As a born-again Christian, says Temur Tsatiashvili, “true bravery and true honor is the ability to forgive.”
But forgiveness has not been easy with his cousin, Tarkhan Batirashvili. For three years before his death in a U.S. airstrike in 2016, Tarkhan – under his nom-de-guerre Omar al-Shishani, Omar the Chechen – was a senior leader in the Islamic State and one of the most notorious terrorists in the world.
Tarkhan, instantly recognizable from his enormous red beard, commanded the bulk of the Chechen fighters who had made the journey from the Caucasus to Syria, before becoming ISIS’s unofficial ‘minister of war.’ He controlled the terrorist group’s military operations across northern Syria, claimed a seat on its governing council, and was responsible for the group’s infamous prison outside Raqqa, where hostages were held before being beheaded on camera.
But his family remembers him otherwise.
“We grew up together in the same family. He was a very warm person, a very lovable person,” says Temur of Tarkhan. The pair, first cousins, are from the little village of Birkiani in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. Temur is the son of Tarkhan’s mother’s brother, and was six years his senior.
The Pankisi Gorge has had a tumultuous last 25 years, even by Georgian standards. Populated largely by Chechens – known in Georgia as Kists – it suffered first from the economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union, then the war in neighboring Chechnya which turned the sleepy valley first into a refugee camp, then a military target, and finally an exporter of jihadists.
These changes rocked the foundations of the cousins’ world and set the two men on dramatically different paths, both shaped by worldviews from far outside the gorge. While Tarkhan became an Islamist militant, Temur became an evangelical Christian dedicated to promoting interfaith understanding. As Temur puts it: “I chose to fight in this way. He chose to fight in that way.”
From Sufism to Salafism
Temur grew up a devout Muslim, in the Sufi tradition of his Chechen ancestors. This was a tolerant, almost ecumenical faith, and Temur’s family would join in the celebrations of their Christian neighbors for Christmas and Easter. Tarkhan’s immediate family were some of those Christian neighbors: Tarkhan’s father was a Georgian Orthodox Christian, his mother a Muslim Kist. It is an irony that Temur became a Christian while Tarkhan became an Islamist, but both ended up choosing novel, missionary forms of faith at odds with the centuries-old religious tradition of Pankisi.
It was during the time of the first Chechen war, raging across the border in Russia in the early and mid 1990s, that this ethnically mixed world of religious toleration began to fall apart. As foreign fighters, often from the Middle East and financed by Saudi religious organizations, came to fight, they brought with them their interpretation of Islam, generally called Salafism, a puritanical strand with roots in Saudi Arabia. “It was in 1995 or ‘96 when the, shall we say, changes began in Islam. Various teachers came, and a new stage of Islamization started, a new current,” Temur says.
For many Chechens, Temur included, this new import clashed with the traditional culture of the region. “When this Salafi Islam entered, it brought Arab culture with it,” he says. “And with Arab culture coming in, it’s very easy to sharpen the distinctions between the religions.”
The changes wrought by the Chechen war and the rise of Salafism affected the Batirashvili household too. It was at this time that Tarkhan’s older brother Tamaz became radicalized, according to both Temur and to a former high-ranking intelligence official in the Georgian Interior Ministry, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue. As the security situation worsened and Salafism spread, Pankisi became much more homogenous, with most mixed families leaving for nearby towns. The Batirashvilis, however, stayed. “If Tarkhan’s father had moved to Alvani [a Georgian town near the gorge], the Islamization of their family would not have happened,” says Temur.
But even as his cousin became more involved with the Salafi movement, Temur was coming to a religious epiphany of his own. “When these changes were happening, I had a lot of questions for myself. And I couldn’t find the answers to these questions. I prayed a lot, I begged Allah to help me. Why is there so much hatred? Why should a Muslim kill a Christian? Why should people hate each other?”
Disillusioned with developments in Pankisi, Temur began to mix with Georgian Christians from outside the gorge. He requested a Bible from a Georgian friend, and, aged 18; “I had my meeting with God – the God whose name is love.”
The road to Syria
Shortly after Temur had his meeting with God, Tarkhan was having a very different series of meetings. “As far as we know,” says the former intelligence officer, “from the age of 15 he [Tarkhan] became a mountain guide and was helping people go back and forth. He was helping the Chechens cross the border.” This was the time of the second Chechen war in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a war which saw refugees, jihadists and radical preachers flood into Pankisi. The valley became a camp for civilians displaced by the war, and a rear base for Chechen fighters and their Islamist allies fighting the Russians. It was bombed by the Russian air force in 2002. In the midst of this upheaval many Kists, including Tamaz Batirashvili, joined the fight in Chechnya.
But in spite of the dangerous milieu Tarkhan found himself in, and in spite of the increasing radicalization of his older brother Tamaz, the future ISIS commander had no time for radical Islam. “He was a guy who wanted to fight the Russians from a very early age. He was not very religious at all,” says the former security official. It wasn’t long before he would be given the opportunity.
Tarkhan enlisted in the Georgian military and fought in the Georgian-Russian war of 2008. “He was working for army intelligence doing reconnaissance and those kinds of things, and he was very good,” says the former official. “His commanders gave him a very good report.”
