Georgia's Pankisi Gorge: Russian Concerns and U.S. Interests

CRS Report for Congress
Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge:
Russian Concerns and U.S. Interests
Jim Nichol
Analyst in Russian and Eurasian Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Georgia has faced difficulty in asserting control over its Pankisi Gorge area
bordering Russia’s breakaway Chechnya region. During 2002, Russia increasingly
threatened to intervene in the Gorge, claiming that Chechen rebels and international
terrorists based there were making forays into Russia. U.S. interest in the Gorge was
spurred by evidence that terrorists there might have been linked to Al Qaeda, and the
United States provided training and equipment to help Georgia reassert control over the
area. This report may be updated. Related products include CRS Issue Brief IB95024,
Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia; and CRS Report 97-727, Georgia [Republic]:
Recent Developments and U.S. Interests.
In late 1999, soon after sending troops into
Chechnya, President Putin made the first of
repeated demands that Georgia permit Russian
troops to pursue rebels escaping into Georgia, and
that it cooperate in joint policing of its border and
the elimination or extradition of rebels. Frustrated
by continued separatist fighting in its Chechnya
region, Russia in 2002 stepped up these demands,
arguing that Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge area near
Chechnya’s border provided a major sanctuary and
source of support for the rebels.
As fighting in Chechnya intensified in late 1999, up to 6,000 Chechens fled south
of the Russian-Georgian border about 25 miles into Georgia’s eleven-mile long Pankisi
Gorge area. Many of these refugees had kinship and other ties to the Gorge’s population
of 7,500 mainly ethnic Chechens, termed Kists, who had long resided in the area. The
Georgian government helped the fleeing Chechens to settle in the Gorge. It tended to
tolerate the presence of former Chechen rebel fighters in the Gorge as long as they
remained inactive and lived there in peace. Some in Georgia also may have considered

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support for the refugees as leverage for reducing Russia’s support of separatism in
Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. In any event, the Georgian government
had little control over the poverty-stricken Gorge.
U.S. interest in the presence of international terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge was
spurred when, reportedly during the 9/11 attacks, a phone call was made from a bin Laden
operative in Afghanistan to Georgia announcing the success of the first phase of attacks.
President Bush in late February 2002 explained the decision to launch the GTEP by
emphasizing that there were some Al Qaeda in the Gorge. The State Department’s
Patterns of Global Terrorism for 2001 stated that Georgia “contended with international
mujahidin using Georgia as a conduit for financial and logistic support for the mujahidin
and Chechen fighters.”1
Recent Developments
Georgia-Russia tensions escalated in July 2002 after sixty Chechen guerrillas
attacked Russian forces just north of the Georgian border. In the face of the heightened
tensions and pressure from Russia, Georgia announced in mid-August 2002 that police
and security forces soon would be deployed to the Gorge and that military exercises
would commence near the Gorge. The deployments began on August 25, with the setting
up of checkpoints sealing off the Gorge, some guarded by tanks and armored vehicles.
Russian and Georgian officials reported that many or most Chechen rebels and terrorists
left the Gorge either after the announcement of the GTEP or just after the announcement
of Georgia’s deployments, with some moving across the border into Chechnya and others
scattering along Georgia’s borders with other areas of Russia. According to some reports,
U.S. military planners and FBI, CIA, and DEA personnel advised or participated in the
operation. Putin sent a letter to Shevardnadze on September 4, 2002, demanding that
Georgian authorities “neutralize” terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge rather than simply let
them leave the area. The State Department condemned Russian airstrikes into Georgia’s
Pankisi Gorge area bordering Russia’s Chechnya region and stressed that Russia should
cooperate with Georgia’s efforts to combat the terrorists.
Putin increasingly attempted to frame the issue of Chechen rebels in the Pankisi
Gorge as part of the U.N.-backed effort, led by the United States, against international
terrorism, maintaining that Russia had the right to counter-attack or pre-empt terrorists
in states harboring them. On September 11, 2002, Putin asserted that while Russia had
eliminated Al Qaeda and other international terrorists within Chechnya, they continued
to threaten Russia and the world from neighboring Georgia. He called on his defense,
border, and security agencies to prepare plans for an incursion. Georgian-Russian
tensions seemed to reach new heights the next day, when Putin addressed letters to
President Bush and other U.N. Security Council (UNSC) and OSCE members
condemning Georgia’s police action in the Pankisi Gorge as duplicitous, in part because
Georgian leaders were “conniving” with the terrorists. He warned that Russia might
exercise its right to self-defense under the U.N. Charter or the UNSC’s anti-terrorism
resolution 1373 “to counter the terrorist menace.” The United States responded swiftly,

