Pankisi - Beneath the veil of Wahhabism
16 April, 2015
Pankisi - Beneath the veil of Wahhabism
“For local boys, going to Syria is like a trip to the movies”

The fate of the two schoolboys who vanished from the Pankisi Gorge several days ago has finally become known. One day, Ramzan Baghakashvili, 18, and Muslim Kushtanashvili, 17, both students in the village of Omalo, did not return home after classes. The parents went searching for the missing boys, but neither the school staff nor their friends had any idea where they went. Eventually, the distraught parents
ended up informing the police. Two days later, however, the parents got messages from the boys, who announced that they were in Turkey. There was no doubt that they were headed to Syria.

Young Pankisians have been leaving to fight in Syria for several years now, but this case has upset the entire village. Parents strongly doubt that the two schoolboys would have decided on their own to go to Syria. Moreover, a trip to Turkey is not cheap and they never would have afforded it on their own, as their families are quite destitute. Not to mention that Muslim Kushtanashvili is underage and it would have been impossible for him to cross the Turkish border without his parents’ written consent. This means that they had help from the outside – or maybe from the inside. The incident has once again given fuel to talks about the Georgian Special Services having a vested interest in the Pankisi-Syria route, due to it remaining open and available for so long.
Asmat, resident of Duisi village: “Whenever a Kist – a Georgian Chechen – tries to cross the border, we get checked and evaluated dozens of times. Our documents are criticized and we are asked hundreds of questions. So how exactly did the two teenagers simply ‘slip through?’ The only explanation here is that the situation is beneficial for the authorities. They know very well who does what here, but it seems that they are completely satisfied with the situation. I’d like to see the hullabaloo that would be raised if a Tbilisian boy was tricked into going to war!”

Ramzan Baghakashvili, 18 and Muslim Kushtanashvili, 17 went to Syria to fight for ISIS

The first news of “Georgian” fighters in Syria reached the country in August of 2012, when the body of a Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelaev’s son was brought from there to be buried. This was also the only case of a deceased combatant getting brought back to Georgia, since they are usually buried on the spot. Soon it became obvious that an organized scheme of recruiting people to fight in Syria existed in Pankisi.
Next, field commanders of “Georgian” fighters began making appearances as well. Their list includes Ruslan Machalikashvili (Seifullakh al-Shishani), Murad Margoshvili (Muslim al-Shishani), and the notorious “red-bearded general,” Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Omar al-Shishani). They are surrounded by legends and rumors, with numerous Pankisian youngsters looking up to them as role models and wanting to go to war under their command. These youngsters also see the humble houses of “Pankisian heroes” turning into grand mansions and expensive cars appearing in the villages. This makes many of them consider a trip to Syria as a way to escape poverty.
However, the teenagers’ “heroes” have no qualms about using them as cannon fodder. The majority of young Islamists find their demise as suicide bombers within a month of arrival to the battleground. All their promises of sending their relatives hundreds of dollars every month die with them.
According to official data, ten young men from Pankisi Gorge have died in Syria so far, with their age ranging from 18 to 26 years. Nobody knows the exact number, since many deaths go unconfirmed and families of the deceased keep silent about them. Determining how many Pankisian Chechens are still fighting in Syria is an even wilder guess. As reports go, up to 100 youngsters have left the Gorge to “find work in Turkey.”
The Islamic State’s recruiters start their work by finding impressionable people in Pankisi and talking to them about religious topics, which later transforms into discussing jihad. There were cases of direct bribes as well. Those who get “hooked” are provided with fake IDs and taken to Turkey. Initially, a Sarpi border checkpoint was used for that purpose, but now would-be terrorists use airlines to get to their destination.
It is highly likely that reaching this “destination” involves Saudi Arabia, where some of the recruited Kists are invited to receive “higher education.” Chechen refugees in Istanbul claim that the Islamic State’s recruiters are funded by Saudi money. “During the siege of Kobani, they were paid $2,000 per recruit. Lots of Chechens and Kists died then. It is said that five Kist fighters were buried under the rubble after a bombing there, and since there is no way to retrieve the bodies, they can’t even be identified,” a reliable source who requested anonymity told Georgian Journal.
geotv.geAs the word goes in Istanbul, the flow of recruits through the city is managed by Akhmed ‘One-Arm’ Chataev, a prominent figure of the Lopota Incident. The one-armed and one-legged Chechen militant is currently in the service of the Islamic State and, according to rumors, maintains close contact with members of IS who reside in Georgia.
However, this is the first case of an underage Pankisian being lured away to fight in Syria, and understandably, this has caused great upheaval in the village. An urgent meeting of the Council of Elders was called, but due to recent strengthening of Wahhabi influence in the Gorge, the Council’s word holds far less power than it used to. The local Wahhabi Jamaat (assembly) does not acknowledge any authority and its members, mostly young people, claim that it is the Council who “stirs things up.” Pankisian Kists demand an investigation of the entire affair, but they are not holding their breath.
Khyzr, resident of Duisi village: “Word has it that these recruiters are in collusion with the Security Service because it refrains from investigating this urgent matter. Our children have been dying in foreign lands for three years now! Everyone knows this, both here in the Gorge and out there, in the government, but they remain silent! What are we supposed to do, then? People are seriously considering not letting their children out of their homes, not even for the sake of school. They are afraid of them vanishing like those two boys did. Those boys are at that age when they think that being able to hold a gun makes one a hero.”

Russian Passports - Kadyrov’s Apple of Discord in Pankisi

There is a plan to convince the visiting Kists to take Russian citizenship and insurance

Russia has been keenly observing the events occurring in the Pankisi Gorge for about two decades now. Its determination to “burn out the nest of terrorists” in the Gorge has not weakened over the last 18 years, and it is making regular attempts to convince the international community of the existence of several terrorist camps in the area.

After the insurgency in Syria in 2012, the emergence of the Islamic State and the arrival of Chechen warlords from Pankisi Gorge, Russia found a very convenient excuse to continue insisting that Pankisi Gorge’s "clandestine Islamist training camps” warrant immediate action.
In the meantime, Russia’s own pet warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been constantly trying to get access to the Gorge. Not so long ago, a “Kist Association” was founded in the city of Grozny with immense financial resources backing it. Outwardly, the organization has the very charitable goal of deepening ties (cultural and others) between Kists and Chechens. For example, a Kist folk ensemble was invited to perform in Grozny this month. However, according to the same reliable source, there is a plan to convince the visiting Kists to take Russian citizenship and insurance. The source also claims that in time, the same offer will be made to all inhabitants of the Pankisi Gorge. In addition, the government of Chechnya might promise to take care of them as if they were its citizens. This promise may prove very tempting to Pankisians, the majority of who suffer from extreme poverty, unemployment and now the threat of having their children taken away to die in Syria.
As experts claim, these actions are part of a time-tested Russian plan of creating artificial enclaves of its citizens and then invading to “protect their interests.” For their part, the Pankisians liken the whole affair to a gunpowder barrel with the fuse already lit and the explosion coming only in a matter of time.

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