Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge feels pull of Islamic State

For young men in impoverished region, jihad can offer a tempting escape from a grim life

The family home of Tarkhan Batirashvili/Abu Omar al-Shishani in the village of Birkiani. He hasn’t been seen in the Pankisi Gorge since being released from jail and going to Turkey in 2012, and is now understood to be the leader of a radical group fighting in Syria. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

The family home of Tarkhan Batirashvili/Abu Omar al-Shishani in the village of Birkiani. He hasn’t been seen in the Pankisi Gorge since being released from jail and going to Turkey in 2012, and is now understood to be the leader of a radical group fighting in Syria. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

 

Like tearaways in the west gunning their cars away from the lights, the young Kists spurred on their steeds and tore off down Duisi’s main street. The horses clattered over the bleached concrete, trailed by the longing gaze of a pair of boys who had no ride, but sat at the village bus stop to while away another empty day in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge.

“We knew him,” one of the teenagers muttered, of a boy their age whose parents were now mourning in a village higher up in the Caucasus mountains, which surround Pankisi Gorge and rise to the border with Russia. The Kremlin’s most troubled territory lies beyond: the republics of Dagestan and Chechnya.

Beso Kushtanashvili (18) was at least the sixth young Muslim from Pankisi Gorge to die fighting in Syria. His parents told Georgian media they thought he was working in Turkey, like many others from this beautiful but impoverished region. But the lads at the bus stop – who declined to give their names – said they knew where Beso was. “He died when they bombed his camp or base,” said one.

They didn’t know who dropped the bombs – Syrian government forces or the US-led coalition now fighting Islamic State militants. Most of Pankisi’s 10,000 or so residents are Kists – Chechens who moved here in the 18th and 19th centuries – and their language and culture are almost identical to those of Chechnya today.

Thousands of Chechen refugees fled to Pankisi when the Kremlin poured troops back into the republic in 1999. Most have since returned to Russia or moved elsewhere, but several hundred remain. Teenagers attending after-school classes in Duisi run by a non-governmental organisation said local boys talk openly about going to fight in Syria and Iraq, and some claimed “dozens” had already left to join the rebels.

“Beso did a computer course with us,” said the NGO’s director, Iza Bekauri. “We last saw him a few months ago at a school graduation party. He said he was going to work in Turkey, like his brother. He was a nice, smiley lad. When we heard that he had been killed in Syria, we couldn’t believe it.”

Rise of radicalism

Bekauri and her colleague, Beso Khokhobashvili, said new mosques had been built in several Pankisi villages in recent years, and adhered not to the moderate Sufi Islam that was dominant for centuries in the Caucasus, but to the more radical and austere Salafi strain. “The Salafis have been getting stronger here for the last five or six years, and mosques are being built with money from abroad,” said Khokhobashvili, “Most youngsters are Salafis, and think the guys fighting abroad are ‘real men’. They don’t listen much to the older generation, who follow Sufism.

“Beso was from a poor family, and maybe he went to Syria hoping to make money. But people also come under the influence of religion. He was a normal kid but he was killed over there, as were others. It’s happening – a fact is a fact.”

Experts say Pankisi offers potentially fertile ground for extremism: money and work are scarce, travel through Turkey to Syria and Iraq is relatively cheap and easy, and the “warrior tradition” is strong among the local population. Prominent Chechen guerrilla commander Ruslan Gelayev used Pankisi as a base for attacks in Russia until 2002, when pressure from the US – which claimed al-Qaeda was present here – forced Georgia to clean up the isolated region.

Russian troops killed Gelayev in Dagestan in winter 2003-4, but his wife still lives in Pankisi. It is also the resting place for their son, Rustam, who was killed in Syria in 2012; relatives say he was a student who died when Bashar al-Assad’s forces bombed a mosque where he was praying; others say he was a rebel fighter who perished in battle.

It is not clear for which group Kushtanashvili was fighting in Syria – where hundreds of Chechens are believed to be present – but at least two natives of Pankisi are now considered to be leaders of radical groups there. They are Duisi-born Murad Margoshvili, better known as Muslim al-Shishani; and Tarkhan Batirashvili from the nearby village of Birkiani, who uses the nom-de-guerre Abu Omar al-Shishani.

‘Global terrorists’

The Arabic moniker they share means “the Chechen”. Batirashvili is considered the more powerful, and now features on a US list of “specially designated global terrorists” as a “senior (Islamic State) commander”.

One recent morning, no one answered the door of the little Batirashvili family home in Birkiani, where his father still lives. Officials say Batirashvili was raised a Christian, like his father, and as a boy worked as a shepherd in the mountains – where he may well have encountered Chechen rebels or helped them navigate the high mountains. He joined Georgia’s army and served during its war with Russia in 2008, but later contracted tuberculosis and was discharged.

In 2010, he was arrested for illegal weapons possession, and converted to Islam in prison. Upon his release in 2012 he left Georgia for Turkey, and then made his way to Syria. Georgian officials play down the threat of homegrown radicals, and deny reports that the country could host a training camp for non-Isis rebels from Syria.

Yet they seem to have no strategy for countering extremism in Pankisi or improving the prospects of its young men, for whom jihad can appear to offer a holy and heroic escape from unemployment and poverty.

“He won’t be the first or last to go and fight. It’s easy to get there if you want to do it,” one of the boys at the Duisi bus stop said of Beso Kushtanashvili.

And why are young men from Pankisi going to Syria and Iraq? “For their faith,” he said. “And to die.”

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