However, following the disastrous conclusion of the war, then-president Mikheil Saakashvili brought in Bacho Akhalaia as minister of defense, citing the need for “a much stricter hand.” A ruthless enforcer, Akhalaia was a former penitentiary minister and is currently serving a seven-year sentence for torturing prisoners. It was under Akhalaia’s watch that Tarkhan’s life started to unravel. “He was dismissed from the army for some health problems, but I don't know whether it was really health problems or they started to distrust him,” said the former intelligence officer.
Then, in September 2010, Tarkhan was arrested by military police on what many consider to be trumped-up charges of illegal weapons possession. “They dismissed him. They arrested him for carrying weapons,” says the former official, who casts doubt on the rationale behind arresting Tarkhan. “You know, arresting a Chechen guy, when you know who he is, you know what he has done for the country, arresting him for just carrying weapons is kind of…” he trails off, shaking his head.
Tarkhan was sentenced to three years in prison (though he only served 16 months before being granted early release). The conviction, and the sense that the country he had sought to serve had rejected him, set him on the path to radicalization and to Syria.
“It was ingratitude. Ingratitude from the part of the state,” Temur says. “Everyone knows this – they set him up. They planted a weapon on him. He was a successful soldier. He did a lot for Georgia. All of this was rendered meaningless.”
“This feeling of injustice led to his radicalization,” says the former official. “He comes out of prison a radical Muslim.”
By late 2012 Tarkhan had made the trip to Syria, where he was soon joined by his older brother Tamaz. He began his rapid rise through the jihadist ranks, becoming the commander of a mostly Chechen, Russian-speaking unit and winning a string of victories against the Syrian regime.
As his notoriety grew, Tarkhan became an inspiration to young men from across the Caucasus looking for glory in service of the caliphate. Many of these aspiring jihadists have since met their deaths. (Tamaz was killed in an airstrike last summer.) Tarkhan won many of his victories by sending waves of suicide bombers, often new recruits, to attack targets.
For Temur, Tarkhan’s transition into a violent terrorist came as a complete shock. “To this day I cannot believe that he took the step he took, because he was so loveable and warm,” he says. “Very peaceful, very balanced, polite. There is such an expression: he wouldn't even step on an ant.”
Both Tarkhan and Tamaz were aware of Temur’s conversion to Christianity. This conversion, in the eyes of Salafi extremists, amounts to apostasy, a crime that should be punished by death. “I would always have these heated debates about religion with Tamaz. I constantly had conflicts with Tamaz,” Temur says. “Tarkhan would see this, so he avoided bringing up the topic of my religion. Tarkhan was a different kind of person, very warm-hearted.”
A Christian Chechen
Life as a Christian Chechen has not been easy for Temur. “I went through a few very difficult years, when all of my relatives were against me, all of Pankisi was against me. When I went out in the street people would spit in my face. They would kick me in the ass, punch me in the face and insult me,” he says.
He now lives outside the gorge, in the industrial city of Rustavi with his wife (also Chechen) and children. Nevertheless, he frequently goes back home, where his organization, the ‘Banner of Reconciliation,’ works to promote religious tolerance. Temur, who has spent time as a part of various Protestant churches, now describes himself as a non-denominational Christian. His organization is not explicitly religious, but works with schools and other groups in Georgia to promote reconciliation between religions, families and individuals.
Temur says he maintains a good relationship with the “radical leaders” in Pankisi, but admits that “according to the way things are, I should have been killed by now. When someone becomes an apostate, you have to kill them.”
Yet in spite of the danger Temur finds himself in because of his religious conversion, he says he understands the idea of the caliphate that Tarkhan fought for.
“Islam is fighting so that there can be peace in the world. But in order for there to be peace, those who violate the peace need to be pushed aside,” he says. “They don't want evil, they don't want killing. But it is for this reason that they wage war.”
According to the former intelligence official, more than 100 Pankisi residents left to fight in Syria – a huge number for a population of about 5,000 Kists, according to the 2014 census. Of those, around 35 have died, mostly very young men following in Tarkhan’s footsteps. “He was a superstar locally,” he says. “Imagine if they had a great football player from there, right? Everyone would play football. Unfortunately, they had a great terrorist.”
A tentative kind of normality has returned to the Pankisi gorge. No one from the valley has left for Syria since 2015. The fighters who are still there are not welcome back in Georgia.
But if anything, radical Islam is stronger in the gorge than ever. The Salafi mosques are thriving, while a dwindling group of elders are the only ones keeping the tolerant, Sufi faith of old alive. There is widespread discontent. In January 2018 Georgian special forces shot a 17-year-old boy, Temirlan Machalikashvili, in his bed, mortally wounding him. He was suspected of ties to a Pankisi-linked Chechen terrorist, although the subsequent investigation demonstrated no such links.
It is in this environment that Temur Tsatiashvili and his ‘Banner of Reconciliation’ try to spread messages of inter-faith brotherhood and forgiveness. “I have been threatened, openly threatened,” he says. But he is not worried. “It's always dangerous. But I am not afraid. Probably because of my Chechen mentality.”
William Dunbar is a journalist based in Tbilisi. Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.
William Dunbar is a journalist based in Tbilisi.