Residents of Georgia's Pankisi Gorge must be aware of the identities of those involved in recruiting young men to join Islamic State (IS) in Syria, a Georgian political scientist and terrorism expert said this week, in comments that are sure to fan the flames of an already heated debate over IS recruitment in Georgia.
"I am sure that most of the people from the Pankisi Gorge villages whose youngsters have gone to Syria are well aware of the names of those who are constantly working on the recruitment of young people," Tbilisi-based political scientist Bardi Nachkebia told Georgia's Kviris Palitra this week. His comments were translated into Russian by Interpressnews.ge.
Georgian outrage over IS recruitment of ethnic Chechen Kists from Pankisi was sparked by the news that two teenagers, one of them a minor, had run away from home to join militants in Syria this month.
The two teens, 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili and 18-year-old Ramzan Bagakashvili, flew to Turkey from an airport in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, sometime around April 2. A photograph apparently showing the two posing in front of a black IS flag in Syria was published by several Georgian media outlets last week.
Kushtanashvili's parents expressed anger that airport authorities allowed their underage son to leave Georgia without questioning him. Meanwhile, parents in the Pankisi Gorge said they had established a grassroots group to try to prevent IS recruiters radicalizing their sons.
Political scientist Nachkebia said that radicalizing and recruiting young people like Kushtanashvili and Bagakashvili "was not a job of a couple of days." "To drive a person to decide to take part in a terrible war requires some serious work," he said.
Nachkebia also added that the teenagers who had gone to fight alongside IS were doomed to die. "It's going to be difficult for those families whose children have gone there to hear this, but it has to be said in order to prevent it: if we talk about a 'ladder of terrorism; then these young, inexperienced [foreign fighters] are doomed to the last rung, i.e. death.... Our Muslim society needs to know [that] the younger the fighter, the more likely that he will be used as 'cannon fodder'," Nachkebia warned.
Foreign Recruiters In Pankisi?
Nachkebia alleged that the IS recruiters in Georgia were "foreign nationals" who were in the country legally, and who had "gathered around them a group of [Georgian] fanatics."
However, Nachkebia did not elaborate on which foreign groups might be involved in recruiting Kists from the Pankisi Gorge to fight in Syria.
Despite the furor in the Georgian press regarding the recruitment of Pankisi youth to IS (Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili slammed the media for "unnatural hysteria" on the matter this week, saying it harmed the country's image), few details have emerged about who might be behind this phenomenon.
Many questions remain about the recruitment of Pankisi Kists to fight in Syria.
First, while the Georgian media has focused exclusively on the recruitment of Pankisi youth to IS, the fact remains that there are Georgian Kists fighting alongside a number of militant groups in Syria.
Apart from IS, Kists are or have been involved with at least three other Chechen-led groups: Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), which considers itself the Syrian branch of the Caucasus Emirate; Junud al-Sham, whose commander, an ethnic Kist named Murad Margoshvili or Muslim al-Shishani, fought in the Second Chechen War; and Seyfullakh al-Shishani's Jamaat, which is now part of Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
The involvement of Kists in other Syrian militant factions raises the question of whether it is only IS that is recruiting in the gorge, or whether other groups are also working to bring Pankisi youth to Syria. If so, are IS recruitment networks separate from those of other groups? And what, if any, other Chechen pro-jihad or pro-Islamist networks outside of Georgia might be connected to recruitment in Pankisi?
While the answers to these questions remain unknown, it is worth noting one important connection between Pankisi Kists fighting in Syria and a foreign group.
Seyfullakh al-Shishani (Ruslan Machaliashvili) who pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra before his death in February 2014, had close ties to a Turkish NGO named Imkander, which helps refugees from the North Caucasus living in Turkey. Machaliashvili had become involved with Imkander when he lived in Istanbul before going to fight in Syria.
Imkander, which is reportedly also involved with helping provide medical treatment for Chechens fighting in Syria, openly praised Machaliashvili in a funeral in absentia it held for him in Istanbul in February 2014.
Video footage of the funeral shows Imkander leader Murat Ozer lauding what he said was the "great service" that "Chechen mujahedin from the Caucasus are doing to the Syrian jihad."
Ozer linked the "jihad" in Syria to the Chechen struggle against Russia, saying that Chechen militants in Syria had made the fight a "nightmare not only for the [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad regime but also for the Putin regime."
Ozer also sharply criticized IS, saying that Machaliashvili had refused to join that group.
While it is not clear what role, if any, Imkander plays in recruiting ethnic Chechens to fight in Syria, it is clear from Ozer's eulogy of Machaliashvili that the group is active in supporting the role of Chechens in the fighting, except those in IS.
It is also known that Imkander has a presence in Pankisi, where its operations have included providing food to residents of the gorge on the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. Imkander describes all the ethnic Chechen residents of Pankisi as being in exile from Chechnya, saying that they "formed an immigrant country in the valley."
-- Joanna Paraszczuk