04.02.2016 Author: Seth Ferris

Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge In the News Again: Still Too Many Awkward Questions

Georgian_Army_soldiersAs the links between various rogue elements in the former Georgian Intelligence Services, Turkey and ISIL, the Islamic State, become ever more obvious increasing numbers of questions are being asked about activities in the Pankisi Gorge, one of the products of this unholy alliance. These are now becoming increasingly troubling for Georgia and its sponsor, the United States, as it is a known fact that US intelligence has used the no-go valley as a training base, and that the products of that training are now key commanders of the so-called “freedom fighters” in Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated directly that Pankisi Gorge is now being used as a training base by ISIL itself, not the US. “We are getting reports that IS militants use this remote area to train, rest and replenish their reserves,” Lavrov told a press conference in Moscow on January 26th. He added that it hasn’t been possible to open the borders since a visa regime was introduced between Russia and Georgia back in 2000 largely because the “terrorist threat coming from the Pankisi Gorge has not faded.”

The Russian Foreign Minister is bound to say that, isn’t he? But everyone else has had the chance to prove him wrong since 2000, as this reason has been given extensively since then. Instead the area has been sealed off, a large number of relatively well-paid non-Georgians have moved in and graduates from there have joined US-supported forces without any concerns about “interoperability”, the reason so many joint military trainings are held for allied countries.

As these allegations are affecting the free movement of its citizens, and would be a serious threat to its security if true, Georgia should investigate them. But nothing has ever been done, by any of Georgia’s governments. This tells you all you need to know about the nature of Pankisi Gorge. All that’s missing is the detail – and that is becoming clearer with each passing day.

Written in Infamy

The history of Pankisi has been reported in this journal and by various independent journalists. It was set up by US intelligence as a ploy to destabilise Russia. This was derailed by 9/11 and its aftermath, but by that time the operation was functioning well, and serving too many political and financial interests, especially those of Turkish intelligence, so could not just be closed down.

It is this which was being investigated by Roddy Scott, a British journalist. He was killed in September 2002 whilst filming the crossfire between the Russian army and a group of Chechen fighters who had illegally crossed the border to carry out an assault on Grozny. He was part of a joint investigation of how these Mercedes-driving Chechens were being funded, and their links to intelligence services.

Scott had written to a collaborator, “I personally think it’s a great story, it’s about the first time I have ever seen the possibility for someone to really lift the lid on everything, rather than the usual “journo-grasping-at-straws-with-no-good-sources” which seems to emanate from the region. And what really gives it the boost is that it is tied into US policy, which gives it the international rather than local/parochial flavor.”

This letter was written in response to an unedited draft of a specific article – “A visit to Pankisi Gorge raises questions about Islamic radicals” later published on Eurasianet. This clearly demonstrated the cozy relationship between Chechen fighters in two Georgian valleys (Kodori as well as Pankisi) and both Georgian and American intelligence and larger operational and financial support mechanisms involving Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the Middle East.

This is the ostensible reason why George Bush stated on March 11 2001 that “Terrorists working closely with al Qaeda operate in the Pankisi Gorge.” In response to this comment Pankisi was very conveniently described ever since as “trackless,” “lawless,” and a place “where even local policemen fear to tread.” A place no sane person would try and investigate, in other words. Consequently the flow of US-trained fighters from Georgia, and the transit of “freedom fighters” from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries via Pankisi, continued unabated.

In fact great power protection, and the lure of a decent standard of living, created a never-ending ratline of volunteer recruits and commanders, who eventually became the Islamic Caliphate (IC), which was created as a reward for service, a sort of twisted version of the Congressional Medal of Honor. But then it got out of control. When these trained irregulars became too irregular, and the sources of their training and supplies too blatant, damage limitation became the order of the day.

In August 2012, when US poster boy Mikheil Saakashvili knew he was going to lose the forthcoming elections, a special operation was conducted by Georgian law enforcement near the village of Lapankuri located in Lopota Gorge. According to official information, it resulted in the deaths of seven members of an armed group of Chechens and three Georgian law enforcers.

This was described as an anti-terrorist operation, as if Georgia had just discovered terrorists were on its territory. In fact, it was designed to eliminate those who knew too much about the links between terrorists, Chechens and foreign intelligence.

Once again, the problem the US had imported was used to paint the Gorge as the home of kidnapping, arms dealing and drug trafficking to keep people away from it and give the US more excuses to effectively take over Georgia by offering “military aid” it could not refuse. As a result of this, we were told that the situation in Pankisi had improved after the crackdown. However no one can actually go and see, and the flow of people to and through Pankisi has not stopped at all.

Serving the State

In the most recent report, two militants from Pankisi have died in the Syrian war. The Information Centre of Kakheti (ick.ge) lists them as Ramzan Pareulidze (24) and Mukhmad Turkoshvili (22). The former had lived in the village Birkiani and the latter in Omalo.

