Murder of Georgian Islamist in Germany

On August 23, 2019, an Islamist from Georgia, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, who had been living in Berlin since 2016, was shot in plain daylight by a hit man with a Russian passport, detained shortly afterwards. Khangoshvili was allegedly on his way to the Friday prayer. He is said to have frequented mosques in which Islamists from the Caucasus region are active.1

Although the murder took place in August, it was only in December that the German government blamed authorities in Russia and the Republic of Chechnya for the assassination, allegedly on the basis that Russian authorities were not collaborative in elucidating the backgrounds to the murder. 

Despite the many uncertainties surrounding the case, looking into the background of  Khangoshvili it appears German authorities may be covering up their own share of the story. Last but not least, why a member of the Islamist “Caucasian Emirate,” today allied to the Islamic State, would live undisturbed in the Federal Republic for the past three years, despite his reported involvement in Islamist terrorist activities, and having been on Russia’s terrorist want list since 2008.2

Khangoshvili grew up in the Pankisi Gorge, a valley in eastern Georgia predominantly inhabited by Muslims, and belonged to the Chechen ethnic group of the Kist people. It is from this valley that most of the radicalized Georgian Islamists come from who subsequently have joined the Islamic State in Syria.3 The region has seen a wave of Saudi Wahhabist missionary activities, which are partly blamed for the radicalization tendencies in the Caucasus. 

Khangoshvili had reportedly fought in the Second Chechen War (1999-2009) as a commander of Chechen Islamist militias, first of the “Caucasian Front” and later of the “Caucasian Emirate”. Since Chechnya serves  as a buffer zone between Georgia and mainland Russia, it was rumored that Georgian authorities tolerated,4 if not equipped,5 those Islamist groups, in the hope that they would keep away the unbeloved neighbor, while at the same time not appearing as aggressors themselves.

Caucasian Emirate

Ethnic map of the Northern Caucasus.
The borders of the “Caucasian Emirate” proclaimed in 2007.

The Chechen Islamist terror group “Caucasian Emirate” (CE) is held responsible for multiple attacks in Russia and the Caucasus republics.2 Security experts had long warned of the CE and the danger posed by its supporters.6 The CE, led by Dokka Umarov (alias Abu Usman) until his death in 2013, emerged from the “Caucasian Front” in 2007, and would later switch allegiance to the Islamic State. Umarov had taken responsibility for several attacks on civilian targets in Russia, including the 2010 Moscow Metro bombings and the 2011 Domodedovo International Airport bombing.7 According to Caucasian security expert Michail Logvinov:6 

In October 2007 Islamist resistance [in Chechnya] regrouped under the banner of the Islamic “state,” which reaches far beyond the borders of individual republics. Since then, the Chechen Dokka Umarov has led the “emirate,” which also operates as a Pan-Caucasian jihad front. It is responsible for the majority of attacks in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria, but also in Russia. Islam has always played a special role as a formative historical force in the struggle of the North Caucasian peoples against Russian troops. … In the “Official Declaration on the Proclamation of the Caucasus Emirate” of 2007 the radical orientation becomes clear. Therein Umarov rejects everