Alarm bells ring for Pankisi gorge - the echo of the Syrian war reaches Georgia
Malkhaz Machalikashvili, a resident of Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, has been protesting outside of the Georgian parliament building for two months now.
He demands justice for Tamerlan, his 19-year-old son who died after being shot in a raid on his bedroom by Georgian riot troopers in January 2018.
Malkhaz and Zaza Saralidze, the father of a teenage boy killed in a street fight in December 2017, say they are going to continue their protest until whoever killed their sons have been punished.
This is a report from Pankisi Gorge, looking into the Machalikashvili family’s tragedy.
The article was first published on 29 January 2018.
Once known all over the world, life in Pankisi Gorge was relatively peaceful until recently. However, echoes of the Syrian war have reached this area too. The Gorge, once a notorious supplier of ISIS combatants, was thrown into the limelight again in December of 2017 as the Georgian riot police descended on it to carry out what they said was “an anti-terrorist operation”. The authorities claimed that the operation was aimed at persecuting the alleged accomplices of terrorists. As a result, the stability that was reached through a great deal of effort has been challenged again.
‘A bolt from the blue’
On the surface, the situation in the villages located amidst picturesque, forested, snow-capped mountains in the upper reaches of the Alazani River seems calm and peaceful nowadays. This area, which is locally referred to simply as Kheoba (Gorge), has once again entered the public spotlight in Georgia and beyond. At first glance this region seems no more different from other Georgian provinces, except perhaps for the minarets, plenty of men with unusually-shaped beards in the streets, and the fact that buying alcohol is a real problem here.
In fact, the situation in the gorge has noticeably worsened over the past month, especially after the death of 19-year-old local resident Temirlan Machalikashvili on 10 January who failed to recover from a coma. He suffered serious wounds after being shot in the head by a special taskforce officer in his own bedroom on the night of 26 December. Five more natives of the Pankisi Gorge were arrested at the time on the suspicion of aiding terrorists. The authorities claimed later that the young man had a grenade in his hand. However, his family fully denies these allegations.
This operation was a follow-up to a previous operation which took place on 22 November in Tbilisi, when, after almost a day-long fire fight, the special task forces finally killed three men who were hiding in one of the apartments in a high-rise residential building. It was announced later that one of the people killed was Ahmad Chatayev, a native of Chechnya fighting in the ISIS ranks. Turkish authorities have suspected him of masterminding the June 2016 terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport which saw the death of 45 people. Earlier, Chatayev attempted to visit Georgia and even served a sentence in a Georgian prison for the illegal possession of firearms.
According to the investigatory body’s official version, Chatayev returned to Georgia from Syria, having illegally crossed over the Georgian-Turkish border via forest footpaths in the Ajara mountains. By that time Chatayev’s arm and leg had already been amputated. His body was quickly identified in Tbilisi via the remnants of his prosthesis. The Georgian authorities claimed that Chatayev’s group had been plotting terrorist attacks on foreign diplomatic missions in Georgia, and that Chatayev also allegedly had some accomplices in Georgia, including Pankisi Gorge.
The special operation followed by the 19-year-old’s death fuelled tensions in Pankisi. An unprecedented number of people (about 1 000) attended Temirlan Machalikashvili’s funeral on 12 January.
The Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria was the first public official to visit the Machalikashvili family on 16 January. Many locals gathered outside their house on that day despite snow and freezing temperatures. As the public defender stated upon leaving the house, where she had an hour-long conversation with family members behind closed doors, the investigation agency should provide the family with more information on the evidence of Temirlan’s guilt as well as on the special operation itself. “The family has the same questions we have,” she said after the meeting.
The locals do have many questions. “We understand that there are laws, and that the investigation should establish the truth. However, we have objections as to the way they conducted the operation. In my opinion, it was a badly carried out operation,” said Khaso Khangoshvili, a member of the Pankisi Council of Elders. He believes that if the local youth had just been summoned for questioning, no one would have avoided it and the tragic incident could have been prevented.
None of the gorge’s inhabitants believe that the young man was guilty. At least, they find the evidence produced by the national security service, i.e. video footage featuring Temirlan Machalikashvili shopping in Tbilisi accompanied by the members of Chatayev’s group, inconclusive.
