Levan Tokhosashvili, also known as "Al Bara Pankisi," died fighting for the Islamic State in Syria. At least, that's what Georgian media reported on Aug. 28. But at the beginning of September, those claims came under scrutiny when Tokhosashvili's friends and relatives in Georgia insisted he was still alive. As Joanna Paraszczuk, a researcher tracking Russian-speaking foreign fighters in Syria, noted on her blog at the time, the confusion summed up just how problematic verifying information from conflict zones can be.
She might also have added that the same holds true for understanding the extent of the threat of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) from the South Caucasus and of radicalization in Georgia. Though some research into the subject has been done, hard numbers are tough to come by, and the push and pull factors behind the recruitment of these fighters are still open to debate.
Hunting for the Facts
Pankisi is a scenic region of Georgia inhabited mainly by ethnic Kists, a minority group related to Chechens. But it is perhaps better known as the birthplace of Tarkhan Batirashvili, who is also called Omar al-Shishani and often dubbed the Islamic State's "minister of war." Like Tokhosashvili, Batirashvili was repeatedly reported dead until a U.S. airstrike finally ended his life in July 2016. Prior to his death, the U.S. government had offered a reward of up to $5 million for any information leading to his capture.
For the United States, the European Union and Georgia, Pankisi's shared border with Chechnya has made the problem of radicalization in Georgia even more sensitive. The Georgian government fears that its often volatile relationship with Russia could come under even greater strain if Pankisi regains its reputation as "the Harvard of terrorism," as the Soufan Group's Patrick M. Skinner once described it. In January 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even alleged in a televised press conference that members of the Islamic State were "using the barely accessible territory to train, rest and replenish their supplies." Georgia, with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, strongly denied the claim. "There are no training camps for terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge," U.S. Ambassador Ian Kelly told journalists.
And indeed, fewer FTFs hail from Georgia than from other locations. According to the Georgian government, up to 50 of its citizens are currently fighting alongside extremist groups in Iraq and Syria; around 30 have died. But, says Elena Pokalova, an associate professor of the National Defense University at Fort McNair, the problem is that nobody really knows the true count. "The numbers I have come across range from 40 to 250," she told Stratfor.
Pokalova has narrowed that range to a rough estimate of 50-100 fighters, but added that many of these individuals weren't residing in Georgia when they left for battle. "Some of these individuals left directly from Georgia," she explained, "but others were recruited in Turkey or had been fighting in the North Caucasus before making their way to Syria and Iraq. I would say 70 percent are from Pankisi, 20 percent from Adjara and up to 10 percent from Azeri villages in the Kakheti, Kvemo Kartli and Samtskhe-Javakheti regions."
Nevertheless, argued Pokalova, who visited Georgia to conduct her own research in July, not enough is being done within the country to prevent the radicalization of at-risk individuals.
"I approached the issue of foreign fighters from the policy perspective: What can governments do to prevent individuals from becoming foreign fighters? While it would be very problematic for governments to interfere with personal motivations to become a foreign fighter, governments can address conditions that contribute to grievances that then feed into recruitment rhetoric of groups like [the Islamic State]."
Pokalova, however, dismisses the main argument for radicalization in Georgia — poverty — that has long been the basis of the government's rationalization of the problem.
"Some sources indicate that individuals who went did not come from the poorest families. Further, if they were then we would see more regions in Georgia affected. Poor economic conditions do not explain why individuals go to Syria and Iraq where a lot of them do not get paid. In fact, in my research on other countries I find that countries with higher levels of Human Development Index, and thus better economic conditions, have more foreign fighters leaving for Syria and Iraq."
Bennett Clifford, a research fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism, has done research in Georgia as well and largely agrees with her assessment. "Economics are a necessary but insufficient factor to explain radicalization," he says. "A lack of opportunities for formal Islamic education, fragmented Muslim institutions and a lack of local civil society measures have created strong inroads for more conservative iterations of Islam, including Salafi Islam, to instead create a substantial ideological presence."
To Punish, or to Rehabilitate?
Nevertheless, Georgia has introduced legislation to stem the flow of FTFs from the country. "As a result of our preventive measures […] there has actually been no outflow of the Georgian citizens," said Deputy Head of the Georgian State Security Service Levan Izoria, now the country's defense minister, last year. At the very least, as per the requirements of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2178, the numbers have significantly declined — especially since Batirashvili's death.
For the past two years, Georgian courts have leveled harsh prison sentences against any citizen known to have traveled to Iraq and Syria. For example, Davit Borchashvili, a resident of Pankisi who fought in Syria, was prosecuted and sentenced in 2016 to 12 years in prison. But this raises certain issues, note analysts and researchers, regarding the effectiveness of measures intended to deal with other returnees.
