Islamic State terrorists may have confirmed the death of their Georgian military commander Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen aka Tarkhan Batirashvili), but in the 30-year-old militant’s native Pankisi Gorge, locals appear to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
Georgia’s largest national broadcaster, Rustavi2, reported on July 14 that unnamed residents of Pankisi, a narrow valley about 161 kilometers/100 miles northeast of the capital, Tbilisi, did not confirm Batirashvili’s death, saying that his family knows nothing about it.
Over the past few years, multiple reports of Batirashvili’s death have surfaced periodically; the most recent, in March. His father, 72-year-old Temur Batirashvili, a Georgian Orthodox believer who says he has not heard from his son in years, has not responded to these latest reports of his death.
But in Georgia, as elsewhere in the South Caucasus, locals will still look to relatives first for confirmation.
Batirashvili’s older brother Tamaz is reportedly another ISIS military commander, supposedly handling security issues. For residents of Pankisi, the daily Rezonansi reported in June, this brother is “the most reliable” source of information.
“He’s always by his brother’s side and, as they say, they’ll confirm the information about [Tarkhan Batirashvili] with Tamaz as well,” Pankisi elder Khasan Khangoshvili commented to the paper, denying the March report of the younger Batirashvili's death.
How exactly that confirmation would occur is not clear, though reportedly dozens of young men from Pankisi have headed to Syria to join the terrorist group. Some manage to stay in touch with friends and family.
Another form of proof for Batirashvili’s death, Khangoshvili noted — if funeral ceremonies (usually a massive undertaking in the Caucasus) are held for him in absentia.
So far, Tarkhan Batirashvili’s family has not held a mourning ceremony for the ISIS commander, the Kakheti Information Center, a news site that closely follows the Pankisi Gorge, reported on July 14.
Unidentified relatives told a Pankisi community radio station, however, that they had "authentic" information that Batirashvili was killed in Iraq, the site said.
No doubt weary of media references to the terrorist’s roots in pro-Western Georgia, the Georgian government has not commented on Batirashvili’s reported death.
Mainstream Georgian media has largely followed suit, instead focusing their coverage on topics related to this October’s parliamentary election.
But despite the silence, news about Pankisi’s ISIS connection continues to percolate.
In its July 4 edition, the weekly Kviris Palitra published excerpts from an alleged audio recording for an Islamic group in Pankisi from one of Batirashvili’s supposedly Pankisi-born bodyguards and relatives, Ruslan Tokhasashvili.
In it, Tokhasashvili chastised the Pankisi group for not joining the terrorists’ fight, warning that “you absolutely will regret it.”
“The time will come when we will come to Georgia, we will come to Chechnya. If not us, our brothers will come. . . “ the newspaper reported him as saying.
The alleged threat is not the first for their homeland from Georgian members of ISIS.
Georgia’s State Security Service brought in the reporter of the Kviris Palitra story, Nino Burchuladze, for questioning about this and another alleged ISIS audio threat related to Pankisi, but has not commented further.