A resident of Georgia's Pankisi Gorge who claims he fought alongside militants in Syria says that his fellow ethnic Chechen Kists who joined armed groups in that country have not taken part in execution-style killings, and that they went to the Middle East to help defend Muslims.
In a wide-ranging interview with Zviad Mchedlishvili of RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus in Tbilisi last week, the militant -- who gave his name only as "Ali" -- spoke about why Pankisi residents go to Syria, who helps them and what they do when they get there.
Ali's comments shed light onto the beliefs and ideology of those Pankisi Kists who have become radicalized and have gone to fight in Syria.
Among the claims made by Ali is his assertion that no one is actively or openly giving money to fund young Pankisi residents to go to Syria, because of fears that if a recruit dies fighting in the Middle East, his family will start a blood feud with the recruiters.
Surprisingly, despite his claim that he has fought in Syria, Ali says that he is a patriotic Georgian who would fight to defend Georgia if needed. Ali also complains that the Georgian government overlooks and ignores socioeconomic problems in Pankisi as well as the contributions the gorge's residents have made to national defense, in particular in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.
The latter assertion is interesting in the light of the fact that at least one Pankisi resident who is fighting in Syria -- the Islamic State (IS) group's military commander, Tarkhan Batirashvili or Umar al-Shishani -- fought in the Georgian Army in 2008.
Ali also explains that new recruits to Syria are not sent immediately to battle but are put through a monthlong training camp first.
According to Ali, the IS group does not have any official representatives in the Pankisi Gorge but it does send money to the families of those young men who have died fighting in its ranks.
Ali's comments came amid rising fears in the Pankisi Gorge about the radicalization of young men by militant groups like IS. Those fears were exacerbated after two Pankisi teens, Muslim Kushtanashvili, 16, and Ramzan Bagakashvili, 18, traveled to Syria.
Asked why young men from Pankisi had gone to fight in Syria, Ali explained that it was the duty of Muslims to protect their co-religionists. The fighting in Syria was not "terrorism," he said.
"First of all, Muslims live in the Pankisi Gorge. When somewhere in the world -- not just in Syria, Chechnya or Afghanistan, it doesn't matter where -- when women and children are being killed there, Muslims have to go to war. In Islam, it says that you've got to protect them. When an unbeliever, that's what we call it, an unbeliever, goes at least 10 centimeters onto your land, then it's already 'fard' [a duty] to go out on the path of jihad. Because all Muslims believe that they have to go to jihad. It's not terrorism.
"Those who don't know this and who don't understand Islam and jihad, they see it differently. Like, they say, people go there [to Syria] to murder, they go for money, and so on. It's not like that. If you ask any Muslim what's jihad, he will reply that it is the highest level of Islam. Muslims don't fight against women and children, they are fighting only against those who oppose them with weapons. People want to be martyrs. Martyrs are the highest level in paradise, this is the highest thing given by Allah. The Koran says [martyrs] are at the highest level in paradise," Ali said.
RFE/RL: What would you say to the parents of those young people who are going to Syria? After all, many of them are opposed to their children taking part in fighting in the Middle East. What do you think of their opinion?
Ali: In any event, the parents who don't know about Islam and what it is -- those, of course, are opposed. They are opposed to their sons going to jihad, because in their opinion this is a foreign war. But those who know Islam very well, they are not against it, on the contrary, there are people [in Syria] who live there with their families, even with little children, who were born there. But that does not mean that everyone has to go. Whoever has the possibility and who thinks that this is fard, he definitely must go. But today it is fard for everyone, because it is evident throughout the world that everyone is coming out against Islam. And the most important thing, if they [the parents] aren't controlling their children then no one is forcing them, they just have to control their own. That's what I think.
RFE/RL: Recently, the Georgian authorities have made a number of statements saying that they will stop the flow of young people from Pankisi to Syria. How do you see the position of our authorities?
Ali: The authorities...that is the Georgian government, that is a Christian government, they themselves have to comply with their constitution...but if someone wants to go then no one can stop him. If you close the border, he will find a way out. But the state, as a state, has to take measures to defend its own [citizens] as the constitution requires. This is not an Islamic state, which sends its people to jihad, but we do not violate the constitution, and if we do violate it then there's no problem, they have to detain us and jail us. We know that. They [the intelligence services] are working on that, they have their own plans and it's clear how they operate. Some aren't allowed through, some are detained [at the border]. They know who is going, who enters, everyone knows, but...if there are no serious reasons, then they won't cause you any problems, as this is beyond their scope. But if they know that a person is really going to Syria, then they will detain him and maybe jail him.
RFE/RL: The process of sending people to Syria.... Let's say a young person decides that he wants to go and take part in the fighting. How does that process happen? What does he do, where does he go, who does he turn to? What route does he take to Syria?
Ali: There's no one saying that you have to go there. A person makes that decision for himself, and when he decides to go as far as Turkey, and that costs $50, he can find that [money] for himself. He asks someone if he needs anything. But not everyone here trusts each other. If I want to go to Syria, then maybe I will say to a trusted person that I need $50, I want to buy something. No one admits that he's going to Syria, and when he gets to Turkey, he can get to Syria, no problem. It's no problem to find a way there. There's no one here who would approach someone, who would arrange a meeting for you, who would send you, or give you money. We have a Caucasian mentality. If a person sent someone there [to Syria] and he was killed and made a martyr, then his parents could go to that person and say that the dead guy's blood is on his hands. And they'd have to kill him...because blood....
RFE/RL: A blood feud?
Ali: We have a blood feud. That's why no one gives money or sends anyone. No one wants to get himself or his family killed for $50, let's put it that way.
