Key questions remain unanswered three days after the police confronted unidentified armed suspects in Tbilisi about 20 hours in a massive shootout.
The gunfire was first heard late on November 21. According to reports by the Georgian State Security Service (SSS), a group of individuals residing in an apartment in a Tbilisi district of Isani refused security forces’ demand to surrender and responded with gunfire and hand grenades, killing one and injuring four officers.
The scope and intensity of the operation widened early morning on November 22 and continued throughout the day. The police managed to overcome the suspects’ resistance by 17:00. Three suspects were killed during the operation and one was captured alive.
Briefing the press after the operation, at 19:00 on November 22, the State Security Service reported that for several weeks, “in the framework of the international counter-terrorism cooperation,” SSS conducted “relevant activities to identify the group members and their links to criminal networks.”
Earlier that day, the State Security Service released a brief statement saying that “according to preliminary information, these persons are not Georgian citizens and are members of a terrorist organization.”
Facts Scarce, Reasons Obscure
As of yet, officials decline to release information about the names or citizenship of the suspects. They also refuse to speculate about their potential affiliation. Speaking at 20:00 on November 22, the Head of the State Security Service, Vakhang Gomelauri, refused to confirm that they were members of a terrorist organization, casting doubts on the validity of the previous statement of his own agency. However, the Minister of Internal Affairs Giorgi Gakharia said on November 23 “we are dealing with a fact of international terrorism.”
Giving official credence to the version of terrorism, the Prosecutor’s Office charged the single detained suspect (named so far only by his initials - S.D.) with “membership of a foreign terrorist organization and support of its terrorist activities,” and with “illegal purchase, possession and carrying of firearms, munitions, explosive materials and explosive devices for terrorist purposes,” in accordance with articles 328 and 3231 of the Criminal Code of Georgia.
According to the prosecutors’ statement, the suspects kept in their apartment “large number of explosive materials, munitions, explosive devices and firearms for terrorist purposes.” The statement also specifies that the only surviving suspect was detained on November 21, before the firefight broke out between the other three suspects and the security forces. According to some media reports, he was detained outside the apartment building where three other suspects were holed up.
The detained suspect’s legal counsel told journalists he was a Russian citizen, also denying that he was a member of a terrorist organization. The defense lawyer refused to reveal his identity as well.
Was it Chatayev?
As the authorities remain tight-lipped, the speculation is rife regarding the identity and motives of the suspects. Several sources in Georgia have speculated the chief suspect was Akhmed Chatayev, protected by his three associates. They also claim Chatayev was killed. This explosive version was picked up by both Russian and Turkish news outlets.
Chatayev is no ordinary criminal. He is designated as ISIS member by both the United States and the United Nations. After the June 28, 2016 Istanbul airport bombings, Michael McCaul, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, said Chatayev was the one who directed the terrorist act, adding that his ties to jihadist activities were well-documented, and that he “became one of the top lieutenants for the minister of war for ISIS operations." The U.S. Treasury had added Chatayev to the terrorist list back in 2015, saying he was planning attacks against unspecified U.S. and Turkish facilities.
After falling prisoner to the Russians during the Second Chechen War - where he lost an arm - and subsequent years of stay in Europe, Chatayev came to Georgia, where he was wounded (Chatayev lost a leg as a result) and arrested by the Georgian police following the Lopota gorge clash in late August 2012. He was reported to join a group of militants that fought against the Georgian security forces when it was reportedly trying to infiltrate Dagestan in the Russian Federation. As some have claimed, Chatayev was originally engaged by the Georgian security service to parlay with the militants, but switched sides.
Following the Lopota clash, Chatayev was charged with illegal purchase, possession and carrying of explosive device, on the basis of article 236 of the Georgian Criminal Code. But after the Georgian Dream coalition came to power following the October 1, 2012 parliamentary elections, Chatayev was released from jail. Georgian prosecutors dropped the case against him in January 2013, citing absence of evidence. Soon after his release, Chatayev left Georgia, saying he intended to go to Austria to rehabilitate from his wound. By 2015 he had moved to the ISIS-controlled areas in Syria and Iraq.
On November 24, 2017 Chatayev’s former Georgian lawyer Nino Andriashvili, who defended him after his 2012 arrest following the Lopota gorge clash, told Kviris Palitra newspaper that Chatayev had two families, with wives residing in Austria and Georgia’s Pankisi valley.
At the time, the Georgian authorities do not confirm whether Chatayev was involved or indeed killed in the clash. If confirmed, Chatayev’s involvement will raise a host of questions regarding his original release, as well as the ways he found his way back to the Georgian soil.