The June 14 arrest and later search of the house of Aiuf Borchashvili led to tensions in Pankisi, a predominantly Muslim area, which has recently seen dozens of its members head off to join jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria.
The arrest and a string of detentions appear to signal that Georgian officials are now trying to push back more actively against the departure of Muslim Georgians for Syria.
Family and friends of Borchashvili, who was also the imam of the village of Jokola, staged a protest against his arrest, however, and some clerics warned that the detention is spelling trouble for the Georgian authorities.
The imam's lawyer, Gela Nikolaishvili, has rejected the charges as "absurd," Civil.ge reported.
As part of a broader swoop, police also detained Merab Batirashvili, the alleged cousin of ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili), a Pankisi native, who some suspect could coordinate recruitment in Georgia. Batirashvili was later released.
On top of moving against alleged recruitment, police took another unprecedented step and detained in the Tbilisi airport three young men suspected of planning to travel to Syria to join ISIS. They, too, were later released.
Some Pankisi residents have been pushing hard for the Georgian government to take the lead in preventing such trips. Altogether, an estimated 12 Georgian citizens have died so far in the fighting in Syria.
The loss of lives has led to friction between Pankisi’s Muslim communities. Many among the local population and elders have blamed so-called Wahhabi groups for recruiting young men to fight in Syria.
The Pankisi population remains divided now over the raid. While many rallied against the arrests, others welcome the move. One resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet.org that the raid was long overdue.
“I had to tell my son I’d kill myself if he ever goes fighting to Syria,” said the woman. “They put these ideas into the heads of these impressionable young boys. They make that war sound romantic, a chance for them to become famous and also to make some money.”
She said that with continued attempts to recruit young men, a confrontation is pending between Pankisi’s moderates and Islamic radicals. “It is good that the police are taking some action. It will get much worse if people start acting on their own.”