The country of Georgia’s political history, demographic makeup and geographic location create a unique landscape for the development of radicalization and violent extremism. Over the past five years, the recruitment of jihadist foreign fighters to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, especially from the small villages of the Pankisi Valley in north-west Georgia, drew sustained media attention.
However, in many cases this focus obscures broader developments related to extremism and radicalization within the country, which historically spans ideologies, geographic areas, diverse ethnic and religious groups, and aims of mobilization.
From 2012 onward, estimates suggest that between 41 and 200 Georgian citizens joined jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Several became high-ranking figures. The most notable example is Tarkhan Batirashvili (Umar Shishani), the Islamic State (ISIS)’s “minister of war” before his death in July 2016. Like Batirashvili, a majority of Georgia’s jihadist foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq were natives of the Pankisi Valley and of ethnic Kist heritage.
However, substantial percentages of Georgia’s foreign fighter contingent came from other areas of the country. According to a database compiled by the author, at least eight ethnic Georgian Muslims from throughout the country joined jihadist groups. In addition, the database confirms the participation of several ethnic Azeris from villages in Georgia’s south and south-east regions.
In addition to successful travelers, the State Security Service of Georgia arrested at least a dozen individuals on jihadism-related offenses, mostly under Article 328 of the Criminal Code of Georgia (joining or providing support to a foreign terrorist organization). Included in this number is one returning foreign fighter, Davit Borchashvili, who was found guilty of joining ISIS and sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2016.
The authorities also claim to have disrupted at least three jihadist-related attack plots since 2015: one cell based in the south-western province of Guria, a young man in Pankisi who threatened a terrorist attack on Tbilisi, and, most recently, the round-up of several individuals who assisted ISIS attack-planner and logistician Akhmed Chatayev in his re-entry into Georgia in 2017.
The Far Right
Jihadis are not the only problem. During the past few years, observers report increased activity by Georgia’s extreme right-wing. This movement consists of an amalgam of groups, each with unique ideologies, allegiances, and aims.
The makeup of three most publicly visible groups demonstrate the difficulties in placing them under one banner. Kartuli Marshi [Georgian March], led by former mainstream political figures, frames itself as a hyper-traditionalist movement that opposes the infringement upon “Georgian traditional values” through immigration, same-sex marriage, and lenient drug laws. In July 2017, the group organized the eponymous “Georgian March,” a thousands-strong demonstration on Aghmashenebeli Street in Tbilisi’s Marjanishvili district, home to a sizable Turkish and Middle Eastern population.
The ideology of Kartuli Dzala [Georgian Power], an ethno-nationalist movement organized through Facebook, can be summed up by its de facto slogan: “Sakartvelo kartvelebistvis” [Georgia for Georgians]. Like Kartuli Marshi, its members engage in direct street actions, including a well-publicized (but poorly organized) raid on a vegan café in May 2016.
Finally, there is Sakartvelos Erovnuli Ertoba [Georgian National Unity], a neo-fascist group led by its recently-jailed chief ideologue, Giorgi Chelidze. Chelidze and his ilk are assessed to be more inclined towards direct participation in violence than their far-right counterparts. Videos of their training regimen, which included the firing of automatic rifles, resulted in the arrests of Chelidze and several others on weapons charges.
Georgia’s counterterrorism authorities remain concerned that jihadist foreign fighters will return to the country and commit attacks. These fears were partially confirmed in November 2017, when Akhmed Chatayev and several associates opened fire on Georgian special forces during a standoff in the capital city of Tbilisi, resulting in the deaths of Chatayev, two other militants, and one Georgian servicemember. During the investigation, Georgian police uncovered evidence that Chatayev was planning a string of attacks in Georgia against embassies and popular tourist destinations after his return from Syria.
To date, there have only been a few cases of Georgian jihadists attempting to return to their home country from Syria and Iraq. Yet two overarching concerns remain: that some of the several thousand foreign fighters from Russia or other former Soviet countries will attempt to transit through Georgia on their way back to their native countries, and that homegrown extremists who were unable to leave Georgia will assist them.
