RAMZAN ALKHANASHVILI WAS was just 18 years old when he disappeared from the small Georgian village of Dumasturi in April of this year. His mother, Tina Alkhanashvili, dropped him off at school in the morning, as she normally did. A few hours later, around noon, he left and never returned. The only trace of him left at the school was his backpack. His mother waited until evening, and then she and relatives began to search for him, asking friends and acquaintances if they knew what had happened. No one knew anything. That night they went to the local police station, located in the center of one of the larger villages in the region. The brightly lit station looks like a UFO amid the typical small, poor Georgian houses, built from stone and covered with circular asbestos tiles.
The police checked their computer database, a product of Western assistance aimed at helping Georgia secure its borders. It turned out that Ramzan, along with a friend who was barely 16 years old, had gone to the airport in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and had flown out of the country at 3 in the afternoon, just a few hours after cutting out from school. The police officers didn’t have any more information. The teenagers were gone.
It wasn’t until the next evening that the boys sent their families brief audio messages through the Internet instant messaging service WhatsApp, saying that everything was OK. They were in Turkey. They didn’t say what they were doing there, or why they had left so suddenly. They said, however, that they were going to Syria and that it was their own decision. The families didn’t hear anything more directly from them.
A few days later, the Islamic State published the boys’ photographs online. They were sitting in a featureless room painted white. They were dressed in field uniforms, holding rifles on their knees. They did not, as many fighters do, obscure their faces. They looked proudly into the camera, fingers pointing to the sky, signaling that they were sacrificing themselves to Allah. Behind them was the black flag of the Islamic State.
The Islamic State has proven adept at recruiting young Muslims around the world — it’s currently estimated that over 20,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS. And Georgia, a small country whose population is just 10 percent Muslim, has been particularly hard hit. Georgia’s Muslims are not traditionally devout, and yet the community here has suddenly become a boon for Islamic State recruiting. One of the most famous commanders of the Islamic State, Abu Omar al Shishani, came from a small village in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge.
DUMASTURI, AN IMPOVERISHED village on the left bank of the Alazani River, which cuts through the Pankisi Gorge, is typical of the region. Its residents are mostly shepherds who graze cows, sheep and even buffalo. Dumasturi used to be populated by Ossetians, Orthodox Christians, but they left the region about 15 years ago. The village now consists of families, like Tina’s, who are ethnic Kists — Muslims who fled from Chechnya five generations ago and adopted Georgian surnames.
The dozen or so houses feature the old architecture characteristic of the region: stone and wood multi-story family homes surrounded by gardens. Today, however, it’s a village near ruin: some of the houses are abandoned, with roofs and walls collapsing and small trees, ivy and even grape vines overtaking the empty structures. Tina’s husband left her and moved to Grozny, the Chechen capital, where he started a new family. She and her children live in poverty, seemingly with no chance for a better future. Ramzan, for reasons Tina can’t understand, saw his future in Syria.
In the Pankisi Gorge, the one-way trip to jihad has become more and more fashionable, even among women. There’s nothing for young people in the valley do to, except go to school and then return home. It’s a life of boredom, with no prospects for a different future. Fortunately, there is the Internet, a virtual world where youth can connect through social media, see through the lens of YouTube, and find a community of people, like those joining the Islamic State.
Residents of the valley have repeatedly told police that their villages have become recruiting grounds for young people enticed to join the jihad in Syria. A representative of the Chechen diaspora in the valley said explicitly that if the Georgian state does not stop recruitment, “the valley’s youth will disappear.”
A local journalist, Gela Mtivlishvili, claimed he had information about how and who was organizing recruits from Pankisi to travel to Syria. He said the group was operating in Jokolo, a small picturesque village in the valley. Mtivlishvili presented his recordings and other evidence to the Counterterrorism Center of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the capital, Tbilisi. It came to nothing, and recruitment to the Islamic State in the valley appears to continue.
The authorities in Tbilisi admit that at least 50 people from the region have gone to Syria, although those in Pankisi believe the number of volunteers is much greater. In November 2013, Umar Idigov of the Georgian nongovernmental organization Integration Foundation of Caucasus People, told Kavkazskiy Uzel, a local press agency, that nearly 200 Chechens from Georgia were fighting in Syria.
Seventeen months later, in late April 2015, the Georgian deputy minister of internal affairs, Levan Izoria, confirmed that ISIS recruitment of Georgians was taking place — not in the Pankisi itself, but abroad. He denied that any representatives of the Islamic State were operating inside Georgia.
This response isn’t convincing for Tina Alkhanashvili. Her son was 18 years old; he had a passport and could leave the country, but how did the 16-year-old boy manage it? He needed the consent of his parents. Who organized all the papers? “I could not afford to send him on a plane trip,” she said of her own son. “I have no money. Somebody had to help him.”
THE PANKISI GORGE stretches over just 8 miles, traversed by a road that connects a handful of sparsely populated villages. “Come and visit wild and beautiful Pankisi,” reads a flyer for the only guest accommodations in the valley. “It is easily reached by taxi in two hours from Tbilisi.”
