Georgia is no stranger to the specter of international terrorism. But never has the threat struck so close to home as it did toward the end of last month. Panic, fear and anger quickly spread among the population when counterterrorism forces conducted an operation in the capital, Tbilisi, targeting a small group of militants believed to have links to the Islamic State. Drawing from the scant information available about the operation, it's difficult to figure out precisely what happened. Official accounts report that on the evening of Nov. 21, a large number of heavily equipped special forces units cordoned off an apartment complex in the city's Isani district. A live broadcast from the scene on Georgian television showed an apparent explosion in one apartment with the sound of intense gunfire in the background. Residents also recorded video of the situation on their cellphones and posted the footage on Facebook before they were evacuated. By late the next afternoon, some 20 hours after it started, the operation was over, leaving one officer and three militants dead.
Overnight, the raid shattered any sense of security in the country, from which dozens of citizens are believed to have joined militant groups in Syria and Iraq. Opposition parties and some media outlets in Georgia criticized the operation's execution — in no small part because, in the absence of official information and updates, rumors ran rampant. The raid drew international attention, too, over speculation that the Chechen jihadist Akhmed Chatayev, a known terrorist returned from fighting with the Islamic State in Syria, was among the dead.
Istanbul Ataturk Airport Terrorist Attack
The last time Chatayev's name was in the news was in connection with the June 2016 suicide bombing of Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. A month after the attack, which left 45 people dead, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, told CNN that authorities believed Chatayev had directed the bombing. Because of his alleged involvement, media eagerly reported his death in the November raid. The government in Tbilisi, however, refused to confirm or deny the claims until a week later, when the state security service posted an official statement on its website that "forensic activities … established that one of the killed individuals is Akhmed Chata[y]ev."
Joanna Paraszczuk, a researcher tracking Russian-speaking foreign fighters in Syria, says Chatayev's death is significant in many ways:
"Chatayev was an important figure for (the Islamic State) because he was so well-known. He was given the role of the amir (sic) of a battalion, but then he disappeared from view around March 2015 after IS lost the Syrian town of Kobani where he was in charge, at least nominally, of a Russian-speaking battalion."
A Fugitive Past
Chatayev had a long history of militancy. Born in Chechnya in 1980, he lost part of his right arm fighting in the second Chechen war. He received refugee status in Austria in 2003 but was imprisoned in Sweden five years later for possession of weapons. After a short time in prison he materialized in Ukraine, where he was again detained and faced extradition to Russia. Amnesty International protested his extradition, however, arguing that Chatayev would be at risk of torture were he returned home. A ruling from the European Court of Human Rights in 2010 upheld that view, and Ukraine opted to send him instead to Georgia, where he was wanted on firearms charges. Chatayev married a Georgian citizen living in Pankisi — the same region from which prominent Islamic State commander Abu Omar al-Shishani hailed — and made the country his home.
In August 2012, he was again arrested, this time in connection with a clash between Georgian forces and North Caucasus militants in the Lopota Gorge, close to the border with Dagestan, that broke out during a counterterrorism raid. Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia's president at the time, reportedly had brought Chatayev into the operation as a negotiator. But as the raid unfolded, the Chechen allegedly switched sides. Georgian authorities freed Chatayev, who lost a foot as a result of the firefight, in 2013, ostensibly because of a lack of evidence. A war of words then erupted between Saakashvili and newly elected Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition government.
According to Bennett Clifford, a research fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism, "multiple competing accounts" exist for the events that followed. One thing is certain, though: In early 2015, Chatayev left Georgia to join the Islamic State in Syria. The same year, the U.N. Security Council and the U.S. Department of the Treasury named him an international terrorist and declared his assets subject to sanctions. His re-emergence in Tbilisi, especially after the high-profile attack in Istanbul more than a year earlier, raises many difficult questions for the Georgian government and its allies.
How did Chatayev, a known terrorist and double amputee, manage to cross the border and return home after his stint fighting in Syria? The problem isn't unique to Georgia. As Clifford explains, many countries were too focused on preventing their citizens from leaving to fight with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to "plan ahead to develop measures to address fighters who left the battlefield and attempted to return home." Still, some observers in and beyond Georgia suspect that Chatayev must have had assistance from Georgian security services to re-enter the country. Evidence to support these accusations has yet to emerge, and on Dec. 5 the head of Georgia's state security service announced that Chatayev had not entered the country at an official border crossing (though he declined to say where the militant had crossed).
More Questions Than Answers
If Tbilisi's claims are true, then Chatayev's presence in Georgia suggests a vulnerability in the country's border security. Georgia's border "is likely to be much the same as any other," says Richard Barrett, a former head of counterterrorism for the British Intelligence Service and co-founder of the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force. "It's hard to cross if you are well known and a wanted criminal, but nonetheless possible, whether by land with the help of smugglers, or by air with the help of false documents. Someone who is able to cross the Syria-Turkey border might see the Turkey-Georgia border as less of a challenge." Elena Pokalova, associate professor of international security studies at the National Defense University, agrees that border control is a pressing issue, especially in light of the foreign fighters leaving Syria and Iraq following the Islamic State's territorial defeat. "Reportedly, the border between Georgia and Turkey remains relatively easy to cross," she says. "Strengthening border security remains one of the measures that could slow down the movement of foreign fighters."
Paraszczuk, on the other hand, hasn't ruled out the possibility that security services assisted Chatayev. "For me, (his death in Georgia) raises the additional questions of whether Chatayev broke from IS, whether he was acting in some capacity as an informer, and so on. But these are questions that we will likely never get answers to," she says.
For many Georgians, perhaps the most pressing question is what Chatayev intended to do with the large cache of weapons and munitions he evidently had in his possession during the raid in Tbilisi. Clifford says Chatayev threatened to attack Georgia in 2015 following the arrest of an Islamic State-affiliated imam in Pankisi but adds there's been no indication since that he was planning a strike. Furthermore, targeting Georgia wouldn't have made much sense, according to Pokalova, given that the country has accepted Chechen refugees in the past. "The majority of foreign fighters from Georgia, including Omar al-Shishani, have not called for attacks against Georgia," she says. "Pankisi foreign fighters do not seem to treat Georgia as an enemy."
Taking a New Approach
Clifford therefore believes it more likely that Georgia is becoming a transit route for Russian citizens trying to return home from Syria and Iraq. Along the way, some may get stuck in limbo on Georgian territory with other local returnees. "The takeaway from the (counterterrorism) operation should be that Georgia needs a more comprehensive strategy to respond to the threat of returning foreign fighters," he concludes. Barrett, who recently co-authored a comprehensive report on the problem for the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism, agrees:
"Prison sentences are certainly a good temporary way to deal with those returnees who can be proven to have committed a crime, but there is also the problem of what to do with convicted returnees when they leave prison. No country has found a good method for dealing with returnees, but it seems certain that some returnees will present a problem even if their reason for going to Syria was to join something new rather than destroy something old."
Barrett also notes the need to include the community in this process. Nodar Tangiashvili, a public policy adviser with the Tbilisi-based East-West Management Institute, says, however, that the Georgian government still sees combating radicalization and dealing with foreign terrorist fighters as problems for security services to handle. Georgian leaders think of "civil society more like competitors for resources and secondary responders" than like allies, he says. But as the news of Chatayev's death continues to roil Georgia — along with the Russian foreign minister's claims that the country is home to Islamic State training camps — the need for change is becoming harder to ignore.