His nom de guerre is Omar al-Shishani (Omar the Chechen), and he has gained a fearsome reputation as a commander in the dreaded terrorist jihadi group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. But al-Shishani is no Chechen. His birth name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, and he is a citizen of Georgia from the Pankisi Gorge, a remote corner of this South-Caucasus country.
Located 161 kilometers northeast of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, at the foot of the Greater Caucasus Mountains not far from the border with Russia’s restive region of Chechnya, Pankisi is a 10-kilometer-long valley predominately populated by Sunni-Muslim Kists, an ethnic group with close cultural ties to the Chechens and Ingush.
The presence in Syria of Pankisi-born Kist fighters like al-Shishani has stoked suspicion that the region is a hotbed of Islamic militancy, as well as a conduit for jihadists from Russian regions in the North Caucasus making their way to Syria. Many locals in Pankisi, as well as Georgian political analysts in Tbilisi, strongly dispute the notion that the area is presently a source of jihadist mischief.
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Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.