May 21, 2015

BIRKIANI, Georgia (AP) — In the summer of 2012, a former Georgian Army corporal who had served prison time for illegal possession of ammunition burned his photo albums and quit his native village.

Tarkhan Batirashvili had wanted to become a policeman, but couldn’t get hired. Now, this offspring of a Christian father and a Muslim mother was about to start a new chapter in his military career — one in which he would be credited with some of Islamic State’s most stunning battlefield victories and rise to senior rank.

Last September, the U.S. Treasury Department placed Batirashvili — who now calls himself Omar al Shishani and is believed by some to be Islamic State’s chief of military operations — on its list of “specially designated global terrorists.” But to some in the Pankisi, the mountainous region of northeastern Georgia where he was born in 1986, the ginger-bearded commander is a hero and a role model.

To follow the path he blazed, as many as 200 of his young countrymen have left their villages. Batirashvili’s father Temur is aghast. “It’s monstrous what’s going on in the valley, that they are deceiving these kids and they’re leaving to fight in a foreign land,” the 72-year-old man told visitors to his one-story stone house in the hamlet of Birkiani. “My son should not be in Syria.”

The Pankisi is home to an estimated 5,000-7,000 descendants of Muslim Chechens who settled here in the 19th century. In the village of Omalo, locals say, a green-tile roofed building is used by preachers from the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam to enlist volunteers for jihad.

Residents say the recruiters promise money and provide ground transportation to Tbilisi airport more than 120 miles (200 km) away, as well as prepaid plane tickets to Turkey. “They are selling our children,” said Shariat Tsintsalashvili. “They earn dollars from it, drive around in expensive four-wheel drive vehicles. It’s a total mafia.”

On April 2, her 16-year-old grandson Muslim Kushtanashvili and schoolmate Ramzan Bagakashvili, 18, joined the valley’s recruits to Islamic State. That Thursday, the teens left as usual for their school in Omalo, next door to the building used by the Wahhabis. They never came home.

Muslim called friends later to say he was in Turkey. Then word came back the 10th grader had crossed into Syria. A legal minor, Muslim also had no passport, so his family can’t understand why Georgian border guards let him fly out of the country. Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri has vowed an investigation and punishment for those responsible, but Muslim’s family suspect authorities are protecting the recruiters.

Bagakashvili’s mother agrees. “Here they are stirring up things, recruiting youths,” Tina Alkhanashvili said. “You can’t get authorities to watch them.” Within weeks, Georgian officials reported three more boys from the valley had disappeared.