ISIS is broadening its sphere of terrorist activities beyond its core of Iraq and Syria. In comparison to other terrorist organizations, ISIS is particularly dangerous in terms of recruitment because it has efficiently adopted new technologies, particularly social media, for the purpose of recruitment.
ISIS is becoming a serious threat and concern for Georgia and the entire Caucasus region. In June 2015, ISIS announced that it established a new caliphate province in the North Caucasus (Caucasian Villayet). The engagement and recruitment of former Caucasus Emirate leaders and combatants into the new ISIS branch should be an alarm bell for Georgia. Furthermore, based on the future map of the caliphate envisioned by ISIS, Georgia will be part of the desired “Qoqzaz” or Caucasus caliphate.
Certain regions and populations of Georgia are particularly vulnerable to recruitment to Islamic terrorist groups. According to the latest U.S. State Department Report on Terrorism, in 2014, around 50-100 Georgian nationals (according to certain sources, other statistics are much higher) were fighting in Syria and Iraq for either Al-Qaeda affiliates or ISIS. They are from regions with a predominantly Muslim population, such as Adjara (an autonomous republic located in south-west Georgia, near Turkey) and the Pankisi Gorge (located in the north-east of Georgia, bordering with Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan) The population of Pankisi Gorge are ethnic Kists or Chechens, and there are a few dozen fighting under senior ISIS commander Tarkhan Batirashvili, aka Omar al-Shishani, who himself is a native of Pankisi Gorge.
"The major problem in combatting ISIS is still the government’s policy of non-response, and non-prevention."
Battlefield explicitly moved close to Georgian borders after Turkey entered the war against the Islamic State. Turkey has finally made a decision to move on the active phase after a suicide bomber with suspected links to the Islamic State set off an explosive in the Turkish border town of Suruc on July 20. Turkish military piled up substantial military force on Syrian border, meanwhile actually hitting ISIS targets from above on 23th July. Another important upheaval related to Turkey was permission to U.S of using Incirlik air base in southern Turkey in order to launch air strikes against the Islamic State.
In spite of this tremendous threat and danger, the Georgian government and regular citizens still presume that they will not encounter terrorism inside the country. This perception is because Georgia has never been directly threatened by international terrorism. Even though Georgia has participated in international military operations against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, for Georgians the struggle and war on terror is mainly perceived as the concern and business of the U.S.
The government has not presented an all-encompassing approach for dealing with the potential threat of ISIS. There is a dire need for reforming and empowering Georgia’s security institutions to effectively deal with the threat.
On the 14th of June, four people were arrested following a special operation conducted in villages in Pankisi Gorge. Three of them were released soon after. Merab Tsatiashvili, the cousin of ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani, was among the three. According to locals, the special operation was linked to ISIS activities in recruiting local youth (the Ministry of Internal Affairs has not made any public statement). Another person, Giorgi Kuprava, was detained in Tbilisi. He was prosecuted for having connections with ISIS and aiding in the recruitment of fighters. In the months before his arrest he was openly active on social media groups, mainly on Facebook, advertising about joining ISIS.
The major problem in combatting ISIS is still the government’s policy of non-response, and non-prevention. As for an action plan, the government should take the following steps in order to stave off threats:
- There should be a constant observation as well as deep analysis and research of Georgia’s vulnerable regions, understanding their socio-economic, religious, and cultural environments. This is key in preparing an adequate counter-recruitment strategy. While Georgia may be known as the “Lebanon of the Caucasus,” there is religious discrimination towards non-Orthodox Christians. For example, there are often difficulties for Muslims in Georgia to have their places of worship recognized as religious sanctuaries. Muslim places of worship have even been attacked, such as a boarding school in Kobuleti in 2014, and in August 2013 in southern Georgia a minaret of a mosque was removed. In another village in southern Georgia, locals Muslims received opposition from local Christians when they tried to restore an ancient mosque that was destroyed and where a library was put in its place. This issue of Muslim’s minority rights increases their vulnerability for recruitment.
- The government should actively participate in an international coalition against ISIS. The U.S. State Department lists 62 countries as members of the “global coalition to degrade and defeat ISIS.” Georgia is officially part of this coalition, but with a very low level of involvement, mainly on humanitarian issues. Active engagement in the coalition would be a great opportunity for sharing information, for training Georgian security bodies to ensure their readiness, and to plan a proper counter-combat strategy.
The world faces new security challenges from the spread of radical extremist ideology, and Georgia lies on the borders of those countries outsourcing terrorism. It is imperative for Georgia to conduct an in-depth study and analyse the problem to devise a security policy capable of fighting ISIS’ new strategy in terrorism.