1 The White House. Remarks By the President to the Travel Pool, Feb. 27, 2002; see also
statement by Charge d’affaires Philip Remler, AP, Feb. 11, 2002. The alleged National Security
Agency phone intercept was reported on CBS Evening News, Sept. 4, 2002.

expressing “unequivocal opposition” to unilateral military action by Russia inside
Georgia, and offered its “good offices” to mediate the Russian-Georgian dispute.
Seeking to further address Russian concerns, President Shevardnadze on September
16 ordered stepped up efforts in the Gorge to “capture terrorists, arrest criminals, and free
hostages.” On September 25, 2002, a group of several dozen Chechen rebels that
allegedly infiltrated from Georgia clashed with Russian forces. Ominously, Russian
Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov asserted that this new attack might well finally tip
Russia’s hand toward a military incursion into “lawless” Georgia. Moving to quell such
threats, Georgia inaugurated air patrols of the border area on September 27. While
Russian forces were clashing with these rebels, the Parliamentary Assembly of the
Council of Europe (PACE, to which Russia and Georgia belong) strongly denounced
Russia’s threats to intervene and formed a fact-finding mission to visit the Gorge.2
Marking an significant easing of tensions between Russia and Georgia, the two
presidents met in Moldova on October 6, 2002, and agreed on border cooperation,
including the designation of their security ministers as border emissaries and the
establishment of an early-warning joint communication system. In follow-up meetings
in mid-October and mid-November, border officials of the two states signed accords
reportedly setting up parallel border checkpoints and providing for some reconnaissance
and patrolling cooperation. Georgian officials in late October reported that their forces
had apprehended over a dozen foreign terrorists linked to Al Qaeda and had handed them
over to the United States, though U.S. sources would not verify such reports. Allegedly,
one prisoner was Saif al Islam el Masry, an Al Qaeda officer involved in several terrorist
attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities.
New Revelations. A major shift in Georgia’s view of Chechnya and the Pankisi
Gorge occurred in early December 2002 when an armed group from Russia crossed into
Georgia to commit crimes. Reportedly, the group had earlier left the Pankisi Gorge
following Georgia’s crackdown. Shevardnandze asserted that the group constituted the
spearhead of terrorists “planning to carry out wide-ranging terrorist acts in Tbilisi,” and
announced a nation-wide anti-crime operation, stating that “I made a big mistake when
I failed to pay attention to the terrorist threat.” He also alluded to Georgian press reports
that prominent Chechen rebel leaders had threatened the Georgian government. He stated
that the anti-crime operation would not be aimed against peaceful Chechens residing in
Georgia. Responding to Shevardnadze’s announcement, Putin commended Shevardnadze3
“for decisive action in the struggle against terrorism.”
International observers appeared in recent weeks to be also re-assessing the threat
posed by international terrorism in the Pankisi Gorge as more potent than previously
supposed, seemingly lending greater support to some of Russia’s arguments. At variance
with some earlier reports that Al Qaeda members had mainly appeared in Georgia after

9/11 (having fled from U.S.-led fighting in Afghanistan), this new information suggested

2 The mission reported in Nov. 2002 that it appeared that Georgia had achieved “great success”
in asserting control over the Pankisi Gorge. The Georgian and Russian delegates to PACE in Jan.
2003 agreed to set up a joint working group to deal with disputes over Pankisi Gorge and other
3 FBIS, Dec. 7, 2002, Doc. No. 20; Dec. 9, 2002, Doc. No. 152.