Nazy’s Guest House has been in business for two years already, but its Facebook page so far has only 45 “likes.”
“Nazy is my name and it doesn’t have anything in common with Nazis,” laughs a young woman in her mid-twenties. She speaks perfect English. Nazy’s Guest House is her family house in Jokolo.
After learning her visitor is a journalist, her mood darkens. “Oh yes,” she says. “You’ve arrived here to make a bad advertisement. You’ll immediately announce that jihadis are living here, that they are going to Syria, and that it’s unsafe and no one will come here.”
Next to Nazy’s house is a Georgian Orthodox church built from stone. It’s closed down tight, and no one has been inside in years. In Pankisi almost no one sings hymns or liturgical songs, even though Georgia is home to one of the oldest Christian churches, the so-called Georgian Apostolic Orthodox Church, founded in the first century A.D. by Saint Andrew, one of the 12 apostles.
Instead of church bells, now in the valley you hear the muezzin calling to prayer five times a day. Islam has supplanted Christianity. The shift started in the mid-19th century, when, through war and deportation, the Russian empire reduced the population of Chechens in the northern Caucasus by more than half. The Chechens who fled to Pankisi are the Kists.
Muslims and Christians once lived here side by side: Muslim Kists, Orthodox Christian Georgians and Ossetians, but that began to shift in the 1990s. In 1991, when Chechnya declared its independence, Russia launched a new war, and one-fifth of the Chechen population was killed, according to some estimates. As the Chechen Republic’s attempt at independence collapsed in 1999 and 2000, Chechen refugees arrived in Pankisi along with Chechen militants, who over the next few years regularly organized armed raids to Chechnya and other Caucasus republics belonging to the Russian Federation. The Christian Ossetians largely abandoned their homes in 1999 as the Muslim refugees from Chechnya appeared in the valley.
The wars also changed the nature of Islam in the valley. When Islamic scholars declared a holy jihad in Chechnya, fighters, or “brothers,” came from the Caucasus and around the world. Arabs, Turks, Azeris, Kurds and even a few Afghan Taliban arrived in the Georgian valley as a jumping-off point to Chechnya. Soon the Pankisi Gorge had entirely new mosques, and Wahhabism, a strict form of Islam, gained popularity among the local Kists.
The mosque in Jokolo was built in the center of the village on the only asphalt road that connects to other villages in the valley. Next to the mosque are some small shops, market stalls and even a restaurant, though it’s open only for special occasions. In front of the mosque is group of men. Most have beards: black and red, but no traces of gray. The unnaturally long and well-kempt facial hair looks out of place on the young men.
They stand and talk, shell and eat sunflower seeds. Only the cars passing occasionally interrupt their boredom. The muffled sound of songs can be heard coming from the vicinity of the men. The songs are in Arabic, and refer to Allah, war, jihad and martyrs.
There’s not much traffic on the road. A few kilometers away, in the next village, the asphalt ends and a road of potholes, mud and stones climbs north toward the border with Chechnya. What is most striking is the lack of people: Pankisi is slowly depopulating itself. Most Chechens left in 2004 and 2005, chased away by the former president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, out of fear that Russia might use the presence of Chechen fighters to encroach on Georgian territory, but also on the advice of the U.S. government, which was in the midst of its global war on terrorism. Calm reigned in Pankisi, but not for long.
In 2008, fighting escalated at the border with South Ossetia, a separatist region of Georgia. Russia got involved, and Georgian leaders feared Russian forces might take the war all the way to Tbilisi. The Georgian government, which had long had a conflicted history of helping the Chechens, turned to Doku Umarov, the Chechen leader of the self-declared Caucasus Emirate, a jihadi group trying to establish an Islamic state in the Caucasus, a former colleague of Umarov told me.
Umarov, who is on a United Nations sanctions list for his alleged association with al Qaeda, agreed to strike the Russians with his fighters from the north. From the south of Georgia, another branch of jihadis would be secretly allowed into the country by the Georgian secret service, and even given weapons. The volunteers from Azerbaijan, Dagestan and Chechnya never got to take part in the fighting, however. After just five days, it was all over. Georgia lost the war with Russia, and that was the end of the Mujahideen war, at least at the time.
Georgia may not want jihadi organizations to recruit in Georgia, but neither is it necessarily in the country’s interests to stop it. If another war with Russia breaks out, a large number of Syrian jihadis who originated from the former Soviet Union — the Kists, Chechens, Azerbaijanis and Dagestanis — would likely return to the Caucasus to fight for their homeland against the common enemy, Russia.
The Georgian government did not respond to queries on the record, but provided written information about its efforts to combat recruitment, which includes supporting local sports for Muslim youth. The material cites, for example, building a modern Judo facility.
“[I]n order to counter the recruitment of nationals as foreign terrorist fighters, the Government of Georgia strengthened Georgia’s overall border security to a greater extent,” the materials prepared by the Georgian government read. “Thus, their movement through border crossing points of Georgia is strictly limited to the maximum possible extent (for example: personnel at border crossing points are provided with the updated consolidated list of terrorists sanctioned by respective UNSC resolutions).”
