A year ago, I met a freelance photojournalist in Tbilisi who was looking to go to Pankisi. He wanted to interview locals about young men there going to fight in Syria. Nobody was interested in the story. Now, however, with the advent of crisis in Iraq and the alleged Chechen involvement in the leadership of the so-called “Islamic State”, it seems that everybody is interested. There is no shortage of stories about the subject in the media now. So I was not surprised when I saw this article in Bloomberg yesterday. What did surprise me, however, was the agenda-driven slant of the article in favor of the line the Kremlin has taken on Pankisi since the beginning of Putin’s rule.
“It’s a serious problem because, for the Russian security services, the Pankisi Gorge has been a source of militant activity since the first Chechen war,” Suponina said by phone Oct. 7. “Tbilisi doesn’t control Pankisi and people from there can easily get to the Middle East. It’s a black hole in the security of the Caucasus.”
We’ve heard this argument before. It is a favorite of the Putin regime who used it to convince the Bush administration to turn a blind eye to the tactics the Russians used in fighting the second war in Chechnya. And, in general, the appeal was a success. The Russian human rights violations in Chechnya were ignored because of the argument that the conflict was related to the “Global War on Terror”.
To be fair, the Georgian government is also not sure they can control the outflow of Pankisi residents to Syria, though they say they are trying. There has also been talk recently that Georgia may cooperate with the United States to set up a training center to fight the Islamic State. However, the Russian government was not pleased with that development, causing Tbilisi to backtrack somewhat.
Nevertheless, the author of the Bloomberg piece does not disclose the background of Moscow’s ‘expert’. A simple Google search revealed that Elena Suponina works at “Moscow’s Institute for Strategic Studies”, which appears to be a Kremlin research arm . She is also associated with Putin’s Valdai Club, a group of mostly pro-Putin researchers.
It is also unclear how many Chechens are fighting in Syria and Iraq. The numbers quoted are anywhere between 200 and 1,000 (the Kremlin’s number as stated in the Bloomberg article). Some residents of Pankisi claim that no more than 60 of their own men are there, while others say no more than a dozen, and that none have left recently. Those who did go to fight went to fight against Assad in Syria, they maintain. Six residents of Pankisi have now died in Syria, according to the Georgian media.
As for the Bloomberg article’s casual mention of the cleanup of Pankisi in the early 2000s, there were two separate incidents where that took place. The Russians bombed the area in 2002 as part of their war effort against the Chechen militants, in an attempt to block off their path of retreat from the republic. Another campaign took place in 2003 after pressure from the United States who believed Al-Qaeda was active in the area.
The Russian government says it is deeply concerned about fighters in Iraq and Syria eventually returning to their home-states and taking up arms there.
Russia’s Security Council chief recently stated:
“We understand that these people, having gained military experience and on top of that being religiously and politically ‘loaded,’ upon returning home can pose a serious threat to the national security of their own countries.”
The insurgency in Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus has never really gone away, as witnessed by the shootouts and “Counter Terror Operations” that take place there almost daily. Even the strong-arm tactics of Chechnya’s Kadyrov cannot prevent incidents like the suicide bombing that took place in Grozny this past week.
The sudden renewed interest in the so-called “Chechen connection” to the Islamic State seems to have come from this video that was posted to YouTube over a month ago, titled “We will liberate Chechnya & the entire Caucasus”.
Joanna Paraszczuk, a journalist who writes about Chechens fighting in Syria, dismisses the video as ‘overblown in the media’, and notes:
The “ISIS [Islamic State] is grooming Chechens against Putin” is overblown. The Russian speaking fighters in Syria are there because they cannot be in Chechnya. And IS [Islamic State] fighters have expressed the opinion that they are waging “five star jihad” while the CE [Caucasus Emirate] back home are “eating leaves” in the forest.
Moscow’s attitude to the situation in Georgia’s Pankisi is not surprising, but it is worrying. Tbilisi’s response also needs to be monitored as the situation develops.