The ISIS “Skype Warriors” of Pankisi Gorge
25 June, 2015
The ISIS “Skype Warriors” of Pankisi Gorge
The war in Syria can be called a “five-star jihad” – high-quality weapons, comfortable housing and transportation, nicely edited and polished propaganda videos. And, most importantly, North Caucasian field commanders occuping high positions in the jihadist hierarchy. For many young people living in Pankisi Gorge, as well as many others worldwide, the temptation to join up is irresistible.

In order to become a fighter for the so-called Islamic State, it is no longer necessary to be in Syria. All one needs
to do is swear allegiance to them via Skype, pledging to fulfill their orders to the letter. There are approximately 30 of such “Skype warriors” in Pankisi Gorge now. Most of them are youngsters from 20 to 22 years old.

Ever since the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, Kist (Georgian Chechen) residents of Pankisi Gorge have comprised the majority of its recruits from Georgia. They were later joined by Muslim inhabitants of the Adjara region. On June 14, 2015, at Tbilisi International Airport, the police apprehended three young people who were obviously headed not to Turkey in search for work, but to Syria to join the “holy war.” The catch here is that the young men turned out to be ethnic Georgians and, unlike their Kist counterparts, failed to provide any coherent explanation for their intention to join the war in Syria.
On the same day, police arrested Imam Ayuf Borchashvili, who accompanied the abovementioned three youngsters to Tbilisi Airport, in the vicinity of Gombori village. The imam was apprehended in company of one of his fellow villagers, who married his own daughter to one of the Pankisian mujahideen. On the night of June 14, a Special Forces detachment entered the Pankisi Gorge and searched the homes of Borchashvili and his associates. The searches happened simultaneously in several villages. In addition, two close relatives of the “red-bearded general” Tarkhan Batirashvili (Omar al-Shishani) were arrested in the village of Omalo.
Such a large-scale military operation had not taken place in Pankisi Gorge for 11 years, since the raid on Duisi village, when Special Forces operatives burned down the house of the Gumashvili family and killed one person in an attempt to apprehend fugitives.
The raid on Ayuf Borchashvili’s house caused displeasure in the local jamaat (assembly). According to eyewitness accounts, the protestors, marching with hands locked, tried with to drive the Special Forces operatives from the imam’s home. Ultimately, the conflict was solved peacefully and the protestors calmed down, awaiting the imam’s release on that same night. However, the events took a different turn: The court released five of the arrested suspects – all except for Borchashvili, who was accused of terrorism, recruiting and ferrying fighters for terrorist groups (implying his complicity in teenager Muslim Kashtanashvili’s departure for Syria). The imam was sentenced to two months of pre-trial detention. Soon after, the police apprehended two more Pankisian teenagers on their way to Syria and returned them to their homes.
In truth, the main danger for Pankisi lies not in arrests that prompt public outrage and, as Pankisians claim, are made to score brownie points with Russia, but in the strife in the local jamaat. The conflict between Pankisian elders lies in the allegiance that Kist fighters in Syria should declare – they cannot decide whether they have to fight under the green flags of vehemently anti-Russian Caucasus Emirate or under the black flags of the Islamic State.
The jamaat’s younger members, on the other hand, are ready to swear allegiance to one of the most odious figures of the Islamic State, the aforementioned Omar al-Shishani, even though it is unknown whether he is alive or dead at the moment – according to recent reports, he is currently in Iraq.
In addition, there are new signs of Islamic State’s creeping influence emerging in Pankisi – now, in order to become a fighter for the so-called Islamic State, it is no longer necessary to be in Syria. All one needs to do is swear allegiance to them via Skype, pledging to fulfill their orders to the letter. There are approximately 30 of such “Skype warriors” in Pankisi Gorge now. Most of them are youngsters from 20 to 22 years old.
Another faction of young Pankisians declares allegiance (also via Skype) to Muhammed Abu Usman, new leader of Caucasus Emirate and Salahuddin al-Shishani, his representative in Syria, who is, or as some sources claim, was a leader of an armed group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, primarily comprised of North Caucasian Islamists. The amount of their followers in Pankisi is unknown.
While the Georgian government tries to retain its hold on the Gorge by strengthening its council of elders, the locals’ main hope in a fight against Wahhabism lies in Ramzan Kadyrov, Vladimir Putin’s pet Chechen warlord. Russia tries to advance its interests in Pankisi through the “Kist Community” – an organization created in the city of Grozny that does not hesitate to rain riches on those it tries to sway to its cause. In a situation like this, as the old proverb goes, it doesn’t matter what color the cat is as long as it catches mice.
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