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Does Georgia Have The Will, Or A Way, To Stop Pankisi Residents From Joining IS?

Tina Borchashvili's fears that her missing son might have gone to the Middle East to fight alongside militants seem to reflect concerns of a growing number of Pankisi residents. (file photo)

Tina Borchashvili's fears that her missing son might have gone to the Middle East to fight alongside militants seem to reflect concerns of a growing number of Pankisi residents. (file photo)

On April 16, Georgian Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri announced that the border guard who allowed two teenagers to leave the country for Turkey on their way to join Islamic State (IS) in Syria will be punished.

The two teens -- 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili and 18-year-old Ramzan Bagakashvili, both ethnic Kists from the Pankisi Gorge -- flew to Turkey from an airport in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, sometime around April 2. A photograph apparently showing the two in Syria was published by several Georgian media outlets this week.

The teens' parents and community leaders in the Pankisi Gorge criticized the security authorities in the Tbilisi airport for allowing a minor to leave the country unchallenged.

Gomelauri said that the border guard who checked the teens' documents at the airport had admitted making a mistake and would be punished according to internal regulations, though it was not clear whether the guard would be fired or reprimanded.

Reprimanding or even firing the border guard who allowed a 16-year-old boy to leave the country unchallenged will not solve the problem of the recruitment of Pankisi youth to fight alongside IS and other militant groups in Syria, however.

Umar Idigov, the head of the Integration Fund of the Caucasus People and a resident of the village of Duisi in Pankisi, told the Caucasian Knot website on April 16 that six people had left Pankisi to join IS in Syria between April 6 and 14.

Also on April 16, RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus service reported that the family of a missing 19-year-old boy from the village of Dumasturi is concerned that he might have gone to Syria. Dzhamlet Borchashvili went missing from his home earlier this week, and his mother, Tina, told Echo of the Caucasus that the teenager told her he was heading out "on business."

"I've got no idea where he might have gone. If they are going [to Syria] like that, out of their own free will, and they don't tell us anything, then we can't do anything to stop them," Tina Borchashvili said.

The Georgian interior minister also said that an investigation has been launched in Pankisi that will "help determine who is encouraging young people to go [to Syria]."

Sources in Pankisi told Echo of the Caucasus that there is no reason yet to suppose that Borchashvili is in Syria, however.

But Tina Borchashvili's fears that her missing son might have gone to the Middle East to fight alongside militants seem to reflect concerns of a growing number of Pankisi residents.

One step that the Georgian government is set to take to prevent the recruitment of its citizens to groups like IS is changes to the country's criminal code.

The proposed bill to make the amendments, which will have its first reading on April 17, includes new provisions to criminalize membership or training in illegal armed groups in Georgia or abroad, as well as recruiting others to fight or train alongside such groups. Those found guilty of violating the law will be subject to a six- to nine-year prison sentence.

According to deputy Eka Beselia of the Georgian Dream party and the chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights and Civil Integration, the amendments also include a new term: "aiding terrorism." That provision aims to allow the authorities to prosecute those who provide material assistance to terrorists even if they do not participate in hostilities themselves.

Some analysts are skeptical that legislation alone will help address the problem of radicalization in Pankisi or stem the flow of Pankisi residents to fight alongside groups like IS.

Michael H. Cecire, a Black Sea and Eurasia regional analyst and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told RFE/RL that the proposed "antiforeign-fighter laws" appear to have been developed to "provide the sensation of addressing a public need."

"There is no good evidence that tailored legal codes will help ameliorate the foreign-fighter issue in Georgia. The experience elsewhere -- in nearby Azerbaijan, for example -- shows that such laws may lend the appearance of government action but do little to actually arrest the flow of foreign fighters and sympathetic noncombatants to Syria or Iraq," Cecire said.

Although there is likely administrative merit in taking steps like those proposed in the amended criminal code, the new legislative powers proposed by the Georgian government "cannot be a substitute for getting to the heart of the motivating factors contributing to foreign-fighter flow and addressing them," Cecire believes.

"In Pankisi's case, the valley's crushing poverty and the international demand for Chechen fighters [in Syria, Ukraine, as well as in many other theaters] make for a noxious mix that is difficult to disrupt via legislation," added Cecire.

Idigov of the Integration Fund of the Caucasus People said that the Georgian government has the ability but not the will to prevent the recruitment of Georgian nationals to IS.

"Recruitment of people in Georgia is done by a specific circle of people. There are very few of them and they are very weak. It would be very easy to stop their activities here, but the Georgian authorities do not have the will to overcome them," Idigov told the Caucasian Knot.

-- 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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