Elena Pokalova is a professor at the National Defense University and an expert on security issues with a focus on terrorism and counterterrorism.
On March 12, the Georgian Center for Security and Development hosted a roundtable discussion on radicalization and violent extremism that gathered government and think tanks professionals. Their aim: to seek thoughts and experiences for responding more effectively to the challenges that Georgia is facing with respect to the two issues.
Dr. Elena Pokalova, a professor at the National Defense University and an expert on security issues with a focus on terrorism and counterterrorism, was one of the panelists. Civil Georgia spoke with her on radicalization and violent extremism in Georgia, as well as on what to do about it.*
Despite geographic proximity to Syria and Iraq, South Caucasus has remained relatively immune to threats emanating from the region. Yet, problems exist with respect to radicalization and extremism. How do you think, to what extent are these two issues threatening the overall security environment in South Caucasus?
Unfortunately, radicalization and extremism have recently affected many countries that historically had few experiences with terrorism, similar to Georgia. Especially with the rise of ISIS, individuals went to Syria and Iraq from Azerbaijan and Georgia in surprisingly large numbers. The presence of such individuals and their desire to fight for ISIS indicates that processes of radicalization are present in the South Caucasus region. Further, now, that ISIS has lost much of its former territory in Syria and Iraq, foreign fighters might be making their way back home, and they might pose future security threats for their home countries. While the majority of foreign fighters will probably not present future security threats, some might be coming back with plans to either stage attacks or use their home countries for recovering and planning purposes. Individual assessment of such persons is crucial in determining what their intentions are.
Dozens of militants from Georgia have joined Daesh and other militants groups in Syria and Iraq during the last few years. What do you think are the underlying factors that had pushed them to radicalization, and how do you evaluate the government’s handling of the problem? What would you recommend to the authorities in terms of countering radicalization on the grassroots level?
Based on the research I conducted in Georgia, I found that there are several distinct groups of individuals who went to fight in Syria and Iraq. The first group (including Murad Margoshvili, Ruslan Machalikashvili, Feizulla Margoshvili) consists of older individuals, most of whom had prior military or militant experiences, and many of them had connections to the North Caucasus insurgency. For these individuals, it seems their connections to North Caucasus played the main role in motivating them to fight for different groups in Syria and Iraq. These individuals appeared around Aleppo in 2012 and they are the ones who seem to have attracted the younger generations to follow their example. The second wave of foreign fighters from Georgia left in 2013-2015. These are much younger individuals, most of them born in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of them went to fight for ISIS, and a lot of them seem to have been attracted by the example of Tarkhan Batirashvili. This group of people have more diverse motivations for leaving. The feeling of unfair treatment of Muslims in Georgia seems to be of special motivating significance among them. Many of these individuals left with their friends, family members, and close relatives.
In terms of recommendations for government policies, I would recommend first of all addressing religious issues. It seems Muslim communities in Georgia have a few outstanding issues with the government that need to be resolved (such as Batumi mosque, for example). The government could work together with the diverse Muslim groups to build trust towards each other and build solid working relations. Besides that, the government could invest in partnerships with civil society groups that are better positioned to address the local specifics of factors feeding into radicalization.
Now that Daesh has mostly disintegrated as a territorial entity, we might expect those of them who still survive to attempt coming back to Georgia, which would pose obvious security concerns. What is your take on this issue? How should the government cope with the returnees?
There are a number of approaches to foreign fighter returnees. Some countries have criminalized foreign fighters and in such cases returnees face prison sentences. Other countries have revoked passports of foreign fighters and they cannot come back legally. However, such approaches alone do not seem to address the issues of radicalization connected to foreign fighting. Other approaches that have been piloted in Denmark and Germany, for example, are based on authorities assisting the return of foreign fighters. In such cases, governments focus on assessing individuals who come back. Expert psychologists, psychiatrists, religious figures assess returnees to figure out wether these individuals can be rehabilitated. In this approach, foreign fighter returnees can receive assistance in rehabilitation and reintegration back into society.
The country has been viewed as a low-profile target for terrorist attacks. The November 21-22 shootout in Tbilisi, and the death of a senior ISIS member, Ahmed Chatayev, have proven otherwise. What do you think Chatayev’s group intended to do in Georgia, and how credible are the official claims that he plotted attacks on diplomatic missions in Georgia and Turkey?
While Georgia has not had many first-hand experiences with terrorism, threats from ISIS to the country cannot be discarded. First, some foreign fighters from Georgia previously issued threats against Georgia. For example, the notorious 2015 video featuring Khvicha Gobadze included threats against Georgia for alleged persecution of Muslim minorities. Second, ISIS has focused its propaganda on the West, promising attacks against the West. In the views of extremist groups, Georgia is a Western country and thus can potentially feature as a target. Further, terrorist groups are opportunistic and seek out places that are easier for them to access, where it would be more feasible to stage terrorist attacks. Even if they do not stage attacks within the country, terrorist groups might try to use Georgia as a safe haven to recover and reorganize. In this respect, the presence of Akhmed Chataev in Georgia indicates that more ISIS operatives might be making their way to Georgia.
Considering your expertise, could you also inform us regarding the current status of militants hailing from Georgia. Specifically, we would highly appreciate the information as to which of the prominent Georgian militants still remain in Syria, and which have left the country, or are attempting to do so?
At this point it is impossible to assess how many foreign fighters from Georgia are left in Syria and Iraq, how many are dead, how many have gone to other countries, and how many are making their way home. Some unconfirmed accounts have indicated that some Georgian fighters, including Tamaz Batirashvili, have moved to Afghanistan. Some of the older hardened militants might be more interested in continuing global jihad elsewhere, rather than coming back to Georgia. Further, I have not seen any accounts of the death of Murad Margoshvili. He is listed on many international terrorist lists, and it would be hard for him to freely move to different countries. He might still be on the ground in Syria and Iraq.
* The views expressed here are respondent’s own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the National Defense University.