Georgia Steps Up Counter-Terrorism Measures with Arrests in Pankisi

The Georgian government picked its moment to detain supporters of the Islamic State in the Pankisi Gorge. At a time when rescue agencies were looking for missing people and escaped animals in the Vere river gorge, on the evening of June 14 the government held a counter-terrorist operation on the territory bordering Dagestan. The imam of the village Jokolo Ayuf Borchashvili and his son-in-law Ramzan Mghebrishvili were detained along with Ramazan, resident of Dumastur, who was visiting the Borchashvilis and whose last name has not been made public yet. Baadur Chopanishvili from the village of Omalo was also detained as well as relatives of a leader of the Islamic State Tarkhan Batirashvili – Merab Tsatiashvili and Gela Tokhosashvili.

The special operation was clearly aimed against the practice of sending young people from Pankisi to Syria to fight for Islamic State. On April 2 this year, some schoolchildren from Pankisi went to Syria with the help of local Wahhabist group.s With the total of Georgian volunteers to the fighting reaching over 50, the counter terrorist department of the Interior Ministry started an investigation into the sending of young people from the Pankisi Gorge to Syria.

The measure may have been influenced by efforts of Russian media to portray the Tbilisi authorities as supporting the flow of fighters from the Pankisi Gorge to Syria, by doing little to stop it. According to Mamuka Areshidze, expert in Caucasus issues, Georgia’s northern neighbor is trying to steer international public opinion toward connecting Georgia with terrorism, which could ultimately give the Russians grounds to launch its own anti-terrorist operation. History appears to be repeating itself as roughly 15 years ago similar efforts were made when Pankisi was apparently being used as a breeding ground for the Taliban. Georgian authorities could not control the gorge and for the Kremlin this territory was seen as an enclave for Chechen rebels.

After the Rose Revolution the Pankisi Gorge was apparently fully cleansed of Chechen and Islamist fighters. However expert Zaal Kasrelishvili says that during the rule of the previous government radical Islamists became very active in Pankisi. “It seemed that there was no problem but, in fact, during the rule of the previous government the number of radical Islamist followers increased in the Pankisi Gorge and they acted in agreement with the government. At least, after the Lapankuri special operation it became clear that there were important movements there. Thus, for us it is not entirely strange to see what is happening around the Pankisi Gorge now and I would like to say that the Pankisi Gorge issue was covered not only by Russian media but by western media which presented it as an ally of the Khalifat,” Kasrelishvili noted.

Although Pankisi has not been an issue at the forefront of Georgian politics for some time, non-governmental organizations have long been talking about strengthened Wahhabist movements in the area. There have been frequent discussions on the covert confrontation between traditional Islam followers and Wahhabists in Pankisi and if the government does not take care of this in time, the gorge might turn into an arena of religious conflict.

Expert in Caucasus issues Mamuka Areshidze does not know how the process will end if the government does not change its policy in Pankisi. “No one knows what this confrontation will bring about. Followers of traditional Islam are mostly old-aged people who have no financial or other resources to resist the strengthened Wahhabist unit. Since 1995, Wahhabism has been deliberately established in the Pankisi Gorge. It was then that the first Arab mullah appeared in the Gorge and, because the government did not pay much attention to it, today this movement is a strong religious community. Wahhabists receive money from abroad and have local government support. It seems that someone in the local government has decided to defer power in order to control the gorge and selected Wahhabists for some reason. They receive income not only from abroad but from the local forestry revenues. There is not only internal confrontation in Pankisi, we are losing citizens,” Areshidze says.

The Wahhabists apparently stepped up their activities after news was spread that Tbilisi had offered Washington the option to establish a base on its territory to prepare for fighting in Syria. This information was spread during the term of the ex-defense minister Irakli Alasania. However, soon after, Alasania was dismissed from his post and the Pankisi issue was closed, publicly at least.

When the latest counter-terrorist operation ended, the former Emir of the Pankisi Gorge Ali Kavtarashvili told the Kakheti Information Center that the Georgian government is “playing with fire” as apparently the captured Borchashvili is a representative of the Islamic State in Georgia.

Security measures have been made stricter in the gorge where special forces remain. The Interior Ministry has reportedly released 5 of the 6 detained people but Ayuf Borchashvili remains in detention.

Zaza Jgharkava

18 June 2015 22:55