Following mid-November’s bloody terrorist attacks in Paris and the ongoing international campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and northern Iraq, Georgian authorities have grown increasingly concerned about the security situation in the Pankisi Gorge area, which is located on the border with the Russian North Caucasus republic of Chechnya. Kists, a local subethnos of Chechens, have traditionally resided in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. The Kist people are Muslim and speak a dialect of the Vainakh (Chechen-Ingush) language.
Nino Burchuladze, a renowned authority on the Pankisi Gorge who writes for the weekly magazine Kviris Palitra, asserts that hundreds of young Chechens from Pankisi have left the gorge to fight in Syria. Two of them have become influential field commanders—Tarkhan Batirashvili (a.k.a. Abu Omar al-Shishani) and Murad Margoshvili (a.k.a. Muslim Abu Walid al-Shishani) (Author’s interview, November 20). The United States recently put both men on its list of especially dangerous international terrorists (Kavkazsky Uzel, September 25).
“The difference between them is that Tarkhan Batirashvili is fighting for ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—the former name of the Islamic State] and Murad Margoshvili leads a group of Chechen militants who fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad alongside the Free Syrian Army,” Burchuladze told this author in an interview on November 20.
According to Burchuladze, Tarkhan Batirashvili started his military career in Syria fighting for the group Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front)—a local al-Qaeda affiliate. Later, Batirashvili became the leader of the group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. Another Chechen resident of Pankisi Gorge, Ruslan Machalikashvili (a.k.a. Feizulla al-Shishani), was also among the leaders of this militant formation. “After ISIS was proclaimed, the two leaders of the group started experiencing frictions. Tarkhan Batirashvili told Ruslan Machalikashvili that he was spending too much time on giving talks, PR and self-promotion at the expense of fighting the war. Machalikashvili responded that Batirashvili had no right to criticize him, because he [Batirashvili] was a Christian by origin,” the Kviris Palitra journalist said. Following that rebuke, Batirashvili joined the Islamic State. “However, the majority of Chechens remained committed to the Caucasus Emirate [insurgent organization active against Russia in the North Caucasus]. Soon they joined forces with another influential militant, Pankisi Gorge resident Murad Margoshvili (a.k.a. Muslim Abu Walid al-Shishani),” Burchuladze added (interview for the author, November 20).
Tarkhan Batirashvili’s father, 72-year-old Timur Batirashvili and his aunt, Lamara, who live in Pankisi, confirmed for this author that Tarkhan is not an ethnic Chechen, but a Georgian and used to be a Christian. According to Timur Batirashvili, “I am Georgian and a Christian. My son Tarkhan […] converted to Islam and then went to Syria to fight. Still Tarkhan remains my son and I pray for him by the icon of St. George so that he remains alive. His friends have recently told me that despite the rumors about Tarkhan’s death, he is still alive. I believe my son will not be killed and will return home.” According to Tarkhan Batirashvili’s father, his son does not help him with money, never calls him and does not pay any attention to him, thus Timur lives in utter poverty. “I plan to demand from him [Tarkhan] $800,000 through the human rights court in Strasbourg,” Timur Batirashvili joked (Author’s interview, November 19).
Tarkhan Batirashvili’s aunt, Lamara, expanded on her nephew’s background. “Tarkhan was a very handsome young man. He was a good student at school. Tarkhan joined the Georgian army and fought against the Russian military during the war in South Ossetia, in August 2008. However, he fell ill after that war. He had surgery and lost one of his lungs. Therefore, the government did not offer employment to Tarkhan in the army or in the police. Later, the Georgian security services arrested him on charges of illegal arms possession. The authorities amnestied Tarkhan in 2012, when he was 27, and he decided to leave for Syria to fight,” Lamara Batirashvili told this author. According to Lamara, if Tarkhan could have obtained a steady job despite his criminal record, he would not have joined the Islamic State (Author’s interview, November 19).
Caucasian affairs expert Mamuka Areshidze argued, however, that “Tarkhan Batirashvili cannot do anything apart from fighting. He liked to fight, and war was his second nature. He felt it was important for him to experience war and shoot. He lived among the Chechen Muslims. Therefore, he rejected Christianity, adopted Islam and went to Syria, where the bloodiest and cruelest war is being waged now” Areshidze told this author in an interview held on November 20.
According to journalist and expert Nino Burchuladze, she learned from Tarkhan Batirashvili’s relatives and friends who communicate with him via WhatsApp and Viber messengers that he has two Chechen wives. Both his wives live in Syria at a luxurious villa that belonged to a Syrian millionaire who escaped the country after war broke out. Tarkhan reportedly comes to the villa to rest after military operations (Author’s interview, November 20).
