How I met the man who became the Islamic State’s military No. 1

On a hot Georgian summer afternoon in 2008, a friend and I were returning from covering the front lines of the slow moving but very tense Russian invasion of Georgia when, for the first time, we encountered Georgian troops digging into defensive positions on the outskirts of the capital, Tbilisi.

Russian tanks had just taken control of central Georgian city of Gori about an hour down the road, and this was the first time we’d seen Georgian troops setting up a defense of the capital. We immediately stopped our car and asked permission to photograph their setup. The Georgian soldiers cheerfully agreed.

After a few minutes, a handful of other soldiers arrived and asked us to join them in a tent. They wanted us to show them on a map where the Russian tanks had stopped.

As journalists, this was a request we couldn’t accommodate, despite the assertion by one noncommissioned officer that we really didn’t have a choice since we were in effect their prisoners. That’s when we noticed that several members of the unit had American military Combat Infantryman Badges on their right shoulders from the 82nd Airborne. To defuse the tension, I pulled out my American passport and declared that they couldn’t arrest comrades they’d fought alongside, as I had done numerous embeds with the 82nd in Iraq, where some of these men had been stationed earlier that year.

Laughter ensued, and the soldiers insisted on posing with me, my passport and their commander – who did not have an American patch and had not been to Iraq – for a funny photo that was immediately forgotten for six years.

I remembered the photo when the first pictures of the man now known as Abu Omar al Shishani were released last year. He was the commander of the unit who’d detained us, a fact confirmed by half a dozen people who’ve seen our picture and know him personally.

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero

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