BIRKIANI, Georgia (AFP) – White smoke belches from the chimney of a lopsided stone house, mingling with thick fog in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge whose bucolic setting hardly fits its reputation as a jihadist hotbed.
Temur Batirashvili, a 70-year-old subsistence farmer, warms his hands over a rusty stove as he tells the story of his son, one of the most feared commanders with the Islamic State group in Syria.
The notorious red-bearded fighter Omar Al-Shishani was born Tarkhan Batirashvili in Birkiani, one of six villages in the area populated by Kists – descendants of ethnic Chechens who migrated to Georgia in the 19th century.
Al-Shishani – whose nom-de-guerre means “the Chechen” in Arabic – is among dozens of other Kists reportedly fighting in Syria and Iraq for the IS group.
The 27-year-old previously served in pro-Western Georgia’s US-trained army, fighting against Russian troops during the Russia-Georgia war in 2008.
He was promoted to sergeant before being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2010 and dismissed.
“When Tarkhan recovered, he was keen to re-join the army,” his father said. “They promised him a job in the military but never kept the promise.”
A few months later he was arrested and jailed for three years for illegal weapons possession.
When he left jail, shortly before the end of his sentence, he told his father he felt rejected by his country.
“One day he told me: ‘Dad, this country doesn’t need me.’ That was the last time I saw him. He went away and never returned,” his father said.
“The time he spent in prison changed him. He converted to Islam. Before that, he was not a religious man.”
“He only called me twice from Syria,” he added. “He asked me whether I pray. ‘Of course I pray,’ I told him. ‘I pray to Saint George.’ He hung up.”
A former Georgian security official told AFP that al-Shishani – who was arrested for selling weapons to Chechen separatist fighters – “only cared about money, just as many other purported fanatics who claim to be fighting a holy war.”
Al-Shishani, as well as other Kists reportedly fighting in Syria and Iraq, have earned the area of northeastern Georgia a reputation for forging militants.
“Up to 70 people from Pankisi are currently fighting alongside IS extremists,” Shota Utiashvili, a former senior official in Georgia’s Interior Ministry, told AFP.
But he dismissed multiple Western media reports that Pankisi – just a day’s drive from Syria – has become an extremist hotbed. “There are no radical extremists in Pankisi,” he said.
“There might be some Kist kids who are proud of their world-famous Tarkhan, but if he were a football star they would all be dreaming of becoming footballers.” But Pankisi does have a history of militancy.
During the two Russian-Chechen wars, between 1994 and 2000, and for a few years more, separatist fighters from neighbouring Chechnya found a safe haven in Pankisi and even used it as a springboard for attacks on Russian forces.
In 2004, the United States helped Georgia’s former pro-Western president Mikheil Saakashvili clear the Chechen fighters out.
But the years of lawlessness had a lasting impact, with some among the 10,000 refugees from the Chechnya wars introducing radical forms of Islam.
Traditional Sufi Islam was quickly replaced by Salafism – a radical ideology of Islam.
“Salafism is now the dominant in Pankisi,” Sulkhan Bordzikashvili, a journalist from Pankisi’s Jokolo village, told AFP.
But he insisted that “extremists are not welcome in Pankisi.”
People who expressed radical views were forced to leave the region, he said.
“Some of them went to the Syria war but almost all quickly returned. They were shocked by the atrocities against innocent civilians. They saw that it’s not a jihad, but a Muslim fratricide.”
But an elderly resident of al-Shishani’s native Birkiani village said that Salafism threatened the “very existence of the Kists’ cultural identity.”
“Overwhelmingly Salafi, Kist youth no longer identify themselves as ethnic Kists or Georgian citizens — only as Muslims,” he said, declining to give his name.
In Duisi, another Kist village, a member of Pankisi’s Council of Elders said that the Georgian government lacked policies to address serious social and economic problems in the area.