that Chechen rebels, assisted by 80-100 Al Qaeda and other international terrorists, had
established at least two training camps in the Pankisi Gorge in late 1999. By 2002, they
controlled the Gorge. The camps contained sophisticated communications equipment and
supplies. Training included hostage-taking, shooting down airplanes, and use of chemical
weapons and explosives. Although the international terrorists focused on funneling
money and fighters into Chechnya to fuel the Chechen rebel fighting, they were also a
node of support for worldwide terrorism.4 Such support may have included the
development of toxins and bombs for use against U.S. and other targets in the Middle
East, Western Europe, and Russia.5
Among the most sensational new evidence was surveillance camera footage allegedly
shot in March 2002 of Al Qaeda presence in the Gorge, released by the Georgian Security
Ministry in mid-January 2003. The Ministry reported that among the international
terrorists on camera was the Jordanian Abu Hafs, better known at Amzhet, who led the
80-100 international mujahidin in the Gorge. Other evidence showed a more potent
Chechen rebel presence than previously acknowledged by Georgia, including Ruslan
Gelayev, with a band of 200-250 rebels; Doka Umarov (also called Khasanov), with a
band of 130-150 rebels; Hussein Esambayev, with a band of 130-140 rebels; and a rebel
called Batya, with a band of 100-120 rebels.6 Many or most of these rebels and terrorists
quietly left the Gorge by mid-2002 and were not apprehended. The Security Ministry
reported that its anti-terrorist operation was virtually finished in the Gorge by late 2002.
The release of the camera footage and announcement that operations were winding down
prompted Russia’s presidential spokesman to warn on January 16, 2003, that terrorism
may not have been eradicated in the Gorge and that international attention should remain
focused on the area. Russian military officials also announced further efforts to fortify
the Georgia-Russia border. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow too
responded on January 17 that much remained to be done to completely eliminate the
threat in the area. Perhaps heeding such warnings, in March 2003 the government
reportedly sent extra military and police forces into the Gorge to prevent Chechen rebels
from re-entering during the spring thaw. Georgian National Security Council secretary
Tedo Japaridze in February 2003 was critical of assertions that many Al Qaeda remained
in the Gorge, which he said plays into the hands of those Russians wanting to intervene.
The Georgia Train and Equip Program. The Georgia Train and Equip
Program (GTEP) grew out of a request for counter-terrorism aid made by President
Shevardnadze during his U.S. meeting with President Bush in October 2001. U.S.
officials were receptive to this request in the face of evidence of links between the 9/11
attacks and the Gorge. They stressed that the GTEP complemented other multinational

4 According to one report, after U.S.-led forces eliminated Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, Al
Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a major planner of the 9/11 attacks, directed
that Pankisi become a major center of Al Qaeda operations. CNN, Mar. 3, 2003.
5 Time, Oct. 28, 2002, p. 32; Los Angeles Times, Nov. 29, 2002. In his address to the U.N.
Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, on the situation in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated
that colleagues of Islamic terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was an “associate” of bin Laden,
“have been active in the Pankisi Gorge.” Secretary Powell presented a slide depicting Zarqawi’s
alleged colleague Abu Atiya (Adnan Muhammad Sadik) as active in the Gorge.
6 Amzhet controlled the distribution of funds, including some from U.S. sources, to finance the
training camps and operations in Chechnya and elsewhere. Financial Times, Jan. 17, 2003, p. 7.

counter-terrorism aid to Georgia and similar U.S. efforts in the Philippines and Yemen.
They emphasized that the training aimed to help Georgia deny safe haven and transit for
Chechen, Arab, Afghani, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists who infiltrated Georgia, and
otherwise to help Georgia gain control over its Pankisi Gorge, protect its sovereignty, and
enhance regional stability.
The $64 million, 21-month, “train the trainer” program formally began in May 2002.
Up to 150 U.S. Special Operations Forces, Marines, and other Army and Air Force
personnel are training up to 2,000 Georgian military, security, and border officers and
troops. The first phase, completed in August, acquainted 120 officers with U.S. military
doctrine and tactics regarding military staffing, decision-making, budgeting, and civil-
military relations. A second phase involves training four battalions and a company in
marksmanship, communications, first aid, reconnoitering, human rights, and offensive
and defensive operations and mountain and helicopter tactics. The first 558-man battalion
to undergo training was envisaged as a commando-type unit composed of contract
soldiers. It completed its training in mid-December 2002, and reportedly some troops
would be deployed in the Pankisi Gorge.7 Marines began training the “Sachkhere”
Mountain Rifle Battalion in counter-terrorism operations in January 2003. Equipment
provided includes uniforms, fuel, small arms and ammunition, and medical supplies, and
some military facilities were extensively refurbished, but U.S. officials stressed that there
are no plans to establish a permanent U.S. military presence in Georgia. The U.S. military
also reported that $350,000 was used to provide advanced equipment for a new National
Command Center (NCC) at the Georgian Defense Ministry, operational in late July 2002,
to coordinate operational intelligence and plan emergency operations.
Implications for U.S. Interests
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe in congressional testimony on
September 24, 2002, stressed that “a stable and democratic Georgia will have geostrategic
importance for [U.S.] international relations far into the future.” He suggested that
Russia’s threats against Georgia reflected its real concerns about the presence of Chechen
rebels and terrorists in Georgia, “visceral” dislike by some in Russia to Shevardnadze’s
pro-Western stance, and perhaps displeasure that an oil pipeline being built across
Georgia will loosen its near-monopoly control over Caspian energy. Those who view the
Pankisi Gorge through the lens of Russian politics also have argued that President Putin
and the military were attempting to justify the failures of the Russian campaign in
Chechnya by attributing them to Georgian officials and international terrorists.
President Putin’s letter of September 11 appeared designed largely to convince the
United States to encourage Georgia to be more cooperative in addressing cross-border
incursions, according to some observers. However, other commentators and Russian
media asserted that the letter represented an attempt to trade Russia’s support of a UNSC
resolution on Iraq in exchange for U.S. acquiescence to a Russian incursion. Addressing
this assertion, Undersecretary of State John Bolton rejected any U.S. willingness to
consider such an “exchange of concessions.” Some observers have raised concerns that
as the United States focuses more on a possible conflict with Iraq, Russia might again
consider cross-border forays into Georgia in spring 2003, when Chechen rebels may step

