By Eka Janashia (04/29/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
In April 2015, youths from the Pankisi gorge a territory in Georgia’s north-east adjoining Russia, left for Syria as a result of the recruitment by the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) of Georgian citizens.
Pankisi’s rugged terrain is mostly populated by the descendants of ethnic Chechens settled there in the 18th, and later in the 20th, centuries during the Russia-Chechnya wars, and are referred to as Kists. They compose 75 percent of the 11,000 people settled in the valley.
Despite their considerable cultural confluence with Georgians, Kists largely maintain a Muslim confession, having practiced Sufi Islam traditions for centuries. Yet more recently, radical Salafi Islam, also termed Wahhabism, has become increasingly popularity and attracted a growing number of followers among the young generation, gradually supplanting Sufi clout in the gorge.
Religious radicalization in the gorge seems to present a looming menace for the economically weak and insecure Georgia. The exact number of Kists fighting for ISIS is unknown, but could according to some estimates amount to around 100 warriors. Some Kist fighters appear to have been successful in combat operations and achieved leading military positions in the ISIS army. For example, Georgian citizen Umar Al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is an ISIS military emir in Syria from Pankisi, and was added to the U.S. list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists in 2014.
On April 2, 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili and 18-year-old Ramzan Bagakashvili left their native Pankisi without their parents’ permission. Bagakashvili’s mother was told by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) that her son had taken a flight from Tbilisi airport to Turkey. Bagakashvili verified this information via a message he sent to his family.
Kushtanashvili’s grandmother reported that before his disappearance, the teen had been attending a Wahhabi mosque despite his father’s objection. Although Georgia and Turkey exercise passport-free border-crossing rules, it is unclear how the underage Kushtanashvili was allowed to cross the border without his parents’ consent. Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri pledged to investigate the case and punish the responsible.
Meanwhile, Kushtanashvili and Bagakashvili sent a photo to their families, apparently taken in Syria, where the teens are sitting behind an ISIS flag, dressed in military fatigues and holding machine guns.
On April 20, the 19-year-old Pankisi resident George Borchashvili reported that unknown Chechens had threatened him with decapitation unless he went to Syria. Borchashvili applied to the police for help.
Local Kists claim that a specific group of radical Muslim recruiters is targeting young civilians in Pankisi for recruitment to IS combat, most likely in Syria, and call on the government to tighten border control.
Aside from the Pankisi gorge, cases of recruitment have been reported in the Kvemo Kartli (Borchali) region, bordering Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, bordering Turkey. Although Muslims compose around 10 percent of Georgia’s population, some Adjarian villages have a Muslim population of over 90 percent. Because these villages are situated along state borders, radicalization can have dire implications for national security.
The ISIS presence in Pankisi is critical in this perspective. The valley edges Russia’s restless North Caucasus, which has made it an easy target and alternative route for Chechen rebels. While Pankisi is unlikely to become a central node of ISIS’ Caucasus network, Russia has historically displayed it as a “hotbed” of Islamist militants. In the early 2000s, Moscow dubbed Pankisi a shelter for Al-Qaeda and has since vigorously sought to place the valley in the media spotlight, diverting attention from North Caucasus where radical Islam has made a much larger imprint. Such accusations potentially provide the Kremlin with another justification for military interference in Georgia’s territory. Whereas this threat is specific for Georgia, ISIS activities on Georgian territory also implies general risks that are familiar to other countries experiencing similar recruitment.
In an attempt to address these risks in January 2015, the Georgian government initiated a package of legislative amendments criminalizing the participation of Georgian citizens in illegal armed formations abroad, their travel overseas for the purpose of terrorism, as well as the promotion of such activities. The bill has yet to be approved by the parliament, and even after it enters into force, it will be difficult to detect militants covertly engaged in terrorist combat operations abroad.
The move is an important measure, but remains a minor step towards addressing the growing threat of radicalization.
The government seems incapable of either strengthening control in villages targeted by ISIS or articulate an integration policy for the Muslim population compactly settled in remote areas. While economic development in border regions should be an urgent question, the problem must also be addressed at a deeper, societal level. The failure of developed European countries to prevent the departure of youth to Syria suggests that the most important reason for the radicalization of local Muslims is their alienation from the rest of society. Without addressing this question, Tbilisi will hardly be able to prevent radicalization and recruitment among Georgia’s Muslims.
In addition, some analysts point out Georgia’s need to pursue strategic dialogue with partner countries to share their experience in fighting IS and to make the country’s participation in the anti-IS coalition more visible.