Beyond Pankisi: Islamic Radicalization in Georgia

In his paper, Folklore and Terror in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, Paul Manning, a professor at Trent University in Canada, recounts a joke told by locals: “Georgia – you know. It’s near Pankisi.”

In his paper,

Folklore and Terror in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge

, Paul Manning, a professor at Trent University in Canada, recounts a joke told by locals: “Georgia – you know. It’s near Pankisi.”

Home to 8,000 ethnic


, a Muslim minority group related to Chechens in the North Caucasus, Pankisi is a

picturesque valley

 just 10 kilometers long, situated in northeastern Georgia. The gorge gained a notorious reputation as a refuge for militants during the Chechen wars of the 1990s and 2000s, a perception fueled by an influx of refugees from Chechnya to the region. Now, security concerns are reemerging, as the gorge is seen as a

seedbed of potential recruits

 for militant groups, including Islamic State.

Estimates cited by the US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism put the number of Georgians fighting in Iraq and Syria at up to 100. Thirteen men from the Pankisi Gorge are known to have been killed in action. The highest-profile Pankisi-born militant fighting in Syria is Tarkhan Batirashvili, also known as Abu Omar al-Shishani, a senior Islamic State military commander.

To address security threats in Pankisi, official policy in Georgia to date has mostly focused on promises of economic development. Authorities have also taken steps to

prevent would-be militants from traveling

by tightening border controls. But such measures are not sufficient.

A factor that is pressing Tbilisi to improve border controls is United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178, a measure adopted last September to make it tougher for jihadists and other types of militants to travel to conflict zones to fight. A key element for the successful implementation of Resolution 2178 remains missing in Georgia – namely programs that are classified as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Such measures are designed to prevent radicalization by engaging local communities and non-governmental actors in countering extremist narratives. To do so, CVE programs aim to empower youth and families, as well as local religious, cultural and educational leaders.

In June, the OSCE launched an initiative – dubbed United CVE – to support Resolution 2178. However, at the

OSCE expert conference

on countering the incitement and recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters, convened in Vienna in June, Georgian representatives were noticeably absent. In sharp contrast, officials from the South Caucasus’ two other states – Armenia and Azerbaijan – were present.

A new study on radicalization in Georgia conducted by Wake Forest University researcher Bennett Clifford, working with the Georgian Foundation of Strategic and International Studies, provided support for the notion that preventative measures would be beneficial – not only in Pankisi, but also among Georgian Muslims in other areas, including Ajara and ethnic Azeri villages in the Kakheti, Samtskhe-Javakheti, and Kvemo Kartli regions.

Such preventative measures could focus on addressing questions relating to cultural identity. Young Georgian Muslims are struggling to understand where they fit in to society, Clifford suggested.

“Younger Georgian Muslims are on balance more open to conservative interpretations of Islam than their elders,” Clifford told “In addition, the role of mass media should not be underestimated – younger Muslims have access to more material via the Internet and social media than do older members of their communities.”

The situation among Georgian Muslims in Ajara and the country’s ethnic Azeri population indicates other factors are in play too, in particular prejudice on the part of Orthodox Christians, who comprise the overwhelming majority of Georgian citizens.

“If unchecked, tensions between Christians and Muslims, particularly in Ajara, can contribute to the perception among Georgian Muslims that it is impossible for them to maintain their institutions and way of life in a Christian-dominant society,” he said. “For some individuals, this narrative is a highly potent “pull factor” drawing them to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.”

Clifford maintained that authorities and analysts tend to overestimate economic factors in the radicalization of Muslims in Georgia. “While the lack of jobs and poor economic prospects in Georgia can be “push factors” that convince Muslims to leave, that does not mean that migrants will choose fighting in Syria or Iraq as their eventual destination,” he said.

Clifford went on to cite Muslim Kushtanashvili and Ramzan Bagakashvili, two teenage boys from Pankisi who

left for Syria via Turkey in April

, as a case in which ideology played a more important role than economics in prompting the pair to embrace militancy.

“Economics are a necessary but insufficient factor to explain radicalization,” Clifford said. “A lack of opportunities for formal Islamic education, fragmented Muslim institutions, and a lack of local civil society measures have created strong inroads for more conservative iterations of Islam, including Salafi Islam, to create a substantial ideological presence.”

CVE measures could be useful in addressing the issue of radical ideology in Georgia, especially if such programs are led by trusted individuals within Georgia’s Muslim community, as well as by victims of terrorism and disillusioned former extremists. Unfortunately, Georgian officials have been slow to embrace CVE programs as a means of countering militant narratives.

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