Mystery Surrounds Istanbul-Attack Suspect's Past in Georgia
The one-armed and one-legged presumed mastermind of the June 28 attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, Ahmed Chatayev, has triggered a flurry of finger-pointing and a possible government investigation in Turkey’s eastern neighbor, Georgia.
Georgian National Security Services Director Vakhtang Gomelauri said on July 5 that a probe may be launched into “whether or not [Chatayev] was [a government] agent, and whether or not he collaborated” with the Georgian government under ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili.
A veteran of Chechnya’s wars against Moscow in the 1990s, Chatayev lived in Georgia from roughly 2010-2013 before reportedly becoming an ISIS terrorist.
Moving from Ukraine, from which Russia had requested his extradition on terrorism charges, he settled in Georgia's remote Pankisi Gorge, a valley with ethnic ties to Chechnya, and a recent source of ISIS fighters, including ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani.
A former senior member of then President Mikheil Saakashvili's government has claimed that officials recruited Chatayev as an informant on militant Islamic activity in the North and South Caucasus.
“With his help we prevented several terrorist attacks on Georgia,” alleged Giorgi Lortkipanidze, a Saakashvili-era deputy interior minister in a recent interview with The Daily Beast.
Lortkipanidze led Georgian special forces in a controversial clash with reported Islamic militants from the North Caucasus in the summer of 2012.
The operation remains deeply controversial, as is Chatayev's role in it. Accounts of his actions are wildly contradictory.
According to the official report of the time, the operation was a response to the kidnapping of five young men by a North Caucasian band of Islamic militants, who had entered a remote part of Georgia which borders on Russia’s restive Dagestan region.
The hostages eventually were released, but then the militants took Georgian interior ministry personnel captive.
One regional Georgian outlet, which covers this geographical area, has reported that Chatayev was sent to the militants' location, the Lopota Gorge, to negotiate their surrender.
Whatever the case, the talks were not successful. The standoff escalated into heavy fighting that claimed the lives of three Georgian special forces troops and 11 militants.
Chatayev was shot in the leg during the fighting. For unclear reasons, he reportedly spent nine days hiding in the forest until he was arrested by police for allegedly illegally possessing firearms. Complications from his wound eventually led to the amputation of his leg.
One relatively consistent line in the inconsistent accounts about these events is that Chatayev went over to the militants’ side. An interior ministry statement at the time of his arrest identified him as a militant.
Lortkipanidze, who now serves as police chief of the Ukrainian city of Odessa (Saakashvili is the region’s governor), claims that Chatayev turned against the Georgian government, but he did not elaborate about the timing or circumstances.
The Georgian Dream coalition, which came to power in late 2012, initially claimed that Saakashvili’s government had been recruiting, training and equipping Chechen fighters to stir up insurgencies in the Russian North Caucasus against Tbilisi’s nemesis, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili became a prime proponent of this theory, and demanded an investigation into the Lopota operation. He could not be reached to elaborate on his claims.
At the time, Saakashvili described the accusations as an “irresponsible” and “dangerous” tale crafted by Georgian Dream boss Bidzina Ivanishvili, then Georgia’s prime minister.
Amidst a series of prisoner pardons under Ivanishvili, Chatayev was released from prison in 2013. His Georgian wife, infant son and mother-in-law had joined a group from Pankisi that traveled to Tbilisi to protest his innocence and demand his release.
Chatayev was granted asylum in Austria, from whence he reportedly traveled to join ISIS in Syria.
But, again, with another parliamentary election in the works, his story is fueling another political fight.
From Ukraine, Saakashvili recently blasted the Georgian Dream for releasing Chatayev as “a political prisoner,” and asserted the current Georgian government shares responsibility for the attack on Istanbul. The Georgian Dream returned the volley, lambasting the UNM for having put a terrorist on the government’s payroll.
The National Security Service’s investigation is unlikely to clarify matters greatly. Gomelauri, the former head of Ivanishvili’s personal bodyguards, noted that the enquiry into Chatayev’s alleged past association with the Georgian government would likely be a closed-door investigation.
In an apparent effort to downplay the notion that Georgia, a close US ally, was collaborating with the pre-ISIS Chatayev, US Ambassador to Tbilisi Ian Kelly on July 3 commented to Georgian media that no proof exists as yet for Chatayev's involvement in the Istanbul attack. Asked if Tbilisi bears any responsibility for having let the militant out of jail, he declined to "assess the grounds on which Chataev was released."
Meanwhile, back in Chatayev’s native Chechnya, strongman leader Ramzan Kadirov, a Moscow pal and Chatayev foe, has his own take on the way forward. Seizing the opportunity to blast the European Union and Georgia for what he described as nurturing a terrorist, Kadirov demanded Chatayev’s extradition from Turkey to Russia.
Turkey, busy of late trying to re-forge a friendship with Moscow, has not yet responded to the request.
-Caucasus/Turkey news editor Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this post.