Somehow, despite limited financial resources and lack of passports, these young men and many before them have managed to fly directly from Tbilisi to Istanbul, or cross Georgian land borders with Turkey, and then find themselves in the thick of territory controlled by IS forces. For example, two Georgian teenagers disappeared on 2 April 2015 and emerged four days later fighting in Syria. When their parents asked the Georgian police who had given their sons passports, they were told this was classified information. So it wasn’t the Georgian passport agency, the only body authorised to do this, and the police know but are apparently unconcerned.

The ethnic Chechens who have always lived in Georgia are protesting themselves about their young people being pressured or financially persuaded to join terrorists groups. The Council of Elders, the most popular and influential public structure in the Pankisi Gorge, made this appeal after two more local teenagers, 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili and 18-year-old Ramzan Bagakashvili, reportedly travelled to Turkey in order to cross the border into Syria to join militants.

However, the Georgian Ministry of Justice responded to the request for preventive measures by claiming that this was not possible, as “Every adult citizen has the right to obtain a passport, and no other documentation apart from an ID card or a birth certificate is required”. Minister of Internal Affairs Vakhtang Gomelauri asserted that the incident had been a “misunderstanding”, as the border guards at Tbilisi Airport had not recognised the teenagers and so let them to go to Istanbul without any problem. But this response deliberately fails to answer the questions of how these teenagers obtained these passports and when, and whether any information about them had been issued to the border guards, and if so, what?

Georgian and Russian social media sites also make clear that the flow of fighters is continuing openly. Messages intended for “brothers and sisters from the expected larger caliphate [the term used by IS for the lands under its current or future control] first and foremost, and to those who are outside its borders” are frequently posted, too frequently for this to be a joke. The VKontakte social network, for example, hosts a Russian-speaking pro-IS group on which made the above announcement.

The same old faces

All this demonstrates that the IS is not merely a latent threat to Georgia and other countries in its region. It is already embedded there, working with Georgian and Foreign intelligence services, and Georgia is once again being used as a base for, and conduit of, all the things the US claims to oppose, which it would never get away with even in top secret facilities back home.

Nor is this being done without the knowledge and assistance of other US allies. The usual suspect, the Poroshenko regime in Ukraine, is predictably involved. Various well-placed intelligence sources in Ukraine have told me, “They [Georgians recruited to fight for the IS] have already been here for at least 2 months, certainly in Mariupol and 95% certainly in other places.” This shows that these so-called “fighters” are under the control of intelligence, as assets.

Dr. Vakhtang Maisaia, a Georgian political scientist, maintains that the Islamic Caliphate has elaborated a “Caucasian Strategy for Waging Jihad”. This was drawn up between July and October 2014 and is coordinated by a specific warlord, most probably the North Caucasus jihadist “Black Ahmad”, who is very well known in Georgia. A Key Mentor (Amir Supyan, another very well-known North Caucasus warlord), coordinates the pursuit of this strategy and its accompanying operational plan at regional level.

Approximately $50-70 million has been allocated for this purpose by the IS authorities. These funds are supposed to be forwarded to the “Caucasus Islamic Emirate” (the radical Islamist organisation operating in the North Caucasus region) and its leaders, but there have been problems delivering them, which have damaged the formerly much closer relations between the IS and the Emirate leadership, providing a further threat to Georgia and other regional countries.

It is now believed that the number of the persons of Georgian origin serving in IS units has increased from around 200 to perhaps 350/400, but the true number is likely to be higher than can ever be verified. According to some sources, in 2014 there were 200 local Jihadists who supported the ISIS ideology in various parts of Georgia, and around 44 were fighting in Syria and Iraq, but this number had certainly increased several times over.

Ignorance and incredulity

Dr. Maisaia has described in detail the process by which Georgians are recruited for terrorist activity by their own government. It consists of the following specific steps:

Ideological motivation – given in the local Mosques controlled by the Jihadists (mainly the Salafi organisation), which provide an introduction to Jihadist theology;

Recruitment – the local Jihadist community leader, the Jamaat or Jamu, signs up the faithful for the Global Jihad;

Submitting official documents – most of these are forged, and there can be several bundles of documents;

Providing financial support – at least $200-300 to travel through Georgia and at least $500 to travel to Turkey, this fee including the bribe which will probably be necessary for crossing the Turkey-Syria border and reaching the ultimate destination;

Allocating a local conductor and supervisor – these are local dignitaries from the transit area the recruit is passing through, associates of the Jihadist National Network (also operating underground). The actual supervisor will be a medium level leader who has direct links with associates in Turkey and the territories controlled by the Islamic Caliphate;

Briefing – the recruit is given the necessary information to adapt to his life in Syria, presumably in a transshipment camp where he will be held for at least 14 days in isolation and then begin 1-3 months of ideological and military training. These camps are doubtless controlled at the highest level, and all the training and future deployment planned in advance.

Are we to believe this entire process is being conducted without the knowledge and involvement of the intelligence services of Georgia, its US sponsors and the various countries through which these recruits pass? People who object to “conspiracy theories”, and dismiss Lavrov’s statements as examples of them, generally point out that the chain of connections they imply is unrealistic. Which is more realistic – that the IS is doing all this on its own, somehow muscling in on countries controlled by others, or that it is working with the intelligence agencies of those countries to destroy the very people those agencies claim to be defending?

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.