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Countering Radicalisation in Georgia

Virtually no efforts are taking place to counter violent extremism through civil society engagement in the country.
By Onnik Krikorian

On June 14, 2015, over 100 heavily-armed special forces clad in military fatigues with their faces obscured by balaclavas raided the homes of residents of Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge whom they suspected of recruiting for the Islamic State.

Captured by video and still cameras, the media blitz that accompanied the operation seemed more intended for broadcast and publication the next day than to address the problem of radicalisation in Georgia. Several people were detained, but only one, Imam Aiuf Borchashvili, was charged.

But even if the raid risked souring relations with the local community in Pankisi after over a year of some officials, analysts, and journalists downplaying or even denying there was a problem in the otherwise tranquil region, the Georgian government effectively confirmed that there was.

Inhabited by 8,000 ethnic Kists, a minority group related to the Chechens of the North Caucasus, Pankisi is also home to refugees from Chechnya who fled during the wars of the 1990s and 2000s.

To date, 13 residents of Pankisi are believed to have died fighting in Syria. Tarkhan Batirashvili, aka Abu Abu Omar al-Shishani, also hails from Pankisi and is a main military commander for the Islamic State in Syria. And while numbers — estimated at between 50 and 100 — are often described as “low”, on a per capita basis they’re actually not too dissimilar from other countries.

The OSCE office in Tajikistan, for example, is taking the problem very seriously and is assisting the government in Dushanbe to draw up a national counter-radicalisation strategy even though it estimates the number of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) at just 200. As with Georgia, others put the number slightly higher, but Tajikistan is still a majority Muslim country with a population of eight million. Predominantly Christian Georgia is inhabited by just 3.7 million.

Moreover, radicalisation does not seem to be abating in Pankisi and elsewhere in the country such as Ajara, and according to the Tbilisi office of the European Centre for Minority Issues, the ethnic Azerbaijani village of Karajala. Of more concern, given the lack of community-level and civil society initiatives among those at risk of radicalisation, there remains virtually no understanding of the role Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) can play in dealing with the problem.

While counter-terrorism is often associated with intelligence and security forces, CVE instead takes a softer, more preventive approach, working with communities and religious leaders as well as women and youth, and in high risk environments such as prisons, to prevent radicalisation and to identify and intervene in what the OSCE calls Violent Extremism and Radicalisation that Lead to Terrorism, or VERLT.

Indeed, at the two-day Counterterrorism Expert Conference on Countering the Incitement and Recruitment of Foreign Terrorist Fighters, organised by the OSCE in Vienna at the end of last month, the need to prioritise preventive measures, rather than law enforcement and punitive measures, dominated the discussion. While neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan were present, Georgia was not, despite being invited along with other OSCE member states.

But even if it wasn’t represented at the conference, Georgia was mentioned. First, by Oleg Syromolotov, the Russian deputy foreign minister responsible for counter-terrorism, and a former deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), who named Georgia and Azerbaijan not only as sources of FTFs, but also as transit routes from the Russian Federation to Syria; and then by the OSCE office in Bishkek, which listed Georgia alongside Russia, Turkey and Ukraine as a main transit route for FTFs from Kyrgyzstan and other parts of Central Asia.

The US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and the International Crisis Group (ICG) also confirm Syromolotov’s view of Georgia as a transit route from Russia. ICG’s North Caucasus analyst Varvara Pakhomenko adds that Tbilisi and Moscow continue to cooperate on specific cases relating to the Verkhny Lars border crossing. According to Pakhomenko, this has been ongoing since security preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

But while border controls continue to be tightened in Georgia as per the requirements of last year’s UN Security Council Resolution 2178, and even if a few small gestures such as the current construction of a youth and sports centre in Pankisi have been accelerated up, the Georgian government is almost solely focused on interdiction and not prevention. That, however, is another key requirement of the UN resolution, and its relative absence in Georgia was also recently noted by the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. 

Meanwhile, in Tajikistan, the OSCE is working closely with the government to develop community-level, civil society-driven CVE measures. That’s not to say the situation there is ideal, of course, as the recent defection to Islamic State by OMON police colonel Gulmurod Halimov demonstrated.

However, virtually no CVE measures are being implemented in Georgia. Yet the consensus of opinion at the OSCE counter-terrorism conference was that community and civil society-driven CVE measures, especially involving women and youth, are vital. Primarily this means working in schools, through peer-to-peer initiatives, amplifying the voices of credible messengers such as former extremists and fighters as well as the victims of terrorism, going into prisons, countering the online propaganda of extremist groups, leading the discourse with alternative narratives, and face-to-face interventions that might also require psychological support services.

Migrant workers, too, are vulnerable to radicalisation. For residents of Pankisi, this usually means those working in Turkey.

In fact, at a recent IWPR-initiated meeting with Pankisi’s Council of Elders and Women’s Council as well as the Kakheti Regional Development Foundation, virtually every problem that was articulated had a potential solution in the shape of CVE. The internet and phone-to-phone sharing were cited as the main source of Islamic State propaganda for young people in Pankisi. Village elders lamented the lack of any attempt to counter such messaging. They were effectively calling for “counter-narratives”, one of the basic components of CVE.

Some young people in Pankisi, for example, said they admired Islamic State because “they were saving Moslem lives” – a very basic narrative that is relatively easy to counter. They also boasted that Pankisi teenagers were using WhatsApp, an encrypted mobile messaging platform used by groups like Islamic State, six months before the rest of the country.

And while the Georgian government, along with some analysts and journalists, focus almost solely on the economic situation in Pankisi, villagers were adamant that ideology, not poverty, was the driving force behind radicalisation in the region. As a caveat, they were also careful to note that those likely to justify violent extremism among “Wahhabis” were a minority who subscribed to “takfiri” ideology (declaring other Muslims and others to be apostates). They were also particularly concerned that some teenage girls now dream of marrying jihadist fighters in Syria. They claimed at least two had done so.

Ultimately, the problems in Georgia are no different from many other places where extremist propaganda, often spread through the internet, has contributed to the FTF phenomenon. But while it is possible to identify the problems in Pankisi, nobody is so far addressing them. Firstly, because few have any understanding of how radicalisation occurs; but also because many appear totally unaware of current international practices for combatting it.

Arguably, local communities and civil society are best placed to prevent radicalisation, but that remains sadly lacking in Georgia. The potential is there, however, as are many international actors such as the OSCE and the Abu Dhabi-based Hedayah Centre — as well as its sister organisations, the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund and International Institute for Justice, also formed as a result of Global Counterterrorism Forum meetings —  to support local actors in doing so.

Legislative and punitive measures are a step forward, but they can also be counterproductive if they are not complemented by measures to prevent radicalisation occurring in the first place. There are also concerns that counterterrorism activities can lead to restrictions on freedom of expression, civil liberties, and the media. Instead, the Georgian government must encourage the development of a space for engagement by credible non-state actors.

Onnik James Krikorian is a journalist and media consultant from the UK He has covered conflict in the South Caucasus since 1994 and has been involved as a speaker and participant at expert working group meetings, seminars, and conferences on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) organised by the Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, the Global Counterterrorism Forum, the Hedayah Centre, the International Centre for Counterterrorism in The Hague, the OSCE office in Tajikistan and the OSCE Transnational Threats Division.

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