There has been a sharp fall in number of Georgian citizens heading to join the Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, Deputy Head of the Georgian State Security Service, Levan Izoria, told lawmakers on March 29.
He made the remarks at a joint hearing of parliamentary committees of defense and security; human rights, and legal affairs.
Izoria presented at the committee hearing the State Security Service’s annual report, which will be discussed at a parliamentary session with the participation of the head of the service, Vakhtang Gomelauri, this week.
The report covers period between August, 2015, when the State Security Service was separated from the Interior Ministry, and December, 2015.
“As a result of our preventive measures, in the recent period, unlike previous period, there has actually been no outflow of the Georgian citizens,” Izoria said, adding that the legislation passed last summer also contributed to this positive development.
He was referring to the legislative amendments that broadened the scope and range of offences and other activities linked to participation in illegal armed groups abroad. It also criminalized traveling abroad and an attempt to go abroad for the purpose of terrorism.
The report by State Security Service says that “40 cases of attempts by the Georgian citizens” to leave abroad for the purpose of joining extremist groups “have been prevented.”
According to the report, currently there are “up to 50 Georgian citizens in Syria and Iraq” fighting for extremist groups. The same number was named by the State Security Agency in late November.
“The State Security Service possesses information about these individuals and it will take measures, envisaged by the law, against them in case of their return back to Georgia,” reads the report.
It says that although Georgia “is not among the countries with a high risk of terror attacks,” challenges remain, including in respect of radicalization, pointing that the Islamic State group has “gained certain number of supporters in some regions of Georgia.”
The Deputy Head of the State Security Service told lawmakers that “cooperation with our foreign partners is decisive.”
“As a result of information sharing, we have a voluminous list, which allows us to identify persons, who may potentially pose terror threat, barring them from entry into the country,” Izoria said.
The report puts the number of individuals, who have been banned from entry into Georgia during the reporting period, at 1,014.
The 29-page report names “occupied territories and presence of foreign military forces there as the main challenge for the State Security Service.”
“Large Russian military contingent, modern heavy weapons, including offensive weapons, on the occupied territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region represent existential threat for the state,” reads the report.
Opposition lawmakers from the UNM party criticized the report for not mentioning Russia’s intelligence operations in Georgia in a section describing State Security Service’s counter-intelligence measures in general terms.
UNM MP Giorgi Baramidze told Izoria during the hearing: “You said nothing, even one word about Russia’s intelligence agencies’ operations in Georgia – are not there any Russian spies in Georgia?”
“This agency is doing nothing but serving the interests of one person [ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili],” he said.
Head of the State Security Service, Vakhtang Gomelauri, who will appear before lawmakers at a parliamentary session this week, served in security detail of Ivanishvili before becoming deputy interior minister in spring 2013; he served as Interior Minister since January, 2015 before becoming head of the State Security Service in late July, 2015.
Opposition lawmakers, as well as some MPs from the Republican Party, which is a member of the GD ruling coalition, also criticized the report for not addressing Russia’s “soft power” and “propaganda” aimed at fueling anti-Western sentiments in Georgia.
Deputy Head of the State Security Service Izoria told lawmakers that he cannot discuss agency’s counter-intelligence operations at a public hearing.
Chairman of the parliamentary committee for defense and security, GD MP Irakli Sesiashvili, said that he will soon sponsor a bill that would broaden powers of the Group of Confidence – a small team of lawmakers in charge of parliamentary oversight on classified defense spending. It will allow the group, he said, to also hold closed door hearings with officials of the State Security Service.