a completely different category to Kyrgyzstan, which has space for political dissent to a degree unheard of in her neighbours.

Khalimov was added to the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorists on 29 September 2015. Interestingly, the only role the U.S. specified that Khalimov held was “recruiter”. Likewise on 30 August 2016, when the State Department announced a $3 million reward for information leading to Khalimov’s neutralization, it was mentioned that he had been a “special operations colonel, police commander, and military sniper” in Tajikistan, but “recruiter” was the only specific description given of Khalimov’s role within IS.

An official speaking anonymously to Reuters “suggested that Khalimov was regarded as a special threat because of his counter-terrorism training, which included ‘crisis response, hostage negotiation and tactical leadership’. ‘We consider Gulmurod Khalimov to be a threat to national security and the U.S. Department of State due to his prior counter-terrorism experience and training,’ the official said.”

It was reported on 22 June 2015 that Khalimov, along with Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani), the famous Georgian-Chechen jihadist, had been killed in Mosul. Batirashvili was reported dead at least eight times before his final demise on 10 July 2016.

Batirashvili was said by the Coalition to be IS’s “Minister of War”, and reports originating with Russian- and Iraqi government-linked media emerged in September 2016 saying Khalimov had replaced Batirashvili. This has remained a somewhat perplexing issue because the War Ministry was abolished with the Chief of Staff or Commander-in-Chief position in 2011 when the military apparatus was restructured to combine the two positions into a Military Council led by the caliph’s deputy, Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr). The lineage of Military Council leaders—down to its current chief, Iyad al-Ubaydi (Abu Saleh al-Hayfa)—is known and does not include Batirashvili nor Khalimov.

There seems to be little doubt that both men served in senior positions. Batirashvili was an important field commander and even appears to have been on the Shura Council—the executive committee of IS that offers advice and support to the caliph in implementing IS’s doctrine (and can theoretically remove him if he fails in these duties). Khalimov has almost certainly been involved in providing training in military tactics and other matters. Whether either man served a strategic role in IS is open to doubt. It is likely that the operational importance of both men within the caliphate has been somewhat overstated, and their role in propaganda-recruitment from their homelands understated.

Between 3 and 9 April 2017, Khalimov was killed in the 17th of July neighbourhood of Mosul in an airstrike, the third targeted attempt on Khalimov’s life by the Coalition. This was reported in The Times of London by Gareth Browne, who reported most of the Mosul operation from near the frontlines. When I checked with Browne in the aftermath of Moscow’s claims in September, he reaffirmed his reporting.

“Death by airstrike, particularly in Syria or Iraq, is hard to disprove,” Browne noted, and “Russian claims of action against ISIS often manipulate this uncertainty in an effort to erroneously prove they are playing a significant role in the fight against ISIS, as opposed to merely propping up Bashar al-Asad in Syria.” “Coalition and Iraqi reports are a far more reliable source of information,” Browne added, and in this case the sources were “directly involved in the strike that killed him”.

THE AFTERMATH OF KHALIMOV

The Khalimov case continues to reverberate in his homeland.

It was reported on 17 April 2017 that Khalimov’s eldest son, Bekhruz Khalimov, 18, was arrested three weeks previously—in the final days of March 2017. Bekhruz had allegedly been planning to join his father in IS-held areas of Syria.

And on 4 July 2017, four relatives of Khalimov’s—two brothers and two nephews—were reported by police to have been killed when security forces raided the village of Ibrat in the Vose district of Khatlon Province. One of the brothers was named as Sultanmurad Khalimov, 52; nobody else was named. The brothers had apparently been under surveillance in Dushanbe, and were followed when they left the capital earlier in the day. A security source said the foursome were trying, with three other men, to cross into Afghanistan. Ibrat is about fifteen miles from the Afghan border.

TARAD AL-JARBA

Tarad al-Jarba was born on 20 November 1979 in Saudi Arabia. Al-Jarba joined IS in 2005, and has risen steadily through the ranks, now one its most senior officials and one of the few remaining from the first incarnation of the movement after the Coalition has decimated its leadership structure.

Al-Jarba was, from no later than 2013, a key official working for IS’s Immigration and Logistics Committee in the Jarabulus-Azaz area of northern Syria. As of April 2015, al-Jarba was the overall “border emir”, in charge of the processing centre for the incoming foreign fighters from Turkey to Syria, housing them, sifting through them ensure skills were appropriately allocated, getting men to the right fronts, and so on. This role as lead smuggler involved not only people but other resources.

Al-Jarba was placed on the U.S. Treasury sanctions and the “Rewards for Justice” (bounties) lists on 29 September 2015 for this activity as a lead facilitator of the foreign jihadists. The U.S. also noted at that time that al-Jarba was IS’s “leader for operations outside of Syria and Iraq”. Unsurprisingly, given his role as the “gatekeeper”, al-Jarba was implicated in the 13 November 2015 massacre in Paris, since at the very least he enabled the jihadists to cross into Europe with documents and other logistics to carry out that atrocity.

With the shut down of the border after Turkey moved into Syria and the demise of Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) in August 2016, al-Jarba took on a different role, as governor of Syria.

Al-Jarba was identified by the Russians as the “emir of Deir Ezzor” and “responsible for financing and smuggling new recruits to ISIS training camps”, who had been involved in moving IS’s foreign terrorists. This outdated description of al-Jarba’s duties is among the reasons Moscow’s claims should be regarded as false in the absence of independent evidence.

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Notes

[1] The claim of al-Badri’s demise was backed by the increasingly-unreliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

 

Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society

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