7 Washington Times, Dec. 17, 2002.

up their activities.8 The United States in February 2003 designated three Chechen groups
as terrorist organizations, a major endorsement of Russia’s stance on the groups, but
stressed that the designation did not give leave to Russia to violate Georgia’s sovereignty.
Reflecting a major concern of many observers, Senator Nighthorse Campbell has
warned that a Russian military incursion into Georgia could “complicate” the closer U.S.-
Russia ties that emerged post-9/11.9 Cooperative policies that might be jeopardized by
a cooling of bilateral relations might include Russia’s cooperation on global counter-
terrorism, nuclear arms reduction, and the nonproliferation of weapons of mass
destruction. Perhaps indicating the primacy of such bilateral interests on both sides,
Foreign Minister Ivanov during his September 2002 U.S. visit stressed that ties were
“strengthened,” and Secretary Powell stated that the United States was “pleased” with the
relationship. Perhaps also indicative, Secretary Powell on September 24 stated that the
United States “would not lecture to the Russians” on self-defense, but argued that “brief
military force” by Russia in the Gorge would not resolve the problem. He also partly
blamed Georgia for border violations, stating that “there’s an obligation both on the
Georgian side as well as on the Russian side” to stop terrorism. At the same time,
Administration sources indicated that the United States was willing to step up trilateral
talks with Russia and Georgia to help ease their tensions. Senator John McCain, after
visiting the Gorge, also endorsed holding trilateral talks.10
The GTEP assistance was widely viewed by U.S. and Georgian officials as bolstering
Georgia’s ability to defend itself without outside intervention from Russia. There were
major concerns in both the United States and Georgia that a Georgian crackdown on
Chechen rebels and terrorists in the Gorge could trigger attacks by these forces on Georgia
itself. Russia’s escalation of rhetoric during 2002 provided an impetus to the U.S. GTEP
effort to put forces in place that could prevent and counter such attacks. Some U.S.
officials also pointed to the establishment of the NCC as an effort by the United States to
bolster stability in Georgia during its upcoming political succession. Reports that
members of Al Qaeda and other terrorists were in Pankisi or elsewhere in Georgia created
dilemmas for a U.S. policy that holds governments responsible for terrorists operating on
their territories. However, Georgia’s attainment of central government control over its
territory will likely take some months or years, and cannot extend to breakaway regions
such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia that also might contain terrorists. At the same time,
Russia, Georgia, and the United States continue to face the larger dilemma of
distinguishing Chechen separatists from terrorists, with the United States calling for
Georgia to combat the latter and advocating that Russia open peace talks with the former
that lead to the settlement of the conflict.

8 Interfax, Sept. 13, 2002; Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2002, p. A14; Eurasianet, Sept. 17, 2002.
9 U.S. Congress. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Hearing on the Republic
of Georgia: Democracy, Human Rights, and Security, Sept. 24, 2002.
10 On U.S.-Russia ties, see CRS Report RL31543, Russian National Security Policy. President
Bush reportedly sent a letter to Shevardnadze in late Jan. 2003 calling for more U.S.-Georgia-
Russia cooperation on regional security problems. Interfax, Jan. 22, 2003.