In Pankisi, Georgia should wake to preventive approaches
by Eto Buziashvili:
Data on radicalization, collected at the national level in Europe is sobering. According to the recent report by the EU High-Level Commission Expert Group on Radicalization, approximately 20.000 individuals have been radicalized in France, over 20.000 in the United Kingdom and 11.000 in Germany. The report recommends EU members to strengthen their policies with multifaceted responses.
Threats deriving from violent non-state actors have been around for millennia. What has changed over the past three decades is the alarming scale, wider operational reach and intensity of violent extremism, amplified through use of digital technology.
Just as before, violent actors often fail to cross the physical obstacles put up by the states, but their violent ideas make it through, by benefiting from tools of the digital age. This makes violent extremism increasingly virulent, and poses serious threat to states’ economic, political, and social stability.
Straddling the crossroads in an increasingly unstable and fragmented region, Georgia is exposed to these threats. Addressing and preventing them requires quick and concerted action.
The Grapes of Wrath
Georgia’s north-eastern Pankisi gorge has been in the international spotlight since 1990’s, in the context of violence in neighboring Chechen Republic in the Russian Federation. When Russian forces deployed increasingly heavy-handed military tactics to battle an insurgency in Chechnya, quite a few Chechen fighters and refugees crossed Georgian border and stayed with their ethnic kin in the Pankisi gorge. In late 1990s in Georgia, as well as internationally, the Pankisi gorge became infamous for cases of kidnapping, murder and narco-trafficking.
Certainly, the Kremlin has been using the situation to its political and geo-political advantage, targeting the area from air, and repeatedly threatening Tbilisi with a ground incursion. The pressure triggered Tbilisi’s response, as well as engendered the first U.S. military training program for the Georgian troops in 2002.
Since then, Pankisi grew much quieter. However, with the escalation of war in Syria, the region has seen some of its young men leaving to fight there. A Pankisi native, known as Omar al-Shishani, was ISIS’s senior military commander in Syria until his death in an air strike on July 10, 2016.
The concerns have been growing over the spread of radicalism in Pankisi. And these concerns have been augmented by Georgian security forces’ operation carried out on December 26, 2017 during which 19-year-old Temirlan Machalikashvili was shot and eventually died due to his wounds and several Pankisi residents arrested. Georgian security officials have linked this operation to a shootout in Tbilisi on November 22, where the Georgian security forces battled three alleged ISIS members for several hours – the first such occurrence that has alarmed the Georgian security establishment.
The State Security Service said the young man who was killed on December 26 tried to activate a hand grenade, and thus the shooting was proportional to the threat he posed.
But the case has raised questions on abuse of power during the special operation: the family of Machalikashvili claims that their son did not have a grenade and that the teenager was shot in his bedroom while sleeping. Machalikashvili family has been calling for a thorough investigation of the case since then and demanding the state recognize their son’s innocence.
Many residents of Pankisi seem to share Machalikashvili family’s opinion that justice has not been served. The situation in Pankisi Gorge has been tense after the father of killed teenager, Malkhaz Machalikashvili, threatened to blow himself up at the State Security Service. He then changed his mind, decided to rally peacefully and demand justice alongside another bereaved parent, father of a teenager killed in school violence in Tbilisi. That protest, joined by thousands of Georgians, has led to the resignation of the prosecutor-general and contributed to the government shakeup.
The wakeup call
The Machalikashvili case must serve as a wake-up call to Georgia’s security establishment. It carries all hallmarks of the so called “push factors” of violent extremism – actual or perceived discrimination, marginalization, harassment, weak state-society relations, the denial of civil liberties and rights.
Acting to reduce the impact of these factors, channeling them into peaceful protest and restoring trust between the community and the state are now crucially important.
But even resolving the Machalikashvili case peacefully would only represent one step towards addressing the problem. Along with “push factors”, scholars of violent radicalization also identify “pull factors” – the individual motivations that help in turning grievances into violent extremist acts: money, employment and services provided by violent extremist groups. As the cases of Georgian citizens joining ISIS attest, these factors are also present on the ground.
Seeking the root causes of radicalization in Pankisi gorge, as well as elsewhere in Georgia, learning the pathways and patterns of ideological indoctrination, and assessing the risks of extremist movements inciting radical actions, requires a multi-faceted and preventive approach on local, national and international levels.
Global trend: Prevention first
Over the past decades, the international community has been addressing violent extremism mainly through security-driven counter measures, originally adopted in response to the threat posed by al-Qaida, ISIS and other affiliated groups. This mostly relies on traditional counterterrorism methods.
However, with the rise of a new generation of extremist groups, international consensus has been increasing tilting to the notion that counter-measures are not sufficient to prevent the spread of violent extremism.
The preventive approach, which prioritizes addressing the root causes of violent extremism and aims to decrease support and sympathy for violent extremism has recently been gaining increasing visibility. It is based on building a sufficient capacity to support resilience within communities coupled with developing a better understanding of the drivers of violent extremism and the recruitment process.
Both the United Nations and the European Union have stressed the need for focusing on prevention. The Action Plan of the UN Secretary General from 2016, as well as the Decision of the European Commission from 2017, emphasize the need for collaboration between various actors and stress the role of local communities, as they suffer the most from violent extremism and are the ones who best understand and may act upon the drivers of violent extremism.
Where does this leave Georgia?
Georgia’s approach to pacifying Pankisi has traditionally been driven by more traditional, security and intelligence-driven approaches. That said, the degree of integration of the local Kist community into Georgia – as proven by Machalikashvili family’s ability to understand and partake into the dynamics of Georgia’s street politics – creates a good basis for preventive strategies as well.
When pondering state policy, it is crucial to understand that having a belief – even radical – is not the same as acting on that ideology. Even if one passes into action, it does not need to be violent.
It is both often suggested and somewhat comforting to think that religion is the leading factor behind radicalization. Religion offers a sense of belonging and identity to individuals searching for meaning in their lives and thus it may be instrumentalized to incite violent action. But it can only exert effective radicalizing influence when the push factors are already there.
Extremists use these existing circumstances for their benefit and – through religion – recast violent radicals as heroes. It is true, however, that in many areas religious establishments are being used as an institutional network for offering pull factors – such as funding and other material support to terrorists. But their role is more linked to their organizational structure, than their religious nature.
Partaking of Pankisi residents in ISIS campaign, and the recent incidents have shown that Georgia needs to urgently deploy preventive policies, while doing its best not to undermine the existing links of trust with the local community.
Adequate law enforcement can only function if the local residents trust the objectives of the state, and believe they can seek redress for state’s errors. Education can help in further promoting inclusion, by strengthening social cohesion, and supporting emotional development and engagement with the rest of Georgia. Socio-political participation and economic development are equally crucial.
Georgian authorities may thus be well advised to take not only multi-agency, but also whole-of-society approach, aiming to create the ties of partnership and collaboration with local residents for understanding the extent of the problem, and working with local community leadership to tackle the challenge of violent extremism.
Helping local civil society initiatives, building up free local media capacity can help over medium term. Putting in a comprehensive program of strategic communication and continuous education, bringing various actors from the region – teachers, journalists, social workers, community and religious leaders – closer to their peers from Georgia’s other provinces can help dissolve stereotypes and establish the web of partnerships.