Georgian State Security Services boss Vakhtang Gomelauri has taken the first step toward validating unsourced media reports that alleged Islamic State commander Ahmed Chatayev, the suspected mastermind of the 2016 Istanbul Atatürk Airport attack, is among three unidentified men killed in a counter-terrorism operation in Tbilisi last week.
In response to a reporter’s question at a November 26 funeral for a Georgian special-forces operative slain in the operation, Gomelauri conceded that “there is a suspicion” that one of those slain is, in fact, Chatayev. He emphasized, though, that forensics work, including a DNA analysis, is ongoing. When that is finished, “we will have an exact answer whether this was Chatayev or not,” he said.
He stated that “our strategic partners,” including the US, are assisting in the investigation, but did not elaborate further.
The State Security Services’ massive November 21-22 operation against an unidentified armed group in a Tbilisi suburb already has sparked more questions than answers, with the government coming in for criticism for its tight-lipped handling of the case.
A story about Chatayev’s alleged death in Tbilisi had first surfaced in the Turkish daily Habertürk on November 23, but without any reporting beyond a statement of the supposed death. Georgian TV immediately began focusing on the claim, but also without taking the reporting further.
Chatayev has been identified by the US as the alleged head of a Russian-speaking, Chechen battalion within the Islamic State terrorist group. In 2013, a Georgian court acquitted him of charges of possession of illegal weapons and an explosive device during a 2012 clash with Georgian special forces on the border with Russia’s Daghestan. He formerly had lived in the Pankisi Gorge, an area a few hours north of Tbilisi with strong ethnic ties to Chechnya.
Whether or not the individual killed last week is Chatayev, reports have surfaced that Georgian border guards have started to prevent Russian passport-holders from the North Caucasus from entering Georgia. Tourists from the region have complained on Facebook about being allegedly turned back at the border without reason, the daily Rezonansi reported on November 27.
The State Border Police did not respond to a Tamada Tales request for comment, but a local analyst emphasized to Rezonansi that any such ban on North Caucasians entering Georgia would be misplaced as well as discriminatory.
“A terrorist, if he wants, could arrive just as well from Europe or other countries,” commented defense expert Vakhtang Maisaia. “It’s better if [state investigators] determine from where this terrorist group came into the country, who they were and what they wanted.”
As yet, nearly a week after the operation, no details have been released on any of those points.