Georgian government is largely capable of countering terrorism and it continues “robust engagement” with the United States over range of counterterrorism issues, but there are “continuing concerns about Georgia as a transit and source country for international terrorism,” the U.S. Department of State said in its annual Country Report on Terrorism.
Citing media reports, it says that between 50 and 100 Georgian nationals from the Muslim-majority regions of the Pankisi gorge and Adjara were fighting in Syria and Iraq for either al Qaeda affiliates or the Islamic State (IS) group, among them a senior IS group commander Tarkhan Batirashvili, known as Omar al-Shishani, who is a native of the Pankisi gorge.
“Given Georgia’s geographic location, violent Islamist extremists continued to transit through the country between the Russian Federation’s North Caucasus and Syria and Iraq,” says the report, according to which the number of terrorist attacks worldwide in 2014 increased 35%, and total fatalities surged 81% compared to previous year.
On June 14 counter-terrorism unit of the Interior Ministry arrested Aiuf Borchashvili, a native of the Pankisi gorge, on suspicion of recruiting fighters for the IS group. Borchashvili, who describes himself as an imam in the village of Jokolo in Pankisi, is an influential figure among local followers of the Salafi Islam. Three other men, residents of Tbilisi, allegedly recruited by Borchashvili, have also been arrested. The court in Tbilisi ordered pretrial detention of all four men on June 17.
Borchashvili, has been charged under the clauses of the criminal code, which were introduced to the legislation last year, among them recruitment for membership in a terrorist organization.
The State Department report notes that last year Georgia “enhanced” its counterterrorism legislation and brought them “into line with international best practices” and made “them more precise for use in criminal prosecutions.”
On June 12 Parliament passed with its third and final reading additional legislative amendments that broaden the scope and range of offences and other activities linked to participation in illegal armed groups. It also criminalizes traveling abroad and an attempt to go abroad for the purpose of terrorism.
Prosecution claims that Borchashvili also recruited and sent two schoolboys from Pankisi gorge – one of them 16 years old – to Syria via Turkey in early April. Although radicalization trend in Pankisi is not a new development, the issue drew wide public attention after that case in April as it involved underage schoolboy.
According to the U.S. State Department’s report, which says that Georgia “remained a strong U.S. counterterrorism partner”, the country “increased its nascent efforts to prevent radicalization in vulnerable populations.”
It, however, also says that more focus, particularly in the areas of economic development, community policing, prison reform, and outreach to Muslim communities, “would strengthen the government’s ability to identify and provide alternatives to at-risk individuals.”
“In order to increase the integration of Muslim youth into Georgian society, the Georgian government now allows students to pass exams in languages other than Georgian, and the government attempts to better advertise educational opportunities and scholarships to vulnerable populations,” reads the report.
The report also says that “overall, the Georgian government is largely capable of detecting, deterring, and responding to terrorism incidents.”
There are no precise figures on number of Georgian citizens fighting for the IS group; some estimates put the figure in dozens, mostly from Pankisi gorge but also some from Adjara and Kvemo Kartli regions, and some estimates suggest there are more than 100 Georgian citizens. But a senior GD lawmaker Irakli Sesiashvili, who chairs parliamentary committee for defense and security, said in April that estimates about more than 100 Georgian nationals being among IS fighters were exaggerated. He said that actual number is no more than “two-three dozens.”
“However, several ministries and offices share counterterrorism responsibilities, creating challenges to cooperation and information sharing. Nonetheless, the Georgian government took steps toward improving interagency coordination,” reads the report, noting that a counterterrorism working group within the State Security and Crisis Management Council has been established to promote regular communication among relevant agencies.
The report says that Tbilisi’s “lack of control over its Russian-occupied territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, harsh terrain, and a continuing tense relationship with Moscow limited the country’s ability to secure its northern border.”
It also says that with “significant U.S. support, the Georgian Coast Guard is now better equipped to patrol the country’s maritime borders, with the exception of Russian-occupied Abkhazia’s coastline.”