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Should Georgia Fear IS Threat To Its Pankisi Gorge?


A file photo of Pankisi Gorge in 2013

A file photo of Pankisi Gorge in 2013

Georgia's Pankisi Gorge has been the spotlight of Russian, Georgian, and Western media attention in recent days, following several reports of regional connections to the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

One report, which claimed that IS commander and Pankisi native Umar Shishani had threatened Russia in a phone call to his father, was repeated in a broadcast by the private Georgian news outlet Imedi on October 10. The broadcast said that Umar Shishani had threatened revenge because of "Russian occupation" (presumably a reference to Chechnya).

Western media outlets also expressed concern about the radicalization of ethnic Chechens in Pankisi by IS in the wake of reports that a teenage boy from the region, Beso Kushtanashvili, has died fighting in Syria.

In the light of these reports, it is worth asking two questions: first, is Georgia's Pankisi Gorge supplying a particularly high number of jihadis to Syria; and second, are militants from Pankisi joining IS or other groups?

It is not known how many of Pankisi's ethnic Chechens are fighting in Syria, but Georgian media outlets have suggested that around 50 residents of the Pankisi Gorge may be participating in the conflict.

While a number of the most prominent militants from the former Soviet Union in Syria are from Pankisi, most Russian-speaking fighters in Syria are from elsewhere in the region, particularly the North Caucasus (including Chechnya and particularly Daghestan) and other countries of the former Soviet Union, such as Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan.

Among the prominent Chechens from Pankisi are militants previously active in the Caucasus Emirate, a North Caucasus-based Islamic terror group.

Many of these militants, as well as ethnic Chechens from Chechnya itself who were previously active in the Caucasus Emirate, do not fight with IS in Syria and many have actively spoken out against the group.

Of the Chechens from Pankisi known to be fighting in Syria, the most notorious -- in the sense of having received the most media attention -- is IS military commander Umar Shishani (real name Tarkhan Batirashvili). Umar Shishani arrived in Syria in late 2012 and set up residence in the town of Haritan in Aleppo Province, where he quickly gathered around himself a group of Russian-speaking fighters from various parts of the former Soviet Union, mostly from the North Caucasus. He became the emir (leader) of a mostly North Caucasian faction, Jaish Al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Helpers), before taking a core group of loyal fighters (including some from Pankisi) to join IS in December 2013.

After Umar Shishani moved to IS, Jaish Al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar's leadership was purportedly taken over by another Chechen militant, Salahuddin Shishani. While Salahuddin Shishani's real name is not known, sources say that he is also from Pankisi.

Abu Musa Shishani, who at least until recently led the Latakia-based Syrian Islamist faction Ansar ash-Sham, is also reported to be from Pankisi.

Pankisi's most experienced militant in Syria, and the fighter likely best known to the Georgian security services is Murad Margoshvili, known by his nom de guerre of Muslim Abu Walid Shishani. The leader of a Latakia-based faction, Junud ash-Sham, Margoshvili has recently been blacklisted by the United States.

The ethnic Chechen fought alongside Arab foreign fighters in Chechnya until his imprisonment in Russia in 2003 for gun-running and membership of a terrorist organization; upon his release in 2006, he returned to the Pankisi Gorge and found himself unable to return to Chechnya. After reportedly narrowly averting the shootout between Georgian special forces and armed militants in Georgia's Lopota Gorge, and after finding himself at odds with some in the Caucasus Emirate, Margoshvili is said to have gone to Syria and established an independent faction.

Meanwhile, the Russian media has played up Georgia's concerns about terrorism, particularly in recent weeks.

In an article entitled "Georgia: Welcome, International Terrorism," Russia's RIA Novosti discusses the reports (condemned by Moscow and later denied by Tbilisi) that Georgia was to host a training center for anti-IS fighters.

"Georgia already has experience of using Islamists to destabilize neighboring territories," RIA writes. "For almost two decades, Tbilisi has actively taken care of and trained Caucasus Emirate personnel."

RIA also notes that Georgia was the birthplace of IS commander Umar Shishani.

While some Russian outlets are keen to emphasize the Pankisi Gorge as a source of IS militants, some in Georgia have tried to play down the concerns. The chairman of Georgia's parliamentary committee on defense and security, Irakli Sesiashvili, admitted that it was impossible to stop the outflow of Georgians from Pankisi to Syria. However, Sesiashvili said this was a "global problem" and not specifically confined to Georgia.

The answer, he said, was for Tbilisi to look to the West, and adhere to antiterror measures adopted by EU countries.

On social media, some Georgian nationalists offered a different (and more cynical) view of reports that Pankisi Gorge native Umar Shishani had threatened Russia.

A pro-Georgia account on Russian social network VKontakte published a photograph of armed militants with the caption: "ISIS [Islamic State] will defend Georgia in the event of another aggression from Russia."

An image on a pro-Georgia account on Russian social network VKontakte vowing: "ISIS [Islamic State] will defend Georgia in the event of another aggression from Russia."

An image on a pro-Georgia account on Russian social network VKontakte vowing: "ISIS [Islamic State] will defend Georgia in the event of another aggression from Russia."

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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