Rossiiskaya Gazeta (RG), Russia's government daily, has emphasized what it says is the role of Kists, ethnic Chechens living in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, in the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.
The lengthy article, published on February 5, comes amid growing fears in Russia about the threat posed by Islamic State on Russian soil.
In the article, RG notes the release last week by Russia's Supreme Court of documents relating to the recognition of the IS group as a terrorist organization. The Supreme Court made the decision to blacklist the IS group in Russia in late December but the court's decision was apparently only shared with the Russian press a month later. As RG emphasized, the Supreme Court pointed out in its decision that Islamic State's military commander in Syria, Tarkhan Batirashvili (more popularly known as Umar Al-Shishani) is an ethnic Kist from Pankisi.
"It is no secret," RG added, "that in the ranks of the IS group there is a fighting force of Georgians, mostly natives of the Pankisi Gorge, where ethnic Chechens -- Kists -- live."
There is a problem with this statement by RG, however: while there are certainly ethnic Kists in the IS group (and in other Islamist armed factions in Syria), there is certainly no evidence to suggest that there is a "fighting force" that is specifically made up of Georgians. Rather, the IS group's Russian-speaking battalion, known as Katibat al-Aqsa, is also made up of a wide spectrum of militants from the North Caucasus as well as ethnic Chechens from elsewhere in the world, including Europe.
The RG article is heavily based on an interview with Timur Gaurgaev, the leader of the Caucasian Peace Forum, a Chechnya-based group whose stated goals include the "cultural development of the peoples of the Caucasus as part of the All-Russian and world culture" and helping Georgian Kists who "became hostages of the political situation in Georgia."
Gaurgaev explains that the Pankisi Gorge became "notorious" as a hotbed of militancy in the early 2000s, when Georgian law-enforcement agencies "for a certain period of time lost control over the Pankisi Gorge" and where "ideas of radical Islam were actively disseminated."
According to Gaurgaev, proponents of radical Islam from Chechnya -- as well as "foreigners, including Arabs and Turks" -- continued to preach in the Pankisi Gorge, and as a result, "a large outflow of young people to Syria took place in 2012-2013."
Gaurgaev goes on to quantify the "large outflow" of Georgians to Syria by saying that there are "up to 100 Georgians in the Islamic State group," the majority of whom are from Pankisi.
In the light of Gaurgaev's claims, it is worth noting that Georgian media outlets have suggested that around 50 residents of Pankisi may be participating in the conflict in Syria. Local residents in Georgia put the numbers between 50 and 60 people. A September report by RFE/RL's Georgian Service included an interview with a Pankisi resident who said that he knew "at most 10" locals who had gone to Syria.
In his interview with RG, Gaurgaev touches upon the main reason why the Pankisi Gorge has received so much negative attention as a "hotbed of radicalism" not only in the Russian media but also in the Western press: a handful of militants from Pankisi have become the prominent leaders of several Islamist factions in Syria.
Gaurgaev is correct, therefore, when he notes that Pankisi militants in Syria have "advanced to the forefront and are taking an active part in the fighting factions."
However, Gaurgaev says he does not know why this should be the case. "Why? For many this remains a mystery," he told RG.
In fact, the reason why a small number of Pankisi Kists have risen to relative prominence in Syria is not really a mystery at all, but in most cases is connected with the fact that the militants in question have had previous fighting experience in the Russo-Chechen conflict (Umar Al-Shishani is the exception and never fought in Chechnya). Of the prominent Kists in Syria, only Umar Al-Shishani is with the IS group.
Gaurgaev mentions another Kist militant in Syria, Murad Margoshvili, whom he says "has authority." Margoshvili, or Muslim Abu Walid Al-Shishani as he is known in Syria, is in his early forties and was a prominent militant in Chechnya, He is notorious for having fought alongside Arab foreign fighters in Chechnya until his 2003 imprisonment in Russia on gun-running and terrorism charges.
Another prominent Kist with experience fighting in Chechnya is Feyzulla Margoshvili, who leads the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar group, which considers itself the Syrian branch of the North Caucasus militant group the Caucasus Emirate.
Apart from these prominent individuals, there is also evidence that a handful of younger and inexperienced Pankisi residents have been killed fighting in Syria, mostly with the Islamic State group. However, it is also worth noting that, because of the intense media interest in Pankisi native Umar Al-Shishani and Islamic State, any reports of Georgians killed fighting with IS in Syria are usually noted in the press. In some cases, these individuals have been described as being "close to" Umar Al-Shishani, despite the lack of any evidence to back up such statements.
Why Blame Pankisi?
Since the first reports of Chechens fighting in Syria emerged in 2012, the reactions of the pro-Kremlin head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been to first deny that Chechens from Chechnya were in Syria at all, then to suggest that those who were fighting in the Middle East were part of the Chechen diaspora from the West.
Kadyrov's reaction is understandable, given that he has taken reports that Chechens have become radicalized and are fighting in Syria extremely personally. The Chechen leader openly detests the Salafist extremism promoted by Islamic State and by domestic Islamist militant factions, most prominently the Caucasus Emirate.
The ideology of these groups is a direct threat to the traditional, Sufist form of Islam actively and continuously promoted by Kadyrov in Chechnya, and hence also to his power in that republic. The Chechen leader has unsurprisingly reacted with open fury to the taunts and threats made against him and the Chechen republic by militants in Syria, and to what he sees as the Western media's fascination with Chechen militants in the war-torn Middle Eastern country. The fact that prominent militants like Umar Al-Shishani have drawn attention to the presence of Chechens in Syria has infuriated Kadyrov.
By locating the blame for the phenomenon of radicalization and of Chechen militants in Syria to the Pankisi Gorge and the Chechen diaspora, Kadyrov can ignore the growth of radicalization at home.
Beyond Kadyrov, in recent months, Russia has seen increasing fears about the rise of the Islamic State group and the threat of domestic terror posed by it.
One way that Russia has attempted to deal with the threat posed by IS, or at least with the way that threat is perceived by the public, has been to both to blame the phenomenon of Russian nationals joining Islamic State on outside forces. It is unlikely a coincidence, therefore, that the RG article also comes after a series of statements by Russian officials insisting that Chechen militants fighting with the IS group are not Russian citizens but "U.S. trained" Kists from Pankisi.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk