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Mysterious 'Taliban' Video Unleashes Political Storm In Georgia

The video purporting to be from the Afghan Taliban's "Voice of Jihad" in a monitor grab from June 10.
The video purporting to be from the Afghan Taliban's "Voice of Jihad" in a monitor grab from June 10.
You might expect a Taliban video threatening a country's leaders and warning of impending terrorist attacks to bring a nation together. But in Georgia, the appearance of such a video, purporting to come from the Afghan Taliban, has instead exacerbated political divisions and intensified political conflict.

It has been a brutal month for Georgian forces contributing to the NATO-led international coalition in Afghanistan. A total of 10 Georgian troops were killed in insurgent suicide-bomb attacks on May 13 and June 6.

But as the grim parade of coffins made its way back to Georgia, politicians in the country were at odds, accusing one another of using the tragedies to score political points in the ongoing struggle between President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Just hours before the June 6 attack in the southern Helmand Province, a video titled "Taliban Jihad Against Georgian Troops in Afghanistan" (caution: graphic content) was uploaded to YouTube. Purporting to be from the Taliban and using their Voice of Jihad website logo, the video threatens attacks in Georgia and against Georgian "crusaders" in Afghanistan.

The video is a montage of footage from Afghanistan mixed in with scenes from movies such as the Hollywood crusader epic "Kingdom of Heaven." It also features portraits of many Georgian soldiers killed in Afghanistan and their names. It is narrated in often ungrammatical, computer-generated English.

The video also names Saakashvili several times and ends with threats to "send to hell each Georgian crusader...[a]nd then we will come to Georgia and we will revenge."

"Saakashvili, we are coming," it says. "We know your addresses. We know your relatives. We will punish you."

But the video aroused suspicions from the start.

It does not use the same logo that Taliban videos normally use. In addition, unlike Al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban has never threatened to carry out attacks outside of Afghanistan or specifically target foreign leaders or their relatives. Further, the Georgian video uses music, something -- in fact -- that the fundamentalist Taliban never does, Taliban videos are usually prefaced with a warning not to reproduce their videos together with music.

In addition, journalist Temur Kiguradze, who is a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Echo of the Caucasus program, reported on his blog that he recognized some clips from the video as unaired footage from reports that he made in 2010 from Afghanistan for Georgia’s state-run, Russian-language PIK television. He concluded that the purported Taliban video must have been made by someone with access to PIK's archives.

Homegrown Faux Terror?

The government launched an investigation into the clip and soon learned that it had been uploaded from a computer inside Georgia.

"I don't want to hurry before the end of the investigation but, based on what we know so far, the video was uploaded from Georgia," Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili said on June 12. "The IP address and the location have been identified. Currently, an active investigation is going on."

Garibashvili confirmed that the U.S. FBI was assisting with the probe.

Lawmakers from Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM) quickly accused Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream of fabricating the video to attack Saakashvili. ENM Deputy David Darchiashvili went so far as to name Georgian Dream public-relations chief Koka Kandiashvili as a possible suspect.

On June 12, investigators questioned an activist with ENM’s youth wing, who posted on Facebook that he believed the "Taliban" video had been made in a studio belonging to Ivanishvili's son, Bera.

Ivanishvili has rejected the charges against Kandiashvili, saying that "making and circulating such clips" is "the method of the United National Movement."

Former Defense Minister Dmitry Shashkin told journalists on June 7 that the anti-Saakashvili venom in the video inclines him to suspect that Russia could be behind it.

"Count how many times they mention President Saakashvili," Shashkin said. "You know very well that for foreigners the word Georgia is much easier to pronounce than Saakashvili. The entire video is made around that name. This raises questions. Our impatient neighbor to the north has been caught making these kinds of videos a few times. Moreover, as you all saw, a lot of material in the video was recorded in this part of the world."

Bad Blood

Ivanishvili’s government had earlier criticized Saakashvili for a visit he made to Georgian forces in Afghanistan on May 26 for Georgian Independence Day. While most foreign leaders make such visits under extreme secrecy, Saakashvili often announces his in advance on social media, which Georgian Dream says puts him and Georgian troops in unnecessary danger.

In addition, pro-Saakashvili Rustavi 2 television broadcast footage of the president engaging in some macho chat.

Saakashvili: So you shot [the fighter] with your assault rifle?
Georgian soldier: Yes.
Saakashvili: And you killed two or three [Taliban fighers]?
Georgian soldier: There were four of them.
Saakashvili: Yes, there were four. But how many did you kill? Three?
Georgian soldier: Three.
Saakashvili: Who shot the fourth one?
Georgian soldier: Others. This friend of mine killed the fourth one.

Ivanishvili and Saakashvili have been locked in a political struggle since Georgian Dream won parliamentary elections in October. Last month, the government arrested former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, a key Saakashvili ally, on charges of abuse of office and embezzlement. The prosecutor’s office has also said Saakashvili himself could face charges, including for the alleged misappropriation of $11,000 in state funds to pay for Botox injections.

Georgia has more than 1,500 troops in Afghanistan, more than any other non-NATO country. Twenty-nine Georgian servicemen have been killed in Afghanistan. Following the June 6 attack, Georgia announced it was closing two of its bases in the country.

RFE/RL’s Georgian Service contributed to this report