"Some individuals have already returned," says Pokalova, "but since Georgia has criminalized foreign fighting, these individuals do not identify themselves, nor have they gone through any deradicalization programs. At the same time, most of the people who returned prior to [the Islamic State] losing territory in Syria and Iraq are mostly disillusioned individuals who want to move away from violence and return to regular life. The threat is instead posed by those individuals who have radicalized enough to make the trip to Syria and Iraq."
While both Clifford and Pokalova believe that many Georgian fighters might instead be attracted to other conflict zones, Pokalova notes the danger posed by the Islamic State's calls for followers to stay home and strike local targets. In November 2015, for instance, the Islamic State released a Georgian-language video warning that unless Christians in the country's Adjara region converted to Islam, they would be beheaded. And though it's debatable whether the intent was genuine, a 23-year-old resident of Pankisi posted an image on Facebook that authorities, who arrested the resident in July 2016, interpreted as a threat to commit a terrorist attack in Tbilisi. Earlier this year, Clifford also discovered an image disseminated on Telegram threatening the lives of Georgian Muslim leaders whom the Islamic State believed to be cooperating with the government. Georgia's State Security Service said it was not the first case of such a threat.
Despite the attention local and international media outlets have paid to Pankisi, Adjara remains a particular concern to those examining the nation's security situation more holistically. In the region's seaside resort town of Batumi, Muslims still have not received permission to build a new mosque, and there have been numerous cases of discrimination against ethnic Georgian Muslims by those who follow the majority Orthodox Christian faith. Alarmingly, given the potentially important role civil society plays in countering violent extremism (CVE), Georgia's State Agency for Religious Affairs last year accused the nongovernmental organizations monitoring this discrimination of fueling radicalization.
"There are a number of areas where the government can work with civil society to change the situation. Cooperation between the government and civil society organizations is essential," said Pokalova, while noting that most government initiatives focus on improving security in Pankisi at the expense of other regions. "In Adjara, what seems significant is the Muslim-Christian divide. [The Islamic State] has picked up on this in its rhetoric and recruitment messages, describing the Georgian government as discriminatory toward Muslims." Moreover, she concluded, very few programs focus on the prevention of terrorism and radicalization. The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism describes CVE efforts in Georgia as being in a "nascent stage," and in its annual terrorism report, the bureau said only the government in Tbilisi was implementing them.
Progress and Peril
Even so, things do seem to be improving. Recognition is growing of civil society's role in CVE, or as the D.C.-based Muflehun's executive director Humera Khan defines it, "the use of non-coercive means to dissuade individuals or groups from mobilizing toward violence and to mitigate recruitment, support, facilitation or engagement in ideologically motivated terrorism by non-state actors in furtherance of political objectives."
Last year, moreover, the independent Hedayah International Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism based in Abu Dhabi conducted a needs assessment in Georgia as part of its STRIVE for Development project, an EU program aimed at increasing communities' resilience to violence. Extensive research on the problem of radicalization in Georgia is now underway, and an open call for CVE projects covering Central Asia, the South Caucasus and the Balkans has already followed.
Furthermore, several U.S.-based organizations were invited in July to bid for a U.S. Agency for International Development contract for violent extremism risk analysis in Georgia. The contract includes a CVE training component for the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi and would run from November to December. The assessment would explore not just Pankisi but also Adjara and ethnic Azeri communities.
Despite this progress, officials still appear to be overlooking the dangers that other forms of extremism pose. In addition to the rising tension between Adjara's Christians and Muslims, neo-Nazi and ultranationalist groups target immigrants — particularly Muslims — and engage in violence, albeit fairly limited. These movements risk feeding the narratives that groups like the Islamic State use to boost their recruitment. Says Clifford, "it's too early to say for sure, but [such] events have the potential to reinforce individuals' beliefs about the society they live in and therefore cause 'reciprocal radicalization.'"
Though Pokalova and Clifford both view Georgia's impending projects as a step in the right direction, they have added some important caveats. "When it comes to CVE programs, it depends how one defines them," Pokalova said. "From a broader perspective, one can include such programs as inter-religious dialogue initiatives into CVE. Such broader programs might not necessarily deal with terrorism specifically, but by fostering better societal ties such programs contribute to the prevention of extremism." Clifford, for his part, added a word of warning: "The landscape of radicalization in Georgia unfortunately reflects its diverse makeup, and there are multiple forms of radicalization in the country that span national, ethnic, religious and geographic boundaries. Thus, this is a circumstance where 'one-size-fits-all' CVE programs are destined to fail."