When the Islamic State commander known as “Omar the Chechen” called to tell his father they’d routed the Iraqi army and taken the city of Mosul, he added a stark message: Russia would be next.
“He said ‘don’t worry dad, I’ll come home and show the Russians,’” Temur Batirashvili said from his home in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, on the border with the Russian region of Chechnya. “I have many thousands following me now and I’ll get more. We’ll have our revenge against Russia.”
As the U.S. and European countries assess the risk of home-grown jihadists returning to stage attacks on their native countries, the turmoil in the Middle East also reverberates in the Caucasus. The region wedged between Russia, Iran and Turkey is an intricate web of tensions that’s erupted into violence in the past three decades in hot spots from Chechnya to Nagorno-Karabakh and Georgia.
Batirashvili’s son Tarkhan comes from an area that Russian President Vladimir Putin accuses of aiding Islamist rebellions that he’s spent more than a decade trying to crush. While Russia is focusing on the conflict in Ukraine, Georgians remember the humiliation in a five-day war in 2008, when Putin helped cement the separatist movements in the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The red-bearded commander now known by the nom de guerre Omar al-Shishani is a leader of the forces fighting for an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Among them are dozens of youths from Pankisi who, disaffected by a lack of jobs and angered by Russia’s dominance in the Caucasus, have followed the call to jihad.
Al-Shishani is the tactical mastermind behind Islamic State’s swift military gains on the ground in Iraq’s Anbar province, west of Baghdad, including an encirclement in which his forces killed as many as 500 Iraqi troops and captured 180 more near Fallujah, according to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“The group’s recent success in Anbar can be attributed primarily to one exceptional field commander and ISIL official, Abu Umar al-Shishani, who executed a series of brilliant tactical maneuvers,” he wrote today, using another form of al-Shishani’s name, for War on the Rocks, a website that provides analysis and news on military conflicts.
The force includes about 1,000 Russian-speaking jihadists, or about half of the fighters from outside Syria and Iraq, according to Elena Suponina, a Middle East expert and adviser to the director of Moscow’s Institute for Strategic Studies.
Most of them are Chechens, with many from Pankisi, a jagged gash eight kilometers (5 miles) long and two kilometers wide tucked in Georgia’s remote mountains between Chechnya and South Ossetia. It’s home to about 11,000 Georgians, Chechens and Kists, a subgroup of the nation.
“It’s a serious problem because, for the Russian security services, the Pankisi Gorge has been a source of militant activity since the first Chechen war,” Suponina said by phone Oct. 7. “Tbilisi doesn’t control Pankisi and people from there can easily get to the Middle East. It’s a black hole in the security of the Caucasus.”
Russia’s conflict with the Chechens dates back centuries, including a 1785 uprising, with the modern hostilities reigniting as a separatist movement gained momentum as the Soviet Union broke apart a quarter century ago. Russia fought two Chechen wars in the past 25 years in part to counter attacks that originated in the region and spread through the country.
Temur Batirashvili, the father of Tarkhan Batirashvili, also known as Omar al-Shishani, is seen at his home in the small community of Pankisi Gorge, in Georgia. The red-bearded commander now known by the nom de guerre Omar al-Shishani, is now leading thousands of militants bent on establishing an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Apartment bombings in Moscow in 1999 that killed hundreds and the conflict spreading to the region of Dagestan were the immediate trigger for the second Chechen war, in which Putin laid the foundations of his image as a leader capable of restoring the country’s might. While Russia finally gained control of the republic during Putin’s first presidential term, the loyal regime he installed forced the insurgency to simmer in the rest of the Caucasus.
In Pankisi, where unemployment is at 90 percent, old men and youths idle under trees in villages thronged by playing children. Most families subsist by herding animals around well-kept houses that show the influence of remittances from relatives working abroad.
Traveling for work also provides a cover story for some. The family of 18-year-old Beso Kushtanashvili thought he was in Turkey until they heard he’d died as a jihadist.
Iza Borchashvili, a head teacher who remembers Beso as a bubbly, fun kid, said economic issues are the main factor driving young men abroad, along with the idea of being part of something bigger than themselves.
“They are young and easy targets,” Borchashvili said. “These boys have nothing to do, they are unemployed and they’re all seeking something abroad. That’s the main problem.”
The exodus has also caused tension within Pankisi. Many people refuse to talk about the absent fighters at all. Older residents like Soso Kavtarashvili, a village elder who said he fought in the 1990’s to protect the valley from “militant criminals,” lament both the fighters’ departure and the practices of extremists.
“This puts the whole village, the whole society in a very difficult situation,” he said. “I don’t like this. God won’t forgive their killing civilians and innocent people for the religion.”
This week, a 19-year-old suicide bomber killed five policemen and wounded 11 other officers in Grozny, about 60 kilometers (36 miles) north of Pankisi, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee.
The attack added to the more than 1,000 civilians, militants and police who have died since 2012 in almost daily attacks from the Black Sea to the Caspian, according to Caucasian Knot, a Moscow-based research group.
Russia has accused Georgia of turning a blind eye to what it says is the Pankisi community’s harboring of militants who want to overthrow Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov -- a Putin ally on whose head Shishani put a $5 million bounty last month - - and create a caliphate like Islamic State, Suponina said.
“Once they have built their caliphate, they will return home and fight,” Suponina said. “This is also a security threat in Georgia because these extremists want to establish Shariah everywhere where central government control is lacking.”
Georgian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Nino Giorgobiani declined to comment when contacted by Bloomberg. The government’s main priority is to protect its citizens, according to Irakli Sesiashvili, chairman of the Defense and Security Committee in Georgia’s parliament.
“We plan to take drastic preventative measures, including new legislative changes, to regulate shortcomings like crimes committed abroad while taking part in terrorist organizations,” he said today by phone from Tbilisi. “Our aim is to prevent others from following the path so they won’t think that if they do the same it will go unpunished.”
The government in Tbilisi has carried out several anti-terrorist operations in Pankisi, including a 2003 offensive to push al-Qaeda militants out of the region. Eleven people died in the most recent one, in 2012.
The same year, Tarkhan Batirashvili was released from a jail sentence he received for possessing weapons illegally. Born in 1986 to a Christian father and Georgian Chechen Muslim mother, he had fought in the 2008 war and rose to the rank of sergeant in an intelligence unit. Two years later he was dismissed for health reasons.
It was during his subsequent prison term that his religious faith deepened and upon his release he returned home and burned his family’s pictures of himself, according to his father Temur.
Batirashvili then left Georgia to resurface as Omar al-Shishani, or “Omar the Chechen,” leading dozens of his compatriots and others in the siege of Aleppo in northern Syria. He soon after assumed control of Islamic State’s northern forces.
As tales of the fighting trickle home, he’s become a role model for some in Pankisi. One young man in his late teens who called himself “Vaynakh,” a word Chechens use for themselves, and would give no other information about himself for fear of reprisal, said he’s eager to join returning Chechens to fight the Russians. Vaynakh said that’s a dream he’s had ever since he first shot an assault rifle as a young boy.
“I would go fight,” he said. “They fight for the name of God and for the name of the brotherhood to revenge for Chechnya. They will come back better prepared and more powerful. I’m sure of it.”