The video followed a chillingly familiar script: young men brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher threaten to behead “infidels” and call on brother Muslims to join the “caliphate”. This time though the four unmasked men in the footage, which surfaced on November 23 on pro-Islamic State (IS) websites, speak Georgian, adding to concerns over the radicalisation of Georgia’s Muslim communities.
The State Security Service is investigating the video, has blocked access to two pro-IS Georgian-language websites, and has stepped up anti-terrorism measures. Already scores of Georgians have joined militant groups in Syria and Iraq, galvanised by a radical interpretation of Islam, while fleeing lack of opportunities in the Caucasus nation of 4mn.
The footage features Russian subtitles and the logo of IS group’s Russian-language media arm Furat and the men have been identified as residents of Adjara and Guria, two regions on the Black Sea with a sizable Muslim minority, who months ago left their families for neighbouring Turkey.
Moving fluently between Arabic and Adjara-accented Georgian, the two speakers quote the Qur’an, and warn “icon worshippers” – a reference to the staunchly Christian Orthodox majority of Georgians – that “the time of your beheading is coming”. The attack does not spare the local mufti, lambasted as a conformist. “People do not know true Islam, they are confused and you are confusing them even more…. Are not you afraid of Allah, who created you from a drop of blood?”
Adam Shantadze, Georgia’s deputy mufti, denounced the 12-minute video, saying it has no connection with religion, and condemned “any kind of violence, both in announcements and actions”. On November 24 deputy interior minister Archil Talakvadze told local media that the video apparently aimed more at “causing panic” than carrying out any specific action in Georgia.
“Those four guys would not have much impact,” Shota Utiashvili, head of the interior ministry’s analytical unit until 2012, told bne IntelliNews, adding that the intimidation should not be downplayed and that the authorities “have kept their eyes closed” for too long.
“The real game changer has already happened and is the influence that Tarkan Batirashvili has had on certain young people. He has a military background, he’s a Russian speaker among the high ranks of the IS and this has contributed to create a cult around him,” remarks Utiashvili, now senior fellow at the Tbilisi Centre for Policy Analysis.
Born in Birkiani, a village in the Pankisi valley in eastern Georgia, Batirashvili, aka Abu Umar al-Shishani, reportedly joined the IS ranks in 2012 and is believed to be the IS’ chief of military operations. Since September 2014 he features on the list of the most wanted jihadis in the world – the US Treasury Department labelled him a “specially designated global terrorist” and last May it offered a reward of up to $5mn for information on him. In total the number of Georgians believed to have joined militant groups in the Middle East ranges between 100 and 150.
In June the government approved a package of legislative amendments broadening the range of criminal offences linked to the participation in illegal armed groups in foreign countries, as well as travelling abroad, or attempting to, for the purpose of terrorism. Since then a few arrests have been carried out. Last April two teenagers managed to slip through the net and reportedly traveled to Syria to join IS fighters in Syria.
“It is key now to focus on the recruiters,” notes Utiashvili “as well as strengthen border controls”.
In the aftermath of the attacks in Turkey last October and in Paris in November, the authorities stated that risks have increased everywhere, but the terrorism threat is not “high” in Georgia. They also downplayed the risk of a Syria-spillover effect into Georgia and rejected the label of the Pankisi valley as a seedbed of recruits for militant groups such as IS.
“People live safely in Pankisi, these are our citizens, and we do not differentiate them from [any other] citizens of other regions,” Prime Minister Garibashvili told bne IntelliNews in an interview last October. “I don’t see that issue, [despite] about one hundred fighters who have left the country years ago.”
The recent footage signals the risk of radicalisation sprawling to other Muslim communities, beyond the much-analysed Pankisi gorge.
Pankisi and beyond
A long and narrow gorge spreading south of the Chechen border, Pankisi has been cursed by its proximity to Chechnya – the border proved porous in the two wars the separatist region fought with Russia and the gorge became a safe heaven for both fighters and refugees.
The valley is mainly inhabited by Kists, a Sunni Muslim minority and an ethic group kin to the Chechens who started migrating to the region in the 1830s, fleeing the radical interpretation of Islam imposed by Imam Shamil in the North Caucasus.
The Kists draw on Sufism, a mystic brand of Islam, but in recent years radical Salafism – or Wahabism – has found fertile terrain to spread, in particular among the young.
The gorge suffers from chronic poverty and isolation with one single road connecting 12 of the 16 scarcely populated villages along the picturesque Alazani River. Unemployment is rampant with only about 10% having a regular job, and youngsters, who make up about half of the 9,500 residents (according to the 2002 census), have little to do other than going to school and returning home.
However, while experts agree that men from the gorge are “disproportionately represented in the leadership of several militant groups”, in both Syria and Iraq, its importance is “somewhat exaggerated,” wrote Bennet Clifford recently, researcher at the Wake Forest University who works with the Tbilisi-based Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS).
Isolation and lack of opportunities though is not new and limited to Pankisi; these conditions are common also in eastern Georgia among the Georgian Azerbaijanis and in the west of the country – men from both areas are believed to be fighting in Syria and Iraq. Clifford notes that poor integration, barriers to free religious practice and development of independent religious institutions, and limited socio-economic opportunities for youth, all call for a comprehensive strategy to eliminate the underlying causes of jihadist recruitment and Islamic extremism within the country.