Murad Margoshvili, or Muslim Abu al-Walid al-Shishani from Pankisi Gorge, commander of Junud al-Sham terrorist group, disbanded 2016

Georgia’s State Security Service Annual Report Downplays Country’s Terrorist Threat

On April 12, the State Security Service of Georgia (SSG) released its annual report for 2016, assessing the country’s security threats (Ssg.gov.ge, April 23). Unsurprisingly, the report states that “the existence of occupied territories” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains “the main challenge,” with the Russian military presence there constituting “an existential threat” to Georgia’s statehood (Netgazeti.ge, April 12). Moreover, the document focuses on covert foreign activities such as last August’s foiled attack on the Russia-Armenia natural gas pipeline near Saguramo (Civil Georgia, April 13).

Once again, the SSG bluntly asserts that “Georgia does not belong to the countries with a high risk of terrorist attacks,” though acknowledging “certain challenges in the aforementioned direction” (Ssg.gov.ge, April 23). Yet, this explicitly contradicts the US State Department’s updated “Georgia 2017 Crime & Safety Report.” Along with the occupied territories, the State Department document qualifies the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, as “a high-threat location for terrorist activity directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests” (Osac.gov, April 23). The SSG report thus seems to disregard the insights of its partner US intelligence agencies concerning Georgia’s domestic terrorist threat level.

The SSG contends that “the number of radicalized citizens willing to engage in terrorist activities has declined.” It reports that to prevent Georgians from traveling to Syria and Iraq to join terrorist groups, as well as to undercut non-citizen terrorist transit through Georgia, last year the authorities submitted 1,500 individuals to border control “and denied entry into Georgia to 750” (Ssg.gov.ge, April 23). But the overall figures for 2015 were similar: 1,286 persons were submitted to border controls and 1,014 were denied entry (Ssg.gov.ge, March 29, 2016) — in other words, only 50 fewer individuals suspected of terrorist activities or links to terrorist groups were submitted to border controls or denied entry in 2016 than in the previous year. The report did not specify whether any of those suspected of terrorist activities or links to terrorist groups were Georgians, whether they were staying in the country long term, with or without visas, or how many were transiting through the country toward other destinations.

Moreover, the report does not mention Georgians who continue to fight in the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist organizations. This is striking, as the 2015 report did admit to 50 such individuals. Independent experts claim that between 100 to several hundred Georgian fighters are active in the Levant. Factcheck.ge tracked 11 confirmed Georgian terrorists killed in 2016 alone. Crucially, an unknown number of prospective Georgian fighters has undergone radicalization after leaving for Turkey for work or education at Islamic madrassas (see EDM, January 20). The report lacks any information on whether Georgia cooperates with Turkey to track such cases.

Therefore, based on the SSG’s own conservative estimate, at a minimum about 40 terrorists from Georgia were active in 2016. Yet, their whereabouts are unaccounted for by the report. Nor does the document address the scenario of their return to Georgia with the potential aim to wage a decentralized jihad there. In light of the IS’s continued territorial losses in Syria and Iraq, the terrorist threat is expected to rise as international fighters return to their home countries to establish local terrorist cells for low-cost deadly attacks. A significant recent case of such a returning fighters’ cell was the “Khasavyurt Group” in Dagestan, bordering with Georgia (see Terrorism Monitor, February 10).

Other data provided by the SSG appears to also contradict its own assessment of “no high risk of terrorist attacks.” The SSG has identified “several persons linked to terrorist activities” in Georgia, without providing exact numbers. Last December, it began an investigation into a foreign citizen charged with developing a pro-IS terrorist group. Fifteen “foreign students” were also “subjected to lawful measures” for “ideologically aiding terrorism with extremist propaganda.” Additionally, “up to 20 citizens of foreign countries” were charged with funding terrorism. The SSG is investigating an unspecified number of Georgian expatriates allegedly disseminating pro-IS propaganda on social media.

Together, these facts suggest a threat of possible terrorist attacks at home. Nonetheless, Georgia’s opposition parties have so far failed to question these apparent discrepancies in the SSG document. The report’s committee-level hearing in the parliament was held behind closed doors and lasted only two hours (Rustavi2, April 13).

The expert Giorgi Gobronidze claims “Georgia is not an attractive state for terrorists.” He assumes attacks on Georgian soil would not have “the same scale of informational impact as in Western Europe.” Moreover, he argues, Georgia lacks a “demographic structure” conducive to domestic terrorism unlike, for example, France, with its “large naturalized Islamic community” (Accent.ge, April 12).

But comparing Georgia’s social fabric and preconditions for terrorism primarily with those of geographically and sociologically distant France makes little sense; and it is problematic to underestimate Georgia’s integration into global informational networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Russia and Turkey, both Georgia’s immediate neighbors, provide a much more self-evident and relevant point of comparison. In both countries, recent suicide attacks, in St. Petersburg and Istanbul, appeared to be motivated by their military involvement against the Islamic State, likely carried out by homegrown terrorists and aided by returning fighters (Gazeta.spb.ru, April 21). Georgia, too, supports international military counterinsurgency efforts, currently in Afghanistan and, previously, in Iraq. It is a member of the Global Coalition Working to Defeat ISIS (Civil Georgia, March 23). Should Georgia decide to also contribute kinetically to the anti-IS fight, this could further increase the risk of terrorist attacks on its soil.

Notably, Georgia also has about a 13 percent Muslim population, with a Shia majority in the south. This Shia community is actively courted by the Islamic Republic of Iran through soft power efforts (see EDM, March 29). Moreover, the Sunni minority of about 10,000 Kists who live in Pankisi Gorge has supplied the majority of Georgian foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq. The intent of suicide attacks by radical Islamist militants is primarily to seek a general destabilization of societies perceived as their enemies (Matthias Küntzel, Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11, New York, 2007). Georgia constitutes such an enemy, not only for its actual military involvement in counterinsurgency operations abroad, but also by the fact of its majority Christian population. To this one should add Georgia’s strategic position as an energy and commerce transit hub between numerous stakeholders.

The SSG report downplays both the number of Georgian terrorists in the Middle East, and the threat of returning fighters possibly preparing attacks in Georgia. In addition, it ignores the threat assessments by its purportedly closest allies, such as the US.

This article was originally published in Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor on April 26, 2017.