With the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the emergence of Abu Omar al-Shishani as a top commander has put a spotlight on a small area in the Georgian mountains called the Pankisi Gorge. The last time Pankisi Gorge made major news was in 2003 when the Georgian military launched a campaign to flush out Islamic extremists who had taken refuge there following the Chechen Wars. Russia has long accused Georgia of letting extremists make Pankisi Gorge a safe haven. Russia has even gone so far as to make military incursions there themselves. Fast-forward 11 years and Pankisi Gorge is once again in the news, this time as an alleged corridor through which Chechens and other Islamists from the Caucasus are using to get to Syria, and as a breeding ground for terrorists.
While it is true that some Chechens fighting with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have ties to the Pankisi Gorge, it is disputed that the region breeds terrorists. The area is home to many Chechens who fled the Wars in the 1990s. It is also home to the Kists, an ethnic group which traces back to the Chechens. The Kists, along with many Chechens, practice the mystical Sufi form of Islam. Some of the newer, younger residents have embraced the stricter Wahhabi, or Salafi, form of Islam (a subject for a post in itself). Both groups live peacefully with each other, but this is one area that has spawned rumors that the Wahhabi are proselytizing and encouraging extremism. Residents vehemently deny the extremist accusations, saying it’s all Islam. They also claim that most of the Chechen fighters going to Syria are coming from the Chechen diasporas in Europe, not Pankisi. There is no irrefutable proof that the Wahhabi mosques and imams in Pankisi are encouraging young Muslim men to join jihad, but there is a certain laissez faire among some. One imam recently said that it is the obligation of Muslims to “protect Muslim women and children wherever they are persecuted, whether it’s in Russia, Syria, Spain or Germany.” He also said his mosque receives donations from Saudi Arabia.
It is a poor area with high unemployment. Sometimes, the only place for young men to gather is at a local mosque. Others, in search of work, make the trip to Georgia’s neighbor, Turkey. Of course, Turkey is a major entry point for anyone wishing to join up with the fighting in Syria. Georgian officials claim that only 50-100 residents from Pankisi have gone to Syria. Of that relatively small number, several have made names for themselves in Syria besides Omar al-Shishani. Muslim Abu Walid Shishani has been called the most experienced fighter to come from Pankisi. Militant group Jaish Al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar is commanded by another former Pankisi resident, Salahuddin Shishani. To the others making the trip through Turkey to Syria, jihad is a way to fight for their faith and to make names for themselves. None of this proves that the Pankisi Gorge is breeding terrorists or not. The real concern should not be whether Pankisi Gorge is a hotbed of terrorism, but what will happen when the war is Syria ends. In a recent phone call to his father, Omar al-Shishani allegedly promised revenge against Russia, presumably referring to Chechnya and the rest of the Caucasus under Russian control.
Unrelated to the current war in Syria but interesting to note, that both Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have spent time in the region, lending credit to the reports that the area had become a safe haven for al Qaeda terrorists. As Georgia largely leaves the area undisturbed, the reports of the Pankisi Gorge being home to terrorists will persist.