Border guards and officials at the airport in Tbilisi are to blame for letting two young teenagers from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge fly to Turkey in order to join the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, the leader of a Georgian NGO has said.
Sixteen-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili and 18-year-old Ramzan Bagakashvili are thought to have flown from the airport in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, to Turkey sometime after April 2.
Umar Idigov, the head of the Integration Fund of the Caucasus People, and a resident of the village of Duisi in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, told RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus on April 9 that "the main blame for letting those schoolboys go [to Turkey] lies with those very structures that sit at the airport and receive government salaries."
"They were aware that these kids had ID cards [internal passports], they are schoolboys, so why were they not asked at the airport -- where there are representatives of the security services, counterterrorism services -- where they are traveling, to whom are they traveling?" Idigov said.
According to Idigov, it is very easy for Georgians and Chechens to travel to Syria from Georgia.
Idigov said that Pankisi's Council of Elders -- who have called on the government to put measures in place to stop young people traveling to Syria -- were also at fault for failing to prevent Pankisi residents leaving.
However, the main blame for the problem lies with the Georgian government, he said. "They [the Council of Elders] live there, they know their sons, but they are also at fault because you shouldn't let your son leave. Yes, some, like these schoolboys, have run away. They go to school in the morning and the next day they turn up in Turkey. But I will say it again: the Georgian Interior Ministry is to blame for this, there is a representative of the Counterterrorism Department in the Pankisi Gorge who ought to answer for it," Idigov said.
Kists In Syria
Although there are relatively few Georgian Kists from Pankisi fighting in Syria and Iraq compared with militants from other parts of the world, the gorge has attracted a disproportionate amount of media attention, with both Russian and Western commentators suggesting that it is a "hotbed" of radicalization and IS recruitment.
In part, that attention has been because several ethnic Chechens from Pankisi have become very visible in Syria, none more so than Umar al-Shishani, the nom de guerre of Pankisi-born militant Tarkhan Batirashvili, who is now IS's military commander in Syria.
Idigov told RFE/RL that "the majority of Chechens go to [Batirashvili]" in Syria. "If it wasn't for his influence and authority, then these lads wouldn't have gone there. They are going to him not just from Pankisi but from the whole of the Caucasus -- from Daghestan, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia," Idigov said.
While Batirashvili may have the most prominent media profile, and IS may be the most well-known and largest of the militant factions in Syria, it is not the only group led by Georgian Kists.
The Aleppo-based group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), which considers itself to be the Syrian branch of the North Caucasian militant group the Caucasus Emirate, is led by a Kist named Salakhuddin al-Shishani, whose real name is Feyzulla Margoshvili. JMA is composed mainly of North Caucasian militants who have sworn "bayah" or allegiance to Caucasus Emirate leader Ali Abu Mukhammad.
Another ethnic Kist, Muslim al-Shishani (Murad Margoshvili) leads the Latakia-based faction Junud al-Sham. Margoshvili, who fought alongside Arab foreign fighter Abu Walid in Chechnya, has remained independent of the Caucasus Emirate and JMA. Though Margoshvili is thought to still be in Syria, his faction has faded from prominence in recent months.
A fourth Kist, Seyfullakh al-Shishani (Ruslan Machalikashvili), aligned his eponymous faction, Seyfullakh al-Shishani's Jamaat, with Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra before his death in February 2014. The faction, now led by an ethnic Uzbek, remains part of Jabhat al-Nusra.
As well as IS, these groups and their leaders also recruit and retain North Caucasus and Georgian militants.
Like Margoshvili, IS's Batirashvili has faded from prominence in recent months including among his core supporters on Russian social media. No new photographs, videos or interviews featuring Batirashvili have been released for some months, possibly as part of a media blackout in response to the U.S.-led coalition strikes on IS targets in Syria.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk