Georgia faces many challenges as a developing post-Soviet country with aspirations for NATO membership and integration into the European Union. As the government continues to strengthen its cooperation with its partners in the United States and Europe, Georgia’s northern neighbor, Russia, continues to obstruct development efforts and puts pressure on NATO and its allies to keep the relatively small country in limbo.
But another issue also looms large for the transitioning state and could be an even bigger setback to stability than Russian interference. ISIS has turned its attention to Georgia’s Muslim communities, and reports of ISIS recruitment and influence in these regions have begun to emerge.
The threat of ISIS to Georgia’s vulnerable communities, specifically in the Pankisi Valley region, Kvemo-Kartli and Adjara, is expanding.
Specifically, the Pankisi region has a history of jihadist activity and remains geographically isolated from the rest of the country, making it difficult for the Georgian government to control and influence. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Russia’s wars against Chechen separatists led to the establishment of Pankisi as a sanctuary for thousands of refugees.
Chechen, Arab, and allegedly al-Qaida and Taliban fighters used the area to launch insurgent strikes into Russian territory. In 2002 and 2004, Georgian security forces largely cleared the area of militants and criminal networks; however, the inflow of foreign fighters over the years left a lasting impact on the area and a Wahhabi influence over a traditionally Kist population.
Russian security services have accused Georgia of working in tandem with jihadist organizations for years, suggesting Georgia does so to secure additional defenses against future Russian altercations. Yet the notion that Georgia could be harboring terrorists—regardless of the veracity of this claim—could give Russia another reason to invade.
With reports of ISIS recruitment of youth and even women in the Pankisi Valley region and other Muslim communities, Georgia should seize the opportunity to establish closer links with these isolated communities and pursue social integration and cross-ethnic inclusivity within these vulnerable populations.
While men and women may be recruited through a hub of passing foreign fighters, excited to join the fight and make some money in Iraq and Syria, youth are often enticed through a virtual world of social media where former residents of the valley now fighting in Iraq and Syria are regarded as role models and heroes.
Outside analysts may argue that the main problem is unemployment and marginalization, but locals have voiced that the number one problem is the extremely powerful ideological propaganda coming from ISIS.
Aside from small trade and meager land cultivation, there are few promising life choices available in the valley. However, poverty alone is not enough to cause radicalization.
The prospect of a mercenary lifestyle is not hard for these young men to envision. For example, many young Pankisi men know the story of Tarkhan Batirashvili—a well-known Georgian jihadist who rose to be one of the leading commanders in ISIS. His rumored wealth and reputation have not helped to dissuade them from this path.
ISIS has established a massive, solid media network for online recruitment to capture the minds of those vulnerable to radicalization. Currently, there are a number of former Pankisi residents communicating online straight from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. This has created a sense of admiration and pride among the youth, who view their former neighbors and friends fighting in Syria and Iraq as opportunists who were able to escape the dull life of the valley for a second chance at adventure, wealth and fame.
In his article in The Intercept entitled “The Mujahedeen’s Valley,” Marcin Mamon explains that 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,” according to Mamon’s article.
Opportunities for change
Regional experts generally conclude that there is little opportunity for men, women and youth in the valley, except to tend to their farms and livestock, go to school and attend the local mosque.
Yet, the region is actually better off than some other under-developed parts of Georgia such as Imereti or Gueria. The residents are not subject to systematic exclusion or discrimination; however the valley’s remote location has prevented many valley residents from engaging in economic activities or benefiting from Georgia’s period of economic growth.
While some experts argue that implementing education, employment and youth-oriented programs may help the region to stem radicalization, others like Onnik James Krikorian, a British journalist and counterterrorism consultant, believes countering violent extremism (CVE) initiatives in collaboration with civil society and local communities can reduce radicalization occurrences.
Targeted CVE measures can be designed to minimize radicalization through engagement with local communities and nongovernmental actors in countering extremist narratives. In Pankisi, CVE programs would be best suited to empower youth and families, as well as local religious, cultural and educational leaders.
Georgia’s Minister of Defense, Tinatin Khidasheli, has acknowledged the emerging problem in the Pankisi region and noted that the region needs attention. While addressing questions at the U.S. Institute for Peace on Aug. 19, Khidasheli explained that the region needs to be more integrated into Georgian society and young people from the region need to feel a sense of national pride and belonging.
Better employment, economic opportunities and improved social welfare benefits can advance this aim, but peaceful religious education to young people will be essential in order to counter the narratives of violent extremist organizations like ISIS. On top of this, civil society organizations will have to become more involved in addressing the causes of radicalization and countering the recruitment campaigns of violent extremist organizations.
An end to tolerating isolation
The vulnerable regions overlooked by Georgia have attracted dangerous attention from ISIS, and similar organizations in the past. However, with the right outreach and approach to countering violent extremism, these areas, and the vulnerable youth living there, can still be reached and brought back from the edge.
Georgia will need to collaborate with international partners, nongovernmental organizations and local communities to share in best practices and create new opportunities to counter radicalization by building media and leadership capacity in these vulnerable communities to dispatch counter narratives to extremism and reduce the appeal of joining extremist groups.
Georgia has an opportunity and real potential to counter the ISIS threat. If the Georgian budget and political will can handle it, than the issue can be addressed through a targeted approach that will focus on vulnerable communities in Pankisi, Kvemo-Kartli and Adjara through a combination of development work and countering violent extremism initiatives.
Roman Terehoff is a Training with Industry Fellow selected from the U.S. Army Civil Affairs branch on a one-year assignment at Creative. Roman will share with Creative and its partners his skills and experience as a civil affairs operator, while learning innovative industrial management practices, techniques and procedures.
The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Defense Department or the U.S. government.