Council of elders in Pankisi gorge in north-eastern Georgia appealed the authorities on April 6 to take measures against recruitment of local youth for the purpose of sending them to Syria to join Islamic State group fighters.
The appeal came after it emerged that two local schoolboys, aged 16 and 18, left to Turkey with suspected intention to reach Syria to join the IS.
“Majority of Kists condemn sending of minors and of local youth in general to Syria for combat. As far as the local community is not able to eradicate this abnormal development, we appeal the Interior Ministry, the government and the Parliament to help us,” Khaso Khangoshvili, one of the elders, said after a gathering in the village of Duisi on April 6.
Influence of the council of elders, which is made up mostly of followers of Sufi Islam tradition, has been declining amid growing role, especially among the young generation in the gorge, of Salafi Islam, followers of which are usually referred to as “Wahhabists” by locals and the Georgian media. The rift between the two groups was evident at the gathering in Duisi on April 6 – followers of Salafi Islam, present at the gathering, refused to join the appeal by the elders, who are also expressing growing concerns over radicalization of youth in the Pankisi gorge.
“We, whom you call Wahhabists, came here [at the gathering] because we are also concerned about this situation and we want to find a solution together with the elders,” a young man, follower of Salafi Islam, told journalists, adding that instead of targeting Salafis as a whole, focus should be made on specific group of individuals, who are involved in recruiting of locals in Pankisi for sending them to Syria.
16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili and 18-year-old Ramzan Bagakashvili were last seen in the Pankisi gorge on April 2.
Mother of Bagakashvili, Tina Alkhanashvili, said in an interview with the Information Center of Kakheti (ICK) news website that his son went to school on April 2, but has not returned back.
“His classmates brought his school bag and told me that they did not know where he was. I waited till evening… spread the word among the relatives, but no one knew where he was. Then we asked the police for help… They checked and found out that he took flight from [Tbilisi] airport to Turkey. Next morning he sent us a message via WhatsApp saying that he was in Turkey and that we should not worry,” Bagakashvili mother said.
Grandmother of 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili, Shariat Tsintsalashvili, told ICK news website that his grandson had not even been in Tbilisi before and he could not have left the country independently without assistance and guidance from someone else. She also said that the family learned from his schoolmates that recently he was missing classes frequently and was often seen in a mosque in the village of Omalo, even though his father was “not allowing” him to go to “Wahhabists’ mosque.”
The case has also triggered questions about how underage Muslim Kushtanashvili managed to cross the border via airport independently without having a written consent from parents. Georgia and Turkey have passport-free border-crossing rules and citizens can travel between the two countries with ID cards, but 16-year-olds require parents’ consent in order to travel abroad independently.
Georgian Interior Minister, Vakhtang Gomelauri, told journalists on April 6, that an officer in charge of passport control at the Tbilisi airport mishandled the case and the ministry’s internal investigations unit was looking into it.
“This [officer] explained that visually [Kushtanashvili] did not look like underage, but it is of course not an excuse for [the officer],” Gomelauri said. “[Officers] should be more watchful.”
He also said that the Georgian Interior Ministry had already notified Turkish counterparts about the case and efforts were underway to get teenagers back to Georgia. It was not clear as of April 6 if the two teenagers were still in Turkey or not; there were also unverified reports that they have already managed to reach Syria.
Gomelauri said that there were similar cases previously, when it was made possible to get potential Islamic State recruits back to Georgia.
“Probably I should not be saying it, but cases were frequent when we got people, and not only underage ones, back,” the Interior Minister said.
Number of Georgian citizens fighting for the Islamic State group is not available; some estimates put the figure in dozens (50-60), mostly from the Pankisi gorge.
At least seven (some reports say nine) Georgian citizens, natives of Pankisi gorge, died fighting for IS group in Syria. The most recent fatality was reported in late December, when 18-year-old native of Birkiani village was killed.
In January government submitted to the Parliament package of legislative amendments criminalizing participation in and broad range of other activities related to illegal armed groups abroad, as well as “traveling abroad for the purpose of terrorism.” The bill has yet to be discussed by the Parliament.