Special Operation in Tbilisi Highlights Risk of Terrorism by Returning Fighters in Georgia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 154

Counter-terrorism operation in Tbilisi, November 22 (Source: EPA)

Georgia recently carried out one of the most significant counter-terrorism operations of the past several years. On the evening of November 21, several special forces units armed with heavy weaponry pulled up in armored vehicles to an apartment complex in the Tbilisi district of Isani. The densely populated area was sealed off for what ended up being a 20-hour-long combat operation that was, nonetheless, closely covered by Georgian TV stations and random Facebook-lives recorded by local neighbors. The identities of the suspected terrorists holed up in a rented apartment, who immediately returned fire to the special police, remain unconfirmed to this day, as does their actual number. The official report, first provided by Georgia’s State Security Service (SSS) only after the siege ended the next evening, merely mentioned that three “foreign nationals” were killed and one was apprehended (Civil Georgia, November 22). Initially, the head of the SSS, Vakhtang Gomelauri, refused to confirm they were a terrorist group (Facebook.com/sssgeo, November 22), thus adding to the still unresolved confusion.

However, alternative reports, based on photographic images from the site of the day-long standoff, acquired by the TV station Rustavi 2, claim there were six fighters altogether, two having managed to flee (Rustavi 2, November 26). Moreover, Rustavi 2 broke the news with exclusive footage allegedly proving what had been speculated by local and international media: One of the terrorists killed was apparently Akhmed Chatayev, a Chechen commander of the Islamic State (IS), known to Georgian authorities. Chatayev had been on the United States’ terrorist watch list since 2015; and he had also been sought by Russia and Turkey for organizing the deadly bombing at the Istanbul airport in July 2016 (Rustavi 2, November 27).

According to this report, Chatayev’s associate Guram “Adam” Gumashvili, an IS fighter and likely a Georgian national, charged the police outside with a machinegun and was fatally shot. A minute later, Chatayev detonated a suicide bomb vest inside the apartment. The graphic images of the aftermath show what is presumably Chatayev’s dismembered body and a leg prosthesis next to it. Chatayev was a double amputee, missing a hand and part of a leg—the latter lost as a result of the Georgian authorities’ counter-terrorism operation in Lopota Gorge, in August 2012 (Rustavi 2, November 27; see EDM, September 7, 2012).

Back then, Chatayev was arrested by the Georgian police and charged with the illegal purchase, possession and carrying of explosives. However, after the Georgian Dream coalition was elected in the October 2012 parliamentary elections, Chatayev was unexpectedly released from jail. He left for Austria and, by 2015, had moved to the IS-controlled territories in Syria and Iraq, where he prepared the 2016 Istanbul airport bombing. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the United States House or Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security, confirmed at the time that Chatayev directed that terrorist attack and had become “one of the top lieutenants for the minister of war for ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—a former name for IS] operations” (Civil Georgia, November 26).

The member of the Tbilisi cell arrested last week is reported to be Russian citizen S. Dudaev (Rustavi 2, November 27). In a closed court hearing, “S. D.,” as the authorities refer to Dudaev, was charged with unlawful purchase and use of weapons and explosives for terrorist purposes as well as with membership in a foreign terrorist organization. The accused denies the allegations, exercising his right to silence (Civil Georgia, November 24).

One officer of the SSS, Vano Goloshvili, was lethally shot during the operation, and four more were wounded (News.ge, November 26). After this, reportedly, a Turkish special forces unit joined the Georgian operatives, which led to the decisive assault on the apartment unit on November 22 (Pirveliradio.ge, November 27). The brother of Adam Gumashvili is a Georgian national who works for the Georgian criminal police (Rustavi 2, November 27). Per another report, Chatayev met with his Georgian wife, Aina Margoshvili, and child, who left the apartment just hours prior to the operation. Margoshvili allegedly was trying to exit the country ten days earlier and, as of this writing, is residing in her home in Pankisi Gorge (Pirveliradio.ge, November 27). The apartment was registered to Meri Khangoshvili and de facto owned by Tina Garguashvili, both also from Pankisi Gorge (On.ge, November 22).

The many open questions regarding the operation prompted immediate criticism from the opposition parties. United National Movement’s Nika Rurua bemoaned the severe lack of transparency during the entire event and its aftermath. More importantly, the absence of reliable information about the identity and aims of the suspects remains troubling: “If indeed [it was] Chatayev [who] was killed,” Rurua stated, “we have a serious security problem on our hands” (Rustavi 2, November 23).

The SSS’s Gomelauri merely acknowledged that it was “possible” one of the killed was Chatayev, referring to the necessity of DNA analysis to identify the suspects (1tv.ge, November 26). Given that Chatayev had been detained by Georgian authorities in 2012, they may be uniquely equipped for this task. Meanwhile, speculation has been growing about just how a terrorist sought by three different countries, if in fact it was him, could enter Georgia uninhibited. According to journalist Eliso Kiladze, Chatayev and his group crossed into Georgia legally two months ago, using Georgian passports at the Turkish border; and they were, in fact, assisted in this by the Georgian SSS (Rustavi 2, November 27). What the purpose of such alleged assistance could have been, is unclear.

That said, a likely IS-affiliate terrorist cell was evidently operating in Tbilisi, probably preparing for some kind of attack. The police discovered “a large number of explosive materials, munitions, explosive devices and firearms for terrorist purposes” in the suspects’ apartment (Civil Georgia, November 25). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) joined the investigation of this case of “international terrorism,” according to US Ambassador Ian Kelly (News.ge, November 27). Thus, the prognostication that the terrorist threat in Georgia had been shifting to the homegrown and returning fighters was drastically confirmed by the Tbilisi operation (see EDM, January 20). This constitutes a new quality of the terrorist activity on the Georgian soil. It remains to be seen how effectively Georgian authorities will manage to answer the key questions about the provenance of the Tbilisi terrorist cell and its intentions, and what new measures the government may take to minimize the actualized risk of similar terrorism by IS affiliates in Georgia in the future.