Terrorist Threat in Georgia Shifts From Exporting Militants to Homegrown and Returning Fighters

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 4

(Source: BBC News)

Mukhammad Khangoshvili, a 24-year-old inhabitant of the village of Duisi, in Pankisi Gorge, Georgia, was killed, on November 7, 2016, in a bombing of the Islamic State’s (IS) positions in the Iraqi city of Mosul (News.ge, November 8, 2016). Khangoshvili previously served as a bodyguard for Tarkhan Batirashvili (a.k.a. Abu Omar al-Shishani), who was the Georgian commander of IS operations in Syria, until the latter was killed last year (1tv.ge, July 14, 2016). Khangoshvili is officially identified as the most recent Georgian citizen to be killed in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State. His cousin, Ramzan Pareulidze, from the village of Birkiani, died there as well, in January 2016 (Factcheck.ge, November 11, 2016).

As of November, the official total number of Georgian citizens killed in Syria in 2016 spiked to 11. In the previous four years, 14 fighters have been reported killed altogether (Factcheck.ge, November 11, 2016). The last annual report by Georgia’s State Security Service, released in April 2016, covered a time period only until the end of 2015. It claims that about 50 known citizens of Georgia have departed the country to join terrorist groups abroad (see EDM, April 8, 2016). The Security Service monitored 1,286 persons; 1,014 were denied entry into the country, while 40 were stopped from leaving it (Civil Georgia, retrieved January 16).

Terrorism expert Mamuka Areshidze believes that the number of active Georgian fighters is at least double the official number (Author’s interview, January 17, 2017). Areshidze points out that many become radicalized while working or studying at religious centers in Turkey. Thus, their mobility is not always trackable for the Secret Service of Georgia. Local media from Pankisi Gorge reported that up to 100 young men left to fight in Syria during 2011–2015 from this region alone (ICK.ge, July 6, 2015). Another Georgian source estimates the number at “several hundred fighters” (Resonancedaily.com, March 24, 2016).

Areshidze does state, however, that the count of radicalized Georgian citizens leaving to join foreign terrorist groups continues to decline. Partly, he attributes this to IS’s setbacks after the Mosul offensive and the growing number of deaths of Georgian fighters. Together, these factors are discouraging potential new recruits (Author’s interview, January 17, 2017). Yet, in some cases, deaths of jihadists are celebrated as righteous martyrdoms, which, conversely, attract new fighters.

Secondly, Areshidze cites a lack of charismatic leaders, stressing that “only one major figure from the region plays a significant role as a field commander: Murad Margoshvili of the Nusra Front (group more recently renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham). However, Chechen mercenaries continue to fight in the area of Aleppo in Syria under the command of another Georgian, Peizulla Margoshvili, or Salahaudin Shishani, and a few others (see EDM, December 14, 2016).

According to Areshidze, the third factor contributing to the decline in new Georgian recruits is domestic: namely, an internal split that has developed in the community of Kists, the 10,000-strong Chechen minority of Pankisi. In 2015, a new local imam—Bekkhan Pareulidze, a 29-year-old student of Islamic Philology at the Saudi King University—was elected in the village of Duisi (ICK.ge, July 6, 2015). Duisi’s Wahhabist Islamic community under Pareulidze rejected a pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State. Whereas, Imam Aiyup Borchashvili, from the village of Jokholi, which rivals Duisi in regional ideological influence, was arrested for swearing an oath of bayat (allegiance) to the Caliphate. The Kists enjoy a paragon position with regard to radicalizing Muslims from Georgia’s other regions of Adjara and Guria.

Official data on the possible decline or rise in numbers of radical fighters and their border crossings in 2016 is missing. The National Security Service has not issued any further reports. A question by this author was not returned (January 16). The US State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security rates the terrorist threat in Georgia itself as “high” (Osac.gov, January 17). Citing the general change in the Islamic State’s strategy toward globally dispersed terrorist acts—which aligns with its losses of territory in Syria and Iraq—expert Irakli Maisaia claims that “a well-trained unit of 600–700 fighters” was formed by the IS “with the main goal to conduct attacks in Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus,” including Georgia (Resonancedaily.com, June 22, 2016).

Areshidze agrees that terrorist attacks on transportation hubs in Georgia cannot be excluded (Author’s interview, January 17). Maisaia points to a recent pattern of attacks in the South Caucasus region and Central Asia, including in Dagestan, where 5 soldiers were killed and 20 wounded, as well as Kazakhstan, which suffered 17 victims last June in the city of Aktobe (Resonancedaily.com, June 22, 2016). The terrorist attack in Aktobe disrupted an important transit node of the transcontinental Silk Road network, which also extends to Georgia. Another threat, which Georgia shares with other Western countries, is the return of fighters back to their homeland, where they can blend in to prepare new, decentralized attacks. Areshidze also underlines that this risk of a homegrown type of jihad in Georgia, including by returning fighters, is tangible (Author’s interview, January 17).

To date, official information by Georgian security agencies to either confirm or deny such threats is absent. The recent series of terrorist attacks in neighboring Turkey, including the June 2016 Istanbul airport bombing claimed by the Islamic State as well as the killing of the Russian Ambassador and the attack on a night club in December, indicate a new volatility also to the south of Georgia.

The novel threat seems to be the shift from the export of regional terrorists to Syria and Iraq toward a refocusing of terrorist activities in the off-the-battleground areas hitherto considered relatively safe from terrorism by local governments. As the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups continue to experience setbacks in their “safe havens” in the Middle East, recent attacks in France, Germany, Belgium and the United States have proven that relatively low-cost acts of terrorism in regions of the West with low-level readiness become more attractive. More modest levels of actual involvement in the international fight against terrorism by particular countries do not seem to significantly reduce the risk of attacks. Meanwhile, Georgia continues its contribution to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) counter-terrorism efforts, including the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan (Civil Georgia, January 17), which, if anything, increases such risks.