RFE/RL: And if, let's say, a young person decides to go to Syria and goes to someone and asks for help, and says, "Help me get out of here." Would someone in Pankisi help then?
Ali: There are cases when someone goes and asks for help. Then, they will ask whether his parents agree. If not, we can't help. Maybe he will say that he needs money and maybe they'll give him a loan. But no one will give money for the direct aim of sending someone to Syria, because again, no one wants a blood feud.
RFE/RL: Tell me about yourself. Have you taken part in the fighting in Syria?
Ali: Yeah, I've been in Syria. Let's put it like this, I led a certain group...as a doctor. I helped out when the group was active, I pulled out the wounded. There won't be any problem for me to admit that I took part in many battles in various places. It's not a problem because in the first place I am also defending my homeland of Georgia, because we were also involved here [in the fighting]. For me it's not a problem to go to Syria and defend Islam. If the state won't let me then I'll find a way to get to Syria anyhow. The most important thing is that I myself wanted it.
RFE/RL: You said that you led a group. Do you have a fighting group?
Ali: A fighting group. It's a fighting group, they are there now...they are active right now. It is not a group like they usually show, they are protecting the innocent. There's nothing like what they show on TV, that they kill [carry out executions]. But there are other groups that do that. But they have a Shari'a court, and they do things there along that line. We from the Pankisi Gorge, we don't participate in these executions and murders. It's the Arabs who decide and they do that themselves. We don't participate in this. We are there to help as best we can, we take part in the hostilities. And the Arabs have already decided what to do with prisoners. We, as people who went there today and who will leave tomorrow, we don't do that stuff, so that they don't point fingers at us and say we are murderers or terrorists.
RFE/RL: Why did you come home? Are you planning to go back to Syria?
Ali: I have a family here, I live here. I came to visit them. If there are problems for us [those who fought in Syria] then we will just leave. We're not planning to do anything in response. We've never had plans like that. Now many people say that we want problems for Georgia. We have reasons to make trouble in Georgia, to oppose [things]. But nothing ever happened.
And there were reasons, for antireligious actions. For example, in one village now [the village of Chela in the Adigeni region] they removed a minaret from a mosque. That was enough to oppose the authorities. Because this affects Islam. But we don't do anything, because this is our land, just like anyone else who lives in Georgia. We have to and will defend it just like we defended it before. Like in Gori and Tskhinvali in 2008 [Gori was occupied by Russian forces and Tskhinvali was the site of a major battle in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War].
Some people have forgotten about that. They forget that in Pankisi there are people who would defend Georgia on the front lines. No one ever says anything about them. There [in Pankisi] people live in poverty and the state isn't even interested in our problems and the fact that there's no work. When something happens, then everyone remembers the Pankisi Gorge, about the fact that there are some Kists, Wahhabis [a derogatory term in the former U.S.S.R. meaning a radical Muslim], Islamists, jihadists...we are called various names that we don't like.
RFE/RL: How many people from Pankisi are fighting in Syria or are just in Syria?
Ali: Today they are saying such numbers, that when I watch TV I just smile. As far as I know there are about 12-13 guys there, that's the ones I know. Maybe there are another two-three guys who I don't know.
RFE/RL: Is there a situation where a volunteer goes to Syria and then returns for some reason? He either gets fed up, or he doesn't like it, or he changes his mind, or any other reason that makes him come home? Are there those who return?
Ali: I'm one of those returnees. There are a lot who return. There aren't any who just don't like it. Usually there are reasons why they have to leave, problems at home, some business or other. Whoever wants to leave can do so, no problem. I heard that they take passports away [in Syria]. That's true, but a person hands his passport over for safekeeping, then if he wants to come home they give him his passport back. He gets about $200-$300, maximum $500 to travel home. Money's no object there. There's no case of anyone being detained and not let go. He went there voluntarily, he can leave of his own accord.
RFE/RL: And what is the procedure there for joining the ranks of the volunteers? Let's say a person gets to Turkey, afterward as I understand it he is transferred to Syria, maybe by some guides. What next? Does he turn to someone? Does someone give him a weapon?
Ali: When you get to the [Turkey-Syria] border, Syrians are working there, for $20 or $10 you can cross into Syria. They have their channels there, and you go through them. And then when you arrive there [in the conflict zone] you need a month before you can go to the battlefield. They won't let you go there, it's not like you got here today and tomorrow you go to fight with a gun. You go through "training," there is a procedure. And not everyone fights. Some have education. Someone knows medicine, and someone else knows how to drive. Work is at people's discretion. The majority do go to fight, but not everyone is allowed. First and foremost, those who have experience and excellent physical gifts go to fight.
RFE/RL: Many people in Georgia are saying that they are afraid that an IS cell could become active in Pankisi, i.e. representatives of IS.
Ali: There are no such representatives. Many there are those who have links with [IS]. But officially [IS] would have to show a video where they said that we are sending this person to Georgia as the representative of IS. They have links with those who've had a family member become a martyr [i.e. die in Syria], they send them money so that they feel comfortable.
RFE/RL: Sooner or later, the war in the Middle East will end. When that happens, will the volunteers from Georgia who are now fighting in Syria come back to their homeland?
Ali: Of course, if the Georgian government does not cause trouble for them, they will come. Because this is their homeland, they were born here, they lived here. And if the war ends there and if they are still alive then they can also live there [in Syria] with no problems. If Russia attacks Georgia again like it did in 2008, then God willing, I think that everyone who is now in Syria or anywhere else will return to defend their homeland. I would do the same.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk