Despite a lack of conclusive evidence, Western nations are becoming increasingly concerned that the al Qaeda terrorist organization has established a base of operations in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. Georgian security forces have struggled to reestablish the government's authority in the gorge, which has long had a reputation for lawlessness. But officials in Tbilisi insist that no al Qaeda members are in the Pankisi.
Worries about a possible al Qaeda presence in the Pankisi have been stoked by recent terrorist bombings in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. On May 20, ABC News, citing unnamed sources, reported that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization had restored its ability to carry out terrorist attacks, adding that the group's operatives had been training in the Republic of Georgia. Georgian officials categorically denied the report. Security Minister Valeri Khaburdzania described the ABC report as "nothing but conjecture," according to the RIA news agency. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Pankisi Gorge has long been alleged to be a terrorist haven. Russia maintains that the gorge is used by Chechen militants as a safe haven, from which they launch raids across the Georgian-Russian border into Chechnya. Georgia has admitted that armed Chechens operated in the gorge in the past, but now insists that the militants have been driven from the region. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On May 19, Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinsky claimed that up to 700 Chechen militants were still using the Pankisi as a jumping off point for raids into Chechnya. Georgian officials countered that "several dozen criminals" may be "hiding" in the Pankisi, adding that there may be Chechen refugees in the gorge. But "there is no organized militant structure in Pankisi," Georgia's Deputy Security Minister Lasha Natsvlishvili told the Prime-News Agency.
Georgian-Russian tension has risen in recent weeks, following Tbilisi's refusal to extradite three Chechens who were detained near the Georgian-Russian border last summer. The three were armed when taken into Georgian custody. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has repeatedly dismissed Tbilisi's assertions about security conditions in the Pankisi. "We should proceed not from statements and promises, but from the need to reinforce the Georgian-Russian border and to prevent guerrillas from coming to us," the Interfax news agency quoted Ivanov as saying May 19.
Georgian National Security Council Secretary Tedo Japaridze has branded reports about the Pankisi's link to Chechen militants and al Qaeda terrorists as "total disinformation." Japaridze hinted during a May 20 interview broadcast by Georgian television that Russia was behind the rumors. "The sources could be different
Jaba Devdariani is a founding director of the United Nations Association of Georgia and Research Director of the UNAs program for applied research.