Nearly all Pankisi residents whom we communicated with unanimously claim that many in Pankisi knew the young men who were the alleged links on which the investigation agency based their main argument against the detained locals. Those young Chechens regularly appeared in the gorge over the past two years. The locals helped them orient themselves in the strange country whose language they didn’t know, not even suspecting that they might be wanted by Interpol.
Meanwhile, government officials are convinced of the detainees’ guilt. According to the Georgian Parliament’s Defence and Security Committee Chairman Irakli Sesiashvili, ‘the investigation body possesses evidence that Georgian nationals helped Chatayev’s group buy weapons and technical equipment’. However, the evidence has not been made public as yet.
Pankisi Gorge, January 2018. Photo by David Pipia, JAMnews
The population of Pankisi Gorge totals about 7 000 people. The overwhelming majority of the inhabitants are Chechen Kists, descendants of immigrants dating back to the early 19th century. About 12 000 refugees from Chechnya found shelter in Pankisi during the second Chechen war. At the end of 1990s and into the 2000s, the region was virtually beyond the Georgian government’s control and it was notorious for being a major hub for crime, drug trafficking and human kidnapping. It was associated with a potential threat at a global scale.
It was then that Russia blamed Georgia for supporting Chechen insurgents, and even bombed Pankisi region on a number of occasions.
After the change of power in Georgia in 2003, the government managed to stabilize the situation and establish control over the gorge without using any force.
Even the developments in the Lapankuri gorge in 2012 (when members of an armed group, predominantly natives of Pankisi Gorge, were shot dead by Georgian special task forces on the border with Dagestan) didn’t shake the established stability of the gorge, though it left many questions unanswered.
After 2012, the new Georgian government proceeded with its policy towards development of the region through infrastructure projects and financing of various programs.
here is no local government in Pankisi. The gorge is under the jurisdiction of the Akhmeta municipality. Mosques and the Council of Elders are the most influential institutions in the region. There is a police department, offices of several NGOs and English language courses in Duisi. the gorge’s largest village. The roads here are in good condition and the village has recently been supplied with gas pipes. Way Community Radio, which is the only local mass media outlet, has been functioning here via international donors’ assistance for over a year.
All the aforesaid is due to activities of recent years, which is highly appreciated in Pankisi as life has gradually gotten back to normal. However, the locals think that the latest developments may put an end to the ‘years of stability’.
“It took the population, authority figures and the government a great deal of effort to put the situation in the gorge under control … What has happened here is like ‘a bolt from the blue’ … It’s a heavy blow for us,” said Khaso Khangosvili.
According to Islam Gorgishviili, a reporter for Way Community Radio, the developments of the past few weeks ‘have dashed everything that the government did in the gorge before. Public trust in government has declined again.’
“The recent developments leave the impression that everything has backtracked to the level of the early 2000s,” said Musa Pankiseli, a spokesman for the Imam of the Salafi community. He can’t understand the reason behind such a use of force as each and every inhabitant of the gorge was ready to testify.
The Salafi mosque in Duisi village. Pankisi Gorge, 2018. Photo by David Pipia, JAMnews
From Pankisi to ISIS
Numerous volunteers from different countries across the globe have poured into Syria to join the ranks of the so-called Islamic State since the moment the latter emerged in Syria. Georgia, particularly regions mainly populated by Muslims, haven’t been an exception either. The idea of ISIS has become particularly popular in Pankisi.
Nobody can tell for sure the precise number of young people who left the region to fight in Syria. Their number ranges from several dozens to 150. The only reliable figures available so far are those for casualties – 26 people, which is a rather striking figure for such a small community.
Locals have been particularly indignant over the departure of underage Kists to Syria. They claim that under the law border guards shouldn’t have let them cross the border and that it was through the government’s fault that they managed to leave the country.
Georgian Parliament’s Defence and Security Committee Chairman Irakli Sesiashvili reported that in 2012 the new government toughened the legislation and took corresponding measures to prevent the Georgian youth from going to Syria. Sesiashvili claims that before 2012 dozens of people left Georgia for Syria to join ISIS, whereas after 2012 there were just a couple of people.
Leyla Achishvili, a resident of Jokolo village, lost her two sons in the war. At first Hamzat and Halid took refuge in Austria, where they later got married. In 2013, her elder son Hamzat left for Syria to join the fight for the Islamic State. Leyla decided to travel to Syria to dissuade him and bring her son back. She met her son and stayed with him for a couple of days, but was unable to persuade him.
