“CHRIST IS RISEN!” says Temur Batirashvili, father of one of the most notorious leaders of the Islamic State.
Temur welcomes me into his modest house with the phrase that is a common greeting among Eastern Orthodox Christians. Then he takes a drink from a glass of homemade Georgian wine.
“Truly, He is risen,” he continues. “Truly …”
Temur Batirashvili is a Christian, like his ancestors. He has three sons, all of whom converted to Islam, against their father’s wishes. Temur blames himself; when the children grew up he was rarely at home, traveling for work all over Russia. He had to support his family. The children’s mother, an ethnic Chechen Muslim whose family immigrated to Georgia hundreds of years ago, raised the couple’s sons mostly on her own.
“I never thought that my son …” Temur starts, then grows silent and takes a drag from a cigarette. He chains smokes one after another.
Today, Temur lives alone and in poverty in a village hidden from the world in the Pankisi Gorge, located in northeastern Georgia near the border with Chechnya. The Pankisi Gorge is a bucolic valley of shepherds and picturesque mountains. But in recent years, it became better known internationally as a safe haven for Chechen fighters, and now as a recruiting ground for the Islamic State. It’s estimated that dozens of the valley’s youth have left for Syria, and some of the group’s most famous commanders, including Temur’s son, have come from here.
Temur Batirashvili’s 29-year-old son, Tarkhan, better known by his nom de guerre, Omar al Shishani, is one of the most wanted jihadis in the world. His father calls him the minister of war of the Islamic State, and in 2014, the U.S. Treasury Department labeled him a “specially designated global terrorist.” In May 2015, the State Department announced a reward of up to $5 million for information on Tarkhan, who was listed as, among other things, overseeing a prison that possibly held foreign hostages.
Sometimes Temur sees his son on television, in news programs about massacres, executions and beheadings — all of the barbarity associated with the Islamic State. Despite the news, Temur tells himself that his son isn’t capable of killing, because he was always so sensitive to the suffering of others, so merciful. “It was not him, only people under his command are responsible for this evil,” he says.
But Temur is at a loss then to explain how his gentle son got involved with a group that is perhaps best known for its slickly produced videos depicting decapitations and other gruesome executions. “I never got involved in my children’s personal affairs, because they weren’t thieves, hobos or junkies,” he says. “They were good people, very serious, normal people.”
Tarkhan’s story, it turns out, is hardly unique in the region. He joins a growing list of recruits from Georgia who have risen up the ranks of jihadi organizations fighting in Syria, including the Islamic State. Other well-known names from Pankisi include Murad Margoshvili, Fayzullah Margoshvili and Ruslan Machalikashvili.
All have taken the pseudonym “al Shishani,” or “the Chechen,” even though they are ethnic Kists from Georgia, a distant relative of the Chechens from the Northern Caucasus. A Chechen on jihad sounds proud. Individually or by group affiliation, all have been included on the State Department’s list of specially designated global terrorists, and have had great influence on the fate of the war in Syria. Within that narrative, Tarkhan’s path from a mixed Muslim-Orthodox Christian union in Georgia to the front lines of Syria is a larger story about the tremendous inroads the Islamic State has made in recruiting around the world.
TARKHAN BATIRASHVILI WAS born in 1986 in the small village of Birkiani, at the very end of the valley. Even today, the asphalt road ends in Birkiani, giving way to rocky gorges, high mountains, and beyond the mountains, the border with Chechnya. For centuries Pankisi has been one of the poorest corners of Georgia. Grapes are grown in neighboring parts of Kakheti, the wine-producing region where Pankisi is located, but in the valley there are only rocks, forest and mountains.
Pankisi had been doubly cursed by its proximity to Chechnya, which experienced two wars with Russia in the space of a single decade. Kists, like Tarkhan’s mother, are descendants of Chechens who came to Pankisi in the 1800s. In the late 1990s, they were joined by thousands of refugees arriving from Chechnya; many Kists crossed the border in the opposite direction to fight with Chechens against the Russians.
“By percentage, there was more Kist youth that died in the Chechen war than Chechen youth,” Temur says. (It’s estimated that the entire Kist population is under 10,0000.) One of Temur’s Georgian relatives died in Chechnya; another died fighting the Russians in Abkhazia.