Despite Tarkhan Batirashvili’s significant authority and influence in Pankisi, he could not convince many fellow Chechens to join the Islamic State. The majority of Chechens from Chechnya and Pankisi prefer to fight in the ranks of the militant group Syrian Lions, which is led by Kist fighter Murad Margoshvili (a.k.a. Muslim Abu Walid al-Shishani). Murad Margoshvili’s cousin, Khizri told this author: “Murad fought in the first and in the second Russian-Chechen wars. He fought against Russia. He went to Syria also to fight against Russia, which supports al-Assad. But Murad had nothing to do with ISIS. Moreover, he considers Tarkhan Batirashvili and the other leaders of ISIS his enemies and fights them as he fights al-Assad’s army. That is why we were surprised by the US’s decision to put Murad on the list of terrorists, even though he fights against al-Assad and not for ISIS” (Author’s interview, November 19). Khizri also mentioned that Murad Margoshvili was forced to leave Georgia and go to Syria after he learned about the plans of the Georgian security services to arrest him for helping the terrorists who tried to infiltrate from Georgia into Dagestan in August 2012 (Connections-qj.org, January 2013; see EDM, September 7, 2012).
Many Kists from Pankisi first go to Europe, where they receive refugee status and then travel to Syria to fight in the armies of Islamist commanders. This is precisely what Khalid and Khamzat Achishvili did. According to their mother, Leila, who spoke to this author on November 19, both her sons died several years ago in Syria. They traveled to the Middle East from Austria, where they had been working and studying to improve their career opportunities. The two brothers seemed to be doing well in the Central European country. “I visited my sons in Austria,” Leila Achishvili recounted, “Khalid wanted to become a computer programmer and Khamzat wanted to become an Italian literary translator, but they decided to travel to Syria. After I learned about that, I went to Syria via the Turkish-Syrian border. Then they died. I do not blame them, because they were adults and lived by themselves.” At the same time, she expressed her indignation about international media that “represents Pankisi Gorge as virtually the main source of terrorism in Syria.” Achishvli asserted: “Our gorge is only several square kilometers. Far more English and French men fight for ISIS than Chechens from Pankisi, yet everybody speaks about us—the Chechens” (Author’s interview, November 19).
According to regional experts such as Burchuladze, the large number of volunteers from Pankisi who decided to go to Syria to fight can, in part, be attributed to the activities of various locally operating religious foundations, including ones affiliated with Saudi Arabia, which have recently financed new mosques in Pankisi Gorge. The influence of the radical Muslim preachers in the area is high, but the glorification of Tarkhan Batirashvili and Murad Margoshvili, who have become famous field commanders in the Middle East, is perhaps an equally important factor in local recruitment (Author’s interview, November 19).
Muslim Kushtanashvili, a 16-year-old Pankisi student, recently followed in Batirashvili’s and Margoshvili’s footsteps. “He secretly received an electronic ID, went to Turkey and then on to Syria. Now he fights for ISIS,” Muslim’s mother, Aminat noted. She is worried about her son, but he calls her once a week, using the WhatsApp messenger, and says he is doing well (Author’s interview, November 19).
Burchuladze pointed out that between 25 and 30 residents of Pankisi Gorge have used modern communication means, such as Skype, WhatsApp and Viber, to “remotely pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.” But she added, “The most frightening thing is that they have stayed in [Pankisi], and it appears they are currently awaiting orders from the ISIS leadership. Nobody knows their names, but they are ‘walking bombs,’ who are capable of staging an attack in any spot of Georgia if they receive such orders from Syria” (Author’s interview, November 19).
At the same time, Caucasian affairs expert Mamuka Areshidze noted that the Islamic State recruits fanatics not only in Pankisi Gorge, but also in the other regions of Georgia. “The situation in Adjara, where Muslim Georgians live, and in the region of Kvemo Kartli, which has a predominantly Azerbaijani population, is no better than the situation in Pankisi. Over 600,000 people live in these two regions,” Areshidze told this author. As of now, he argued, four Islamic State recruits from Adjara, two Georgian Azerbaijanis and 12 Kists from Pankisi have died in Syria, even though Pankisi’s population is only 10,000 people (Author’s interview, November 20).
These figures suggest that Pankisi Gorge occupies a prominent position on the list of Georgia’s potential threats. Given all the challenges the country faces, the Georgian Ministry of Interior has announced it will be stepping up the security measures and control at the borders (Civil Georgia, November 18). But even if the Georgian authorities succeed in stemming the cross-border flows of militants traveling to and from the Middle East, Tbilisi will still have to appropriately address the localized sources that are radicalizing the country’s Muslim youth.