Leyla learned about his death a few days after her return from Syria. Later on she found out that her younger son also joined the fight and was killed too. The mother never approved of her sons’ choice, but there was no way she could influence it. After her sons’ death she decided not to keep silent about her story anymore, perhaps because she wanted to save other families from experiencing the same grief.
Speaking about the Pankisi residents leaving for Syria to join the fight, Musa Pankiseli, a spokesperson for the Imam of the Salafi community, claims that the situation has changed over the past few years:
“Before the rise of the Islamic State, all the so-called ‘civilized’ countries had called for assistance to the suffering people of Syria. There wasn’t such a problem at that time. Afterwards, when actions were taken in some other directions [the emergence and strengthening of ISIS], many realized that and refrained [from joining the war on ISIS’ side]. For three years no one from the gorge left, and even if someone did, they were people who stayed in some other countries at that time.”
Khaso Khangoshvili believes that the main reason young Kists started leaving for Syria was the ‘euphoria’ from the ‘Caliphate’s first victories as well as the campaigns carried out by ISIS supporters, which the young people easily succumbed to. In addition, the Kists are Vainakhs, and the fighting spirit is in their blood. Russia’s interference in the conflict in Syria also played its part, because many Kists were willing to fight against Russia.
“After the outbreak of the Syrian conflict we’d demanded for years that the authorities should close the border and not let our youth leave the country,” said the community elder. According to Khangoshvili, they finally closed the border for those wishing to fight in Syria.
Ayub Borchashvili, a former imam of a local Salafi mosque, was arrested at the end of 2015 for recruiting fighters for ISIS. In March 2016, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Luisa Mutoshvili, a teacher and a civil activist believes that this situation was triggered by the lack of a clear-cut national policy aimed at engaging the local youth at least in some activities.
There is practically nothing the young people can do here, just as in other Georgian provinces. The only difference is that in other provinces the youth aren’t offered to get involved in war and win fame. A sports complex was recently opened in Duisi. However, Luisa believes that it’s hardly enough for the whole gorge.
Tarkhan Batirashvili, a.k.a. Abu Omar al-Shishani, a notorious ISIS field commander from Pankisi Gorge, who was killed in 2016, apparently played a decisive role in mobilizing the Pankisi youth in the Jihadists’ ranks.
Temirlan Machalikashvili’s Facebook page, which he ran under the name ‘Temirlan Pankisskiy’, has drawn the Georgian media’s spotlight after the special operation in Pankisi. On his Facebook page he posted, among others, photos and videos featuring Tarkhan Batirashvili and other ISIS militants. However, it turns out that there was nothing unusual in it for the Pankisi youth.
“Not only Kists, but also Georgians used to post Batirashvili’s photos on their Facebook pages, many expressing their liking for ISIS. There is a strong feeling of patriotism among the Vainakhs in general, and many of them put photos and videos of Chechen warriors who struggled for liberty against Russia,” Islam Gorgishvili explained.
Temirlan Machalikashvili’s sister Nana also believes that showing a liking for Batirashvili is a popular thing not only among the Kists but also among the Georgian youth. “There were just a couple of videos from Syria. Many people would post such videos, especially those who feel sympathy for the guys who died there. My brother has been blamed for that for no reason,” she said.
Nevertheless, for the local youth, the affinity for ISIS fighters, among them their relatives, neighbours and classmates, apparently doesn’t exclude some patriotic feelings towards Georgia.
“When discussing this issue, we always stress that none of the Pankisi residents fighting in Syria would ever have done anything harmful to Georgia,” said Luisa Mutoshvili.
“Why is it so that we have to constantly prove that we love Georgia too?” the young teacher said bitterly. Islam Gorgishvili chimed in, adding: ‘We are citizens of Georgia just like the others, and we have proved it on many occasions.”
Almost everyone whom we talked to in Pankisi is concerned about the gorge’s reputation. ‘Why are we subjected to constant defamatory attacks?’ a question frequently raised here.
“It’s very annoying to hear some politicians saying that terrorism is allegedly supported here,” said Khaso Khangoshvili.
Leyla Achishvili, who lost both her sons in Syria, currently runs a guesthouse, offering accommodation to international visitors. She shares her fears with us: “It’s been rumoured again that this place is a shelter for terrorists. I fear that visitors may stop coming here.”
Musa Pankiseli blames some media outlets and NGOs for disseminating negative information about the region. In his words, the gorge’s population wants stability so that ‘they can develop the economy and tourist potential’.