While some efforts to develop a holistic counter-extremism strategy in Georgia are beginning to be made, homegrown jihadist radicalization is still a concern, especially given the inability of would-be jihadists to travel to Syria and Iraq. The Salafi movement in Georgia remains multivariate and dynamic, and although not all iterations of the movement directly promote violence, Salafism garners immense support from the younger generations in majority-Muslim villages within Georgia. Whether the next “generation” of Georgian Salafists will be driven towards travel to foreign jihadi conflicts or homegrown violent extremism depends largely on whether state- and community-based initiatives can promote healthy relationships between the Georgian state and Muslim communities.
Meanwhile, the potential for far-right extremist groups to escalate to violence is also a major threat. While aggressive and highly visible far-right rallies and marches in 2016, 2017, and 2018 did not result in large-scale violence, the popularity of the views offered by extreme right-wing groups in Georgia constitutes a serious challenge to social order in a highly diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.
Single-factor assessments of the origins or ideologies of the Georgian far-right are unlikely to be helpful in formulating policy responses. While terms like “far-right” and “ultranationalist” are useful for conceptual clarity, they reveal little about the varying ideologies, political aims, and individual figures that make up the dozens of groups in this broad category. While some of these groups have formed careful friendships and alliances with one another in the past, there have also been key fissures in their relationships and the authorities can take advantage of them.
The outflow of jihadist foreign fighters from Georgia to Syria and Iraq has largely abated, but Georgia continues to face threats from a plethora of extremist movements. With regard to jihadism in Georgia, it remains to be seen whether the authorities will be able to address underlying “push factors” that led at least 40 men and women from Georgia to travel to Syria and Iraq to join jihadist groups. While jihadism in Georgia remains in flux, there has been a concomitant resurgence of far-right extremism. Moving forward, it will be incumbent upon Georgian authorities to develop preventative counter-extremism policies, starting with grounded, neutral, and data-driven assessments of these and other forms of extremism within the country.
 According to the last General Population Census, taken in 2014 by the National Statistics Office of Georgia (GEOSTAT), 83.4% of Georgia’s population identified as Georgian Orthodox Christians, and 10.7% identified as Muslims. Ethnically, 86.8% identified as ethnic Georgians, 6.3% as Azeris, 4.5% as Armenians, and the remainder as other groups. Ethnic Kists constitute 0.2% of the Georgian population. National Statistics Office of Georgia (GEOSTAT). 2016. “2014 General Population Census Main
 Clifford, Bennett. 2018. “Georgian Foreign Fighter Deaths in Syria and Iraq: What Can They Tell Us about Foreign Fighter Mobilization and Recruitment?” Caucasus Survey 6 (1): 62–80. https://doi.org/10.1080/23761199.2017.1399701.
 Prothero, Mitchell. 2015. “U.S. Training Helped Mold Top Islamic State Military Commander.” McClatchy. September 18, 2015. https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article35322882.html.
 Clifford, “Georgian Foreign Fighter Deaths in Syria and Iraq,” Cecire, Michael. 2016. “Same Sides of Different Coins: Contrasting Militant Activisms between Georgian Fighters in Syria and Ukraine.” Caucasus Survey 4 (3): 282–95. https://doi.org/10.1080/23761199.2016.1231382. Pokalova, Elena. 2018. “Georgia, Terrorism, and Foreign Fighters.” Special Operations Journal 4 (2): 146–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/23296151.2018.1510707.
 Database compiled by author, accessed November 2018. For more on ethnic Georgian foreign fighters, see more broadly: Clifford, Bennett. 2018. “The Clear Banner: A Brief Update On Ethnic Georgian Foreign Fighters In The Islamic State.” Jihadology (blog). July 31, 2018. https://jihadology.net/2018/07/31/the-clear-banner-a-brief-update-on-ethnic-georgian-foreign-fighters-in-the-islamic-state/; Cecire, Michael. 2017. “Trends in Foreign Fighter Recruitment and Extremism in Adjara, Georgia.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 93 (April): 5–9.