When Temur had two sons, he was worried about losing them both to war, so he told his wife: “Come on, let’s have one girl.” Their third child wasn’t a daughter, however, but a son, whom they named Tarkhan. “He’s such a kind boy that when he sees an ant, he won’t step on it. That’s how he was,” Temur says. “I don’t know myself. … Now I can’t say anything. I guess it means I didn’t know my son.”
Tarkhan finished high school and then joined the Georgian army, where he was quickly recruited to military intelligence. His father says he studied at the Krtsanisi National Training Center, just outside Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, where instructors from the U.S. have trained Georgian troops.
In 2008, when Georgian forces were commanded to attack South Ossetia, a separatist province supported by Russia, Tarkhan worked behind enemy lines, providing information about the movements of Russian troops, transmitting the coordinates for artillery in order to bombard Russian positions.
The war lasted only five days. Georgia lost, and two years later, Tarkhan’s military career came to an end. According to his father, Tarkhan was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent an extended period in the hospital. When he came out, he was declared unfit for service and dismissed from the army. He returned to his destitute village in Pankisi. Temur remembers that Tarkhan was disappointed and frustrated.
He didn’t have a penny to his name, and no job prospects. He tried to get a job with the local police, but no one wanted him there. “He was blocked in every way possible,” Temur says. “If you block one’s path, one takes a different one. He had to choose his own way. Only pensioners live here. The rest … you’ll rarely see young people here. They’re already gone.”
If it hadn’t been for one night in 2010, his father says, maybe Tarkhan would have eventually found work, or left for Europe, and his life would have turned out another way. At 1:30 in the morning, Georgian soldiers from the special services knocked on the door. Outside, they had surrounded the house, according to Temur.
“Dear God,” Temur says, hiding his face in hands. “They came here to search the house. They checked every corner. What weapons? He had one pistol, CZ 75. Legally, he had documents for it. They didn’t find any other weapons. You know what happened? When they came here and found nothing?”
Temur says he was called by one of the soldiers to the bottom of the staircase. “There was a couch down there. I was standing in the staircase. He drew a cardboard box from under the couch. ‘What is it?’ ‘How can I know what this is?’ ‘Have a look what this is.’ I looked. … It was a box full of cartridges. I told him, ‘Listen, you’re a smart man. I’m not a fool either. I took this staircase up and down 20 times today and I looked there. If I saw a boxful of cartridges there — you’re a smart man — would I leave this box there? I wouldn’t. I’d hide it.’”
Tarkhan was charged with illegal possession of weapons and sentenced to three years in prison. Temur is convinced that his son was somehow set up, though he doesn’t know why. “He was arrested for nothing,” he says.
Temur throws out suggestions for why he may have been targeted. “Tarkhan used to serve in a secret division and he knew all of their ills. Whoever knew their secrets, they dispersed them all,” he says. “Some of them were shot. Whoever stayed alive was thrown to the prison.”
In prison Tarkhan met Mohammed, a Saudi follower of the radical Salafi interpretation of Islam. Mohammed had excellent contacts with the leaders of the global jihad, and told Tarkhan about the Saudi role in backing jihad. Tarkhan served 16 months — enough to turn him into another person, or a least that was the legend among his “brothers,” as they call themselves.
“Sheikh [Batirashvili] left prison armed with the prayers of brother Mohammed and the names of clerics who have a history of supporting jihad, and ways to contact them,” a source close to Tarkhan told the newspaper Al Akhbar. The website featured a photograph of Tarkhan with his now famous long red beard.
After being released from prison, Tarkhan contacted his brothers via the Internet, and they agreed to meet in Egypt.
Tarkhan’s father didn’t have a clue. “When he left the prison, Tarkhan told me, ‘Father, from what I can see, I’m not needed in this country,’” Temur recalls. “After that, I didn’t really see him.’”
AT THE CEMETERY in Duisi, the largest town in Pankisi, you won’t find the graves of those who have fallen while on jihad in Syria. Those who left are buried in nameless graves, usually in Syria and Iraq, in a dusty desert or the ruins of bombed cities, far from their ancestral lands, from the green valley of the cemetery, which stretches below the panorama of snow-capped Caucasus peaks. To the left of the locked gates of the cemetery, however, are several newer graves.
