Fear of radicalisation grows in Georgia’s Pankisi gorge

By bne IntelliNews April 10, 2015

Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -

 

April 2 started like any other Thursday for Muslim Kushtanashvili, 16, and Ramzan Bagakashvili, 18. The 10th and 11th graders packed their bags and left for school in Omalo, a village in the Pankisi gorge, in northeastern Georgia.

But they never returned. When Ramzan’s mother received a message the following day saying he was in Turkey and she should not worry, she feared the worst. The two are thought to be on their way to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) fighters.

Cut in the Greater Caucasus mountain range, the Pankisi gorge is a hidden alpine gem, stretching for 10km close to the border with Chechnya and mainly populated by Sunni Muslim Kists, an ethnic group close to the Chechens and the Ingush. Following the disappearance of Muslim and Ramzan, the Council of Elders, an informal mediation body in the gorge, has called on the central authorities to enforce measures to stop the recruitment of local youth to fight for IS.

“The majority of Kists condemn sending of minors and of local youth in general to Syria for combat. As far as the local community is not able to eradicate this abnormal development, we appeal to the Interior Ministry, the government and the parliament to help us,” one of the elders Khaso Khangoshvili, was quoted as saying  after a gathering in the village of Duisi on April 6.

Some estimates put the number of Georgians who have joined IS at between 50 and 100, most from Pankisi. So far at least seven have died – the latest casualty was an 18-year-old from Birkiani village.

Chequered history

Locals have rejected the label of Pankisi as a jihadist hotbed, but the gorge has a chequered history. Beginning in 1994, separatist fighters from neighbouring Chechnya found a safe haven in the valley, using it as a base for attacks on Russian forces. A decade later, Georgia’s pro-Western president Mikheil Saakashvili cleared them out, with support from the United States. But the story did not end there. Last year, it emerged that Tarkhan Batirashvili, nom de guerre Abu Umar al-Shishani (the Chechen in Arabic), IS military emir in Syria, was originally from Birkiani.

For centuries, moderate Sufi Islam dominated in the Caucasus and in Pankisi, but over the last few years new mosques sprung up, following the more radical and austere Salafi strain. These mosques, which are allegedly built with money from abroad, attract mostly youngsters who are increasingly distanced from the older generation.

Muslim’s grandmother Kushtanashvili said in an interview (in Georgian) that his grandson had not even been in Tbilisi before and he could not have left the country independently without assistance and guidance from someone else. The family learned from Muslim’s schoolmates that recently he was missing classes frequently and was often seen in a mosque in the village of Omalo, even though his father was “not allowing” him to go to the mosque of “Wahhabists” – as salafists are referred to by locals and Georgian media.

The influence of the Council of Elders has been declining, and the rift between the two groups was evident at the gathering in Duisi as followers of Salafi Islam were present at the gathering but reportedly refused to join the council’s appeal.

“Radical Islam finds fertile terrain among the young in the valley,” says Dimitri Dolaberidze, professor of international relations at Tblisi State University (TSU) “Economic and social conditions are harsh, there are no jobs and the young generation is physically isolated and emotionally disenfranchised.”

According to the Kakheti Regional Development Foundation (KRDF), more than half of the inhabitants in the valley are between 15 and 25 years old and only one tenth of the population is officially employed. Community leaders have called for investment in the area to support the local economy and create jobs.

But while considerable sums seem to be involved in the trafficking of fighters – the money is paid into a bank and from there, recruiters promise, it will be passed onto the families – Dolaberidze thinks that it is a sense of purpose driving these teenagers who feel excluded and separated from the rest of the country.

“The authorities do not engage with the communities in the area. Tbilisi is a far away world.”

In January the Georgian government submitted to parliament a series of legislative amendments criminalising the participation in, and broad range of other activities related to, illegal armed groups abroad, as well as “travelling abroad for the purpose of terrorism”. The draft envisages between five and 10 years in prison, and also criminalises incitement to commit these offences with up to two years in prison.

An explanatory note states that participation of Georgian citizens in illegal armed groups abroad, is “one of the main challenges to the country’s security and stability”.

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