Pankisi Gorge and the Second Generation ISIS Leadership

Despite enjoying a stabilizing momentum, Pankisi gorge is still attracting interest from the international and local media and society as a whole. After US forces allegedly assassinated Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Omar al Shishani), one of the key leaders of the infamous Islamic Caliphate, Pankisi once again became a go-to tour for media and experts alike. Therefore it came as no surprise when news broke of two audiotapes that the Syria-present Pankisian leadership of ISIS had allegedly sent home aiming to admonish those reluctant “to take arms in holy Jihad.”

Judging from the ultimatum-like content of those audio addresses, it is evident that ISIS still holds Pankisi gorge in its plans. The fact that for the best part of the year, Pankisi has been as quiet and peaceful as never before definitely isn’t in ISIS’ interests. Even more so, with the rebranding and awareness-raising process in full flow as the locals try to overcome the harmful stereotypes that emerged during recent years.

Personally, I happen to be in Pankisi quite often and I can truthfully attest that Pankisi gorge today is an altogether different beast compared to what it looked like back in 1999-2003. The sheer fact that a woman was elected there as a head of local government, speaks volumes about their capacity to change. Even these threatening messages from ISIS’ new leadership prove that stability in the region rings alarm bells for them.

However, ISIS might find it difficult to “enforce” its threats for the time being, with the situation in Syria and Iraq as volatile as ever. Jihadist military formations led by the “Jabhat Al-Nusra” have managed to unblock Allepo from a siege of Assadist military formations and are even conducting counter-attacks on the southern part of the besieged city. As for the ISIS-controlled territories, despite large scale attacks by the international coalition forces led by the American and Russian leadership (the times we live in!), ISIS Jihadists still preserve their military capability. As several key, charismatic leaders of ISIS were exterminated throughout the last two years, including so-called “Caliph” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and “Military Minister” Abu Omar al Shishani, new leaders prepare to prove themselves.

The new ISIS political leadership still retains some Pankisian influence - The rule of the new caliph, Sheikh Mohammad al Adnani, is supported by Jihadist warlords of Georgian (Pankisian) origin Adam (Guram) Guramashvili (Faizullah al Shishani) as so-called “Justice Minister” and, as The Daily Beast recently reported, the brother of deceased Tarkhan Batirashvili, Tamaz, is believed to hold several governmental titles, among them “Interior Minister”. As for “War Minister,” the now vacant position is a coveted one, with influential Jihadist warlord Abu Muslim al-Turkmani the frontrunner to claim it.

The second generation of the DAISH leadership is more radicalized and is prone to behave in a more drastic and aggressive manner. Recently, new leadership has given “official orders” to their supporters to re-activate their military operations in the North Caucasus region, aiming to become a dominant force at the regional scope. Based on DAISH mass-media electronic network Al-Hayat, “Russian-speaking Islamic State (IS) fighters incited their counterparts in the group's Caucasus Province, as well as lone wolves, to launch attacks in Russia in order to preoccupy the Russians from mounting airstrikes in Syria.” This means that ISIS is mobilizing both manpower and political leverage to exact influence over the whole Caucasus.

Yet another strange signal that everything is not as it should be was a recent mock call to a terrorist attack, made by a Pankisi Gorge resident on a social network. Thankfully, the situation was expertly resolved by the Georgian Anti-Terrorist Center of the State Security Service (the author of the message was tracked down, arrested and is facing charges of disseminating a terrorist threat attempt in accordance with Criminal Code of Georgia – Article 323).

This is yet another case of how the situation in Syria and Iraq correlates with the situation in the whole Caucasus region and in Georgia, particularly. This is new reality in the Syrian War will have a continuing effect on Georgia and namely in Pankisi Gorge. Apparently, ISIS is determined to get Pankisi back to its fold.

Dr. Vakhtang Maisaia

11 August 2016 19:54