Black marble plaques driven into the ground have inscriptions in Arabic or Georgian. They died on the same day in the summer of 2012. Young men, most in their 20s: two of them local Kists from Georgia, three others Muslim refugees from Russia, from Chechnya. They were trying to cross over into Chechnya to fight, according to the local narrative. However, it wasn’t Russians that killed them; they died at the hands of Georgian troops. Since then, the road to jihad hasn’t been across the Georgian-Russian border. For Chechens and Kists, the road to jihad now leads south across Turkey to Syria.
This was the road Tarkhan took, at 26 years old: He left for Syria in mid-2012, according to Khamid, another fighter from Georgia who crossed the border with him. Unlike some recruits, Tarkhan already had military experience from his days in the Georgian military. By 2013, now known as Omar al Shishani, he commanded a group called Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, the Army of Emigrants and Helpers. His deputy was Ruslan Machalikashvili, also known as Sayfullah al-Shish, a friend of his from Georgia. The two men recorded and published on the Internet their speeches addressed to the mujahedeen brothers, urging all Muslims to take part in jihad. “Dear brothers and sisters,” Omar says in one, addressing a predecessor group to Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, whose volunteers came from the Caucasus, Crimea, Tatarstan and other republics of the former Soviet Union. “We did not yet take part in this war, but we should participate in it and we lost a lot of opportunities to do so.”
Soon, however, Omar broke with the group and took an oath of allegiance to the leaders of the Islamic State. His friend and deputy, Ruslan, was against it. Ruslan, who had been inseparable from Omar up to that point, took his fighters and joined the Nusra Front, fighting in Syria under the banner of al Qaeda. Ruslan was killed during an operation to take control of the central prison in Aleppo in February 2014.
Omar’s former group was then taken over by Fayzullah Margoshvili, one of the other Georgians from Pankisi. Margoshvili was interested in cooperating with the Islamic State, but the Islamic State rejected his offer because he wouldn’t subordinate his fighters to them.
The Islamic State has simple rules, according to Khamid, whom I interviewed in Turkey last year and have kept in touch with. Either you are fighting in its ranks, or you are an enemy. The enemy of the Islamic State is anyone who does not recognize the sovereignty of the caliph and thus rejects the idea of the caliphate. In the end, the decision to join the Islamic State has less to do with ideology than power. “Everyone wants to be first,” said Khamid, who is currently based in the town of Idlib in Syria, fighting with one of the branches of Islamic jihadis that has not joined the Islamic State.
Khamid, who was with Tarkhan when he first entered Syria in 2012, said it’s unclear what has happened to him. “For a long time, I haven’t heard anything about him,” he told me. “I do not know if he was alive or not. Nobody knows.”
THE FATHER OF one of the world’s most notorious terrorists still lives in relative obscurity in Georgia. “I’m not expecting anything good,” Omar’s father told me. “I think I already lived my life, had everything that was expecting me except one thing: peaceful death. There’s nothing more out there for me. I’d like to die among my sons, but I don’t think it will be possible.”
Shortly before leaving for Syria, Tarkhan eliminated any traces of his former life. He even destroyed photos showing his face from the family album, something his father only realized many days after he left. He wanted to look at his son’s face, and pulled out the album. “I opened it and realized that nothing of him remains,” Temur said with sadness.
Tarkhan protected Georgia from Russia. He served his country. He risked his life for his homeland. His father said he would have been promoted had he been allowed to stay in the military. Things should have turned out differently.
Tarkhan called his father just once, after two years of total silence. He told him he had a daughter, who looked like her grandfather, whom he named Sofia. Tarkhan asked if his father was still a Christian, and if he prayed. “I told him, ‘Of course I pray. I went to our shrine, lit candles and asked God to protect you.’”
After hearing that, Tarkhan hung up the phone and never called back.
When he’s watching footage about airstrikes on fighters with the Islamic State, Temur thinks about his son. “Every day I expect something bad to happen, every day. And I pray. Tomorrow I’ll go and I’ll light seven candles and I’ll ask our God and holy Jesus to protect my son from enemy bullets,” he says. “I’ll light candles and I’ll ask God, and I’ll pray.”
Caption: Temur Batirashvili, father of Omar al Shishani