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Pankisi Parents Struggle To Learn How Islamic State Recruited Their Sons

A mosque in the Pankisi Gorge (file photo)
A mosque in the Pankisi Gorge (file photo)

The parents of two teenagers from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge who ran away to join the Islamic State (IS) militant group are trying to find out who helped their sons travel to Syria, according to Sulkhan Bordzikashvili, a journalist based in Pankisi.

Muslim Kushtanashvili, 16, and Ramzan Bagakashvili, 18, were last seen in Pankisi on April 2. The boys' families learned that the two had flown to Turkey from an airport in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Kushtanashvili's grandmother said that the boys had telephoned home to say they were in Syria in an IS training camp. A photograph apparently showing the pair in Syria, clad in military fatigues and kneeling before a black IS flag, was published in the Georgian media on April 13.

Pankisi-based journalist Bordzikashvili told RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus service on April 13 that the parents were "trying to get on the trail of those who helped the youngsters to travel from here to Syria."

"They are searching for those people, and if they are identified, then I think the situation here [in Pankisi] could escalate to a confrontation. It's a serious matter," Bordzikashvili told Echo of the Caucasus.

Bordzikashvili said that questions were also being asked in Pankisi about the government's role in allowing the two teenagers to fly from Georgia to Turkey.

The teenagers' parents have asked for CCTV footage from the airport, but so far that has not been provided, Bordzikashvili told Echo of the Caucasus.

Although it is not known exactly where in Syria Kushtanashvili and Bagakashvili are, it is extremely likely that the two teenagers were recruited into one of the Russian-speaking, North Caucasus factions in IS.

The most prominent of those factions is a group known as Katibat al-Aqsa, which is led by an ethnic Chechen named Abu Umar Grozny. Katibat al-Aqsa has close ties with IS's military commander in Syria, Umar al-Shishani, or Tarkhan Batirashvili, who is the most prominent IS militant to hail from the Pankisi Gorge. There is evidence to suggest that other Kists -- ethnic Chechens from Pankisi -- have fought and died in the ranks of Katibat al-Aqsa, such as 21-year-old Zelimkhan Chatiashvili, who was reported killed in Kobani in December. Chatiashvili was from Batirashvili's native village of Birkiani.

There is evidence to suggest that North Caucasus leaders within the IS group's Russian-speaking factions have recently embarked on a more aggressive recruitment campaign, sparked in part by an ongoing struggle for ideological dominance between IS and the North Caucasus militant Islamist group the Caucasus Emirate.

Batirashvili's close confidante, an ethnic Karachay militant known as Abu Jihad, recently released a statement calling for would-be militants in the North Caucasus to join IS-affiliated groups there, and if they could not do so, to travel to Syria and join IS there.

Would-be militants also have easy access to those already in Syria via extensive social-media networks, including on Facebook as well as the Russian websites Odnoklassniki and VKontakte.

For Pankisi Kists, who have Georgian travel documents, reaching Turkey -- the main gateway to Syria -- is very easy, according to residents of the Gorge.

Not all of the Pankisi residents in Syria have traveled there directly from Georgia, however. There is also evidence that some Pankisi Gorge residents have been radicalized in Chechen diaspora communities in Europe. One of these was Khamzat Achishvili, a former close associate of Batirashvili, who went to Syria after spending some time in Europe.

Photographic and video evidence shows that Achishvili, who went under the nom de guerre Abu Abdullakh al-Shishani, was introduced to radical Islam in Austria. Achishvili was killed in July 2013 when his Chechen-led group fought alongside IS in Syria's Aleppo Province.

Kists from Pankisi have also been involved in recruitment networks and pro-jihad groups in Turkey. Seyfullakh Shishani, or Ruslan Machaliashvili, who pledged allegiance to Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, was killed in Syria in 2014. Machiashvili lived for a time in Istanbul where he was involved with Imkander, a Turkish group that has openly supported the idea of Chechens fighting in Syria.

According to anthropologist Paul Manning of Canada's Trent University, Pankisi Kists have a joke that goes: "Georgia -- you know, it's near Pankisi."

The joke reflects how Kists feel about the branding of the Pankisi Gorge in the Western and Russian media as a lawless valley used by Al-Qaeda and North Caucasian militants and arms smugglers.

Over the past year, thanks to the notoriety of individuals like the "ginger-bearded jihadi" Batirashvili, the Pankisi Gorge has regained its media prominence as a key recruitment center for groups like Islamic State.

While there is a great deal of concern in Pankisi about the outflow of youth to join IS, some in the Pankisi Gorge have questioned whether the intense media attention that has focused on Pankisi has been justified.

In absolute terms, the number of Georgian Kists in Syria is very low compared with the number of individuals from European countries in Syria. Around 700 Britons have traveled there out of a total of 6,000 Europeans, while a member of Pankisi's Council of Elders said that between 50 and 100 Kists have joined jihadi groups in Syria.

Unless the fundamental problems that push young Kists to fight in Syria are addressed, the recruitment of Pankisi residents is likely to continue, however.

Georgian analyst Aleko Kvakhadze told Echo of the Caucasus that some Kists have likely joined IS as a result of Pankisi Kist Batirashvili's dramatic rise to prominence in that militant group.

Batirashvili's transformation from Pankisi local boy to IS military commander in Syria has made him a role model for some young men from the rural, remote, and poor Pankisi Gorge, who have few prospects.

"The problem is that the inhabitants of the Pankisi Gorge have not been fully integrated into Georgian society," Kvahadze said. "Against this background, Tarkhan Batirashvili and other leaders from Pankisi are an 'example' of self-realization for Pankisi youth. This is an 'example' of how someone from the countryside can become a leader in such a large organization."

-- 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.


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