A new wave of the worldwide terror alerts that has followed the recent bombings in el-Riyadh and Casablanca is re-igniting discussion about resilience of al-Qaeda network and the possible role Georgia's Pankisi gorge plays in it.
On May 20 ABC news reported quoting unnamed sources, "Osama bin Laden's terror network is regenerating and has been training operatives in the Republic of Georgia." Georgian officials have flatly denied the reports, as the Minister of State Security Valeri Khaburdzania said the presence of terrorists in Pankisi is "absolutely impossible."
Georgian Ambassador to the United States Levan Mikeladze stated he was "surprised" by the lack of factual information in the report. He also said "all official US agencies I have contacted have no information to validate ABC reports."
The US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles said he has " no information" about presence of terrorists in Georgia. He added, "I would not say there is an alarming situation in this regard at present. However, certain part of terrorist might still staying in Pankisi gorge."
But the ABC report went well in line with May 6 announcement by the French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozi, who said that al-Qaeda centers might have moved to Georgia.
The clout of urgency regarding the fresh threats from revamped terrorist network that has resonated worldwide, in South Caucasus has only spurred an already customary frenzy of mutual accusations on sheltering the terrorists by the competing political entities and forces.
Russian media and officials have picked on the reports, saying Georgia's clampdown on Pankisi has been futile. In the meantime the Abkhaz de facto government has accused Georgia in harboring the terrorists in Samegrelo, a province adjacent to Abkhazia. Representatives of the Abkhaz government-in-exile in turn have suggested some of al-Qaeda operatives may be hiding in Abkhazia.
Apparently al-Qaeda and terrorism links have become a trading chip and a lever in the Caucasian politics. But the evidence, or indeed some structured theories on the modes of operation and presence of al-Qaeda in Georgia and particularly in Pankisi have been quite scant.
The US Secretary of State Colin Powell in his February 5 2003 speech at the UN Security Council has presented the dominant theory in this respect, basing his description on evidence obtained from an unnamed detainee, a member of al-Qaeda cell.
Powell attributed the operation of the European branch of al-Qaeda network to senior al-Qaeda commander Fedel Nazzel Khalayleh, better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, thought to have been residing in Iraq. A slide presented at the Security Council session shows the European network of al-Qaeda with a person named Abu 'Atiya in charge of the Pankisi cell.
Secretary of State said Abu 'Atiya has tasked "at least nine North African extremists in 2001 to travel to Europe to conduct poison and explosive attacks." US President George W. Bush also said in February that terrorists have plotted attacks against Georgia, along with Germany, Britain and other European threats. Pankisi gorge has been also widely attributed to the Britain's ricin scare.
Powell's sketch of the al-Qaeda network in Europe has been criticized in academia and the media for over-reliance on one person - al Zarqawi and his network. However, in case of Pankisi gorge the picture is even more blurred.
Georgian security services provide no information regarding the person named Abu 'Atiya or his presence in Pankisi. The only recent report has surfaced in July 2002 and also traced to CIA. The Turkish Anadolu news agency has reported, that CIA has informed the Turkish authorities on possible chemical or biological attack to the US and Russian Embassies or the Turkish public. The reports said the poisonous substance originated from Georgia, through a person going under the code name of Aby 'Atiya.
Georgian Ministry of State Security has disclosed previously classified materials on Pankisi in January 2003. The report admitted presence of up to 100 "Arab" mercenaries in Pankisi along with some 700 Chechen guerrillas. The ministry has reported a person named Abu Hafs, going under alias of "Amjet" (ph) to have had links with al-Qaeda. The ministry spokesperson Nika Laliashvili stated Amjet has operated a hospital in Pankisi.
Thus interestingly, Georgian and US versions of the al Qaeda link in Pankisi do not seem to link, at least in the public domain. In addition, while Laliashvili has stated Abu Hafs ("Amjet") is wanted by Interpol, this organization did not confirm such reports.
The international sources identify two persons named Abu Hafs in al-Qaeda network. One of them, Abu Hafs "the Egyptian" has been reportedly killed during the US bombings of Afghanistan. Another Abu Hafs "the Mauritanian" (real name Mahfouz Walad Al-Walid) is a top al-Qaeda leader, whose presence in Pankisi would have gone unnoticed by the CIA and likely, by Colin Powell.
In this sense, and also because Abu Hafs ("the person enlightened in holy scriptures") is the widespread naming title, it becomes virtually impossible to identify a "Georgian version" of Pankisi-al-Qaeda link.
A cloud of remains secrecy around specific terrorists, their possible presence in Pankisi currently or in the past, and their links with international terrorist networks. This allows skeptics to say that most of the drive to establish such linkages is political and serves specific realpolitik considerations both in Georgia and abroad.
Georgia has made a rapid about-face, from denying the terrorist presence to admitting its existence. Government officials have synchronized their new statements on Pankisi with the Iraqi crisis, trying to show linkages but presenting no additional credible evidence.
It is possible to argue, that Georgia has tangible benefits to expect from establishing the threat to Georgia from the international terrorists, especially al-Qaeda. Georgian politicians hope this would increase the US military assistance programming, especially as the ongoing Train-and-Equip program (GTEP) has started under the banner of curbing terrorism in the region.
On the other hand, linking Pankisi (and, therefore, Chechnya) can be in the interests of both Russia and the United States, who seek the language of partnership in post September 11 and post-Iraq world.
And while these "conspiracy theories" seem a bit far-fetched, their sheer existence makes South Caucasus security environment as much a political construct, as it is the reality. Under such circumstances, it is increasingly difficult for the policy makers to make clear and informed choices regarding the real risks for security in the region and internationally.