According to Gela Mtivlishvili, a Georgian journalist and editor of the Network of Information Centres operating in Georgian regions, overly dramatic coverage of the recent developments by the Georgian mass media has greatly contributed to consolidating stereotypes and stigma towards Pankisi. “Some of them claimed that the authorities were ‘dancing on a volcano’, while others alleged there was an explosive situation in the gorge … It wasn’t an objective assessment of the situation. The situation in the gorge is really tense, though not to the extent as what is portrayed by some media outlets.”
The Old and New Islam
Salafism (often referred to as Wahhabism) is a relatively new movement within Sunni Islam. The Salafi doctrine is centred around the concept of looking back to a prior historical period in an effort to return to ‘a pure’, true Islam. The Salafi movement has been persecuted in the Russian part of the North Caucasus, but it has gained a dominant position in Pankisi over the past few years, successfully forcing out traditional Islam.
The majority of the Pankisi youth are adherents of the Salafi movement. Nearly all Pankisi natives fighting for ISIS in Syria are Salafis. There is a new Salafi mosque being built in the centre of Duisi village.
The growing influence of Salafism led to the toughening of morals, though in less aggressive forms. A Christmas tree was burned down right in front of the Duisi police department last January. Later on, there was an attempt to set fire to the office of an NGO dealing with gender equality problems. The culprits were never found.
Duisi village, Pankisi Gorge, January 2018. Photo by David Pipia, JAMnews
The community elders have openly expressed their discontent over the spread of ‘radical Islam’. According to Khaso Khangoshvili, Georgia should pass a law on religions, ‘restricting those who breach the law’.
The Salafi community spokesman Musa Pankiseli views the struggle of traditional Islam with Salafism as an interaction between the older and younger generations. “Given the current level of technology, even a ten-year-old child may know more than a 60-70-year-old man. We appreciate our elders, despite what they say about us,” says Musa.
The emergence of Salafism in Pankisi has apparently undermined the Vainakhs’ traditional hierarchy, with elders holding the lead position in it.
The portraits of Georgian poets Shota Rustaveli and Ilia Chavchavadze can be found in the corridor of Duisi secondary school. School students happily pose in front of the camera during recess, with their index fingers lifted up – a gesture of monotheism, which is particularly popular among the Salafis.
According to Giorgi Goguadze, the deputy head of the Tbilisi-based Centre for Security and Development NGO, radicalization of Islam in Pankisi is a problem that needs to be addressed.
“The influence of Salafism is gradually growing in Pankisi, but we shouldn’t group everyone together … There is a very small group of people among them who are distinguished by their radical views. There should be communication with the Salafi community,” said Goguadze. In his words, the government doesn’t have a uniform strategy on this issue, and different agencies have different approaches as to the fight against radicalization.
Students at Duisi school, Pankisi Gorge, January 2018. Photo by David Pipia, JAMnews
‘Keeping a vigilant eye’
The special operations carried out in Tbilisi and Pankisi stirred up doubts among the Georgian opposition figures. According to Khatia Dekanoidze, a member of the opposition United Georgian Movement, this matter raises many questions.
“In particular, how did Chatayev’s group manage to enter Georgia? Why was there an arms cache in a residential area? The authorities also failed to produce any clear and convincing evidence of Temirlan Machalikashvili’s links with terrorists … Both special operations were characterized by disproportionate and unprofessional actions. Did they use proportionate force against Machalikashvili? Did he possess weapons? There are still many unanswered questions about the case and the authorities must answer them,” said Dekanoidze.
Giorgi Goguadze, an expert, believes that recent developments have undermined the Pankisi population’s confidence in the government and its institutions.
“All the programs implemented there, all the efforts made by donors, NGOs and the government are at risk now. Their main objective was to support the integration of this ethnic minority group, and now it’s up in the air,” said the expert. He believes that the government should take urgent measures to develop efficient communication with the local population with the aim to resolve the situation, including, among others, visits by senior government officials to the gorge.
After the collapse of the Islamic State many countries have been facing the risk of former ISIS militants entering their territories. In Georgia’s case, the investigation revealed that Chatayev’s group also arrived in the country from Syria. According to Giorgi Goguadze, one shouldn’t expect any ‘catastrophic turn of events’, though there is an obvious threat and the government should keep a vigilant eye. For that purpose the government should coordinate its activities and attract international partners.