 Ibid; “Law of Georgia: Criminal Code of Georgia” https://matsne.gov.ge/en/document/download/16426/157/en/pdf
 “In Georgia, David Borchashvili Sentenced to 12 Years of Imprisonment for Terrorism.” 2016. Caucasian Knot. August 9, 2016. http://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/36503/.
 “Counterterrorism Center under the State Security Service of Georgia detained 4 persons,” State Security Service of Georgia, December 1, 2015, https://ssg.gov.ge/en/news/73/Counterterrorism-Center-under-the-State-Security-Service-of-Georgia-detained-4-persons; “Counterterrorism Center under State Security Service of Georgia Detained One Person,” State Security Service of Georgia, July 30, 2017, https://ssg.gov.ge/en/news/156/Counterterrorism-Center-under-State-Security-Service-of-Georgia-Detained-One-Person; “State Security Service of Georgia Detained 5 Individuals on charges of Financing, Providing other Material Support and Resources to Terrorist Activities,” State Security Service of Georgia, December 26, 2017. https://ssg.gov.ge/en/news/303/State-Security-Service-of-Georgia-Detained-5-Individuals-on-charges-of-Financing-Providing-other-Material-Support-and-Resources-to-Terrorist-Activities-
 Pertaia, Luka. 2017. “Who was in and who was out in Tbilisi’s far-right March of Georgians.” OC Media, July 17, 2017. http://oc-media.org/who-was-in-and-who-was-out-in-tbilisis-far-right-march-of-georgians-analysis/
 Pertaia, Luka 2017. “Georgia’s Ultranationalists: Going Fascist on Facebook.” Chai Khana, July 2017. https://chai-khana.org/en/georgian-ultranationalist; Stephan, Adriana. 2018. “Defining the Far-Right in Georgia: From Neo-Fascists to Populist Parties.” Georgian Institute of Politics Policy Paper #5, Tbilisi, October 2018. http://gip.ge/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Adriana_FINAL.pdf
 Synovitz, Ron. 2016. “Georgian Vegan Cafe Attacked by ‘Sausage-Wielding Nationalists.’” The Guardian, May 31, 2016, sec. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/31/georgian-vegan-cafe-attacked-by-sausage-wielding-nationalists.
 “Neo-Nazi leader arrested on gun charges in Georgia.” OC Media, September 3, 2018. http://oc-media.org/neo-nazi-leader-arrested-on-gun-charges-in-georgia/
 “Wanted Chechen IS jihadist Chatayev killed in Georgia siege.” BBC News, December 1, 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-42193273
 “Gavrtselda audiochanats’eri, romelshits, savaraudod, Ahmet Chat’aevi Sakartveloshi teraktebis mots’qobaze lap’arak’obs [An audio-recording in which Akhmed Chatayev allegedly discusses the planning of terrorist attacks in Georgia has been released].” Radio Tavisupleba, June 28, 2018. https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/29325970.html
 “Q&A: Would ISIS Fighters Return to Georgia?” Civil.ge, March 2, 2018. https://civil.ge/archives/219845
 “Islam in Georgia: Policy and Integration.” Research Report, Centre for Cultural Relations-Caucasian House, 2016. http://caucasianhouse.ge/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Islam-in-Georgia-ENG.pdf
 Ibid.; Urushadze, Maia and Bennett Clifford. 2017. “Georgia’s Muslim authority should represent the interests of Georgia’s Muslims, not the government’s.” OC Media, March 22, 2017. http://oc-media.org/georgias-muslim-authority-should-represent-the-interests-of-georgias-muslims-not-the-governments/
 Pertaia, “Who was in and who was out in Tbilisi’s far-right March of Georgians;” Stephan, “Defining the Far-Right in Georgia;” Kincha, Shota. 2018. “Labelling Georgia’s far right ‘pro-Russian’ is reductionist and counterproductive.” OC Media, August 13, 2018. http://oc-media.org/opinion-labelling-georgias-far-right-pro-russian-is-reductionist-and-counterproductive/.