Fighters who return to Georgia, the materials state, are “taken under permanent operative control and prophylactic interviews are conducted with them in order to prevent possible illegal acts in future.”
SUSPICION RELATED TO the Islamic State’s recruitment here has fallen on Ayub Borchashvili, the self-proclaimed official representative of the so-called Islamic State of Georgia. Some people call him imam. He rides around in his dark green Honda CR-V that seems to be always on the move, traversing the valley day and night. Driving on the asphalt road in Pankisi, he passed us many times. Hoping to meet him, my Georgian driver flashed his lights to get him to stop on one of his passes. He halted the car, and behind the wheel of the compact SUV sat a well-built man with a long graying beard. When he heard the word journalist after a brief exchange, he pressed on the gas without saying goodbye; tires disappeared squealing around the bend.
My contacts from the region — Muslims who fought in Chechnya — believe Borchashvili is actually still cooperating with the Georgian Intelligence Service, which wants to keep its contact with Islamic fighters alive. Why else, they reasoned, would the security service, so vigilant of activities in the region, not arrest Ayub? In the Pankisi Gorge, “people are more afraid of the Georgian security forces than they are of the Islamic State,” said one of the former fighters.
A few weeks after my thwarted interview with the imam, in late May, two young women from Karajala, an ethnic Azeri village in Georgia, left their homes and joined the Islamic State. That same weekend, a resident of the valley was killed in Syria. He was 32 years old. He had disappeared three months earlier. Nobody noticed because he was a shepherd; everyone thought he went into the mountains to graze sheep and that he would return in the autumn, when the leaves fall off the trees, but he never came back. It turns out he was a close relative of the imam.
The departure of the two teenagers from Dumasturi to Syria received wide coverage in the Georgian media, however, perhaps promoting the Georgian government to finally take action. In June, the imam was arrested, accused of helping the boys join the Islamic State. He is currently being held for two months as part of pre-trial detention.
Whatever the degree of official ambivalence, one fact is clear: recruiters from the Islamic State are at work in Georgia, leading away the children of the Pankisi Gorge.
JUST OVER THE river in Jokolo, “Marina,” who does not want to reveal her real name, lost two sons in Syria. One day, she got a Skype message from Syria, from the wife of one of her sons. It was a song that her son had written, sung and dedicated to his mother. He wanted it sent to his mother when he left this world to meet Allah, explained her son’s wife — now widow.
It’s a sad poem sung a capella by the Mujahed, since for Salafists instrumental music is haram — forbidden by the holy Hadith. Some Muslim scholars are even said to regard it as “alcohol for the soul.”
“Mother, do not be sad, Mother do not cry, I chose Allah, and I’m on the right path. Understand, my dear, that jihad is our destiny. We are children of God’s creation, so I will give my life to Allah. Do not be angry with me that I left you; I climbed a high mountain to find my faith. I went away to fight, to wage jihad and die. When death comes to me, I will return again to you. In the sleepless nights I miss you. I have not abandoned you, Mother. I am your son and I love you.”
The only visible remainder of Ramzan today in Dumasturi is graffiti written on the wall surrounding his childhood home: It’s his name inscribed next to the word “Ichkeria,” a reference to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, which nominally existed until 2000, when the Russian military took back the capital of Grozny, although the unofficial republic’s government continued operating from exile for several more years.
“Nobody famous comes from here,” a Chechen friend, who has lived in Pankisi for the past several years, once told me. With recruits from Georgia now earning fame in the Islamic State, that statement is no longer entirely true. After years of being a member of an obscure ethnic group, in a valley forgotten by most of the world, Ramzan has his shot at fame.
I spoke with Tina Alkhanashvili just a week after her son disappeared. She believes the teenagers will come back, but in Pankisi, nobody else believes that. The brothers of the caliphate likely took their passports. By posting their pictures on the Internet, they made any return impossible. From that day, the teenagers from Pankisi became wanted men, terrorists whose faces the whole world knew, particularly the police and security services. Even if they aren’t sent on suicide missions, and somehow manage to survive the fighting, they can’t ever return home: they would be detained and sent to prison.
Ramzan is Tina’s oldest son, and now she is worried that her younger children may also leave for jihad. “They say that the Islamists could convince even grown women to go to Syria,” Tina says.
Tina worries about his Ramzan. She says he’s sick. For several months before he left he’d been having kidney problems and was under the care of a doctor. “How is he holding up?” she asks no one in particular. “After all, fighting is hard on the body.”
She was still struggling to understand what happened. Before he left, Ramzan had clearly lost himself in the Internet, but so do many other teenagers who don’t run away to joint the Islamic State. He had never been more religious than his brothers or friends. He only started to regularly visit the mosque a couple of weeks before his disappearance. Everything happened too fast, and she didn’t have time to intervene.
“It was only two weeks,” she cried.
– Coming Next: How a Recruit from Georgia Became a Famous ISIS Commander
Photo:Tina Alkhanashvili, mother of Ramzan Alkhanashvili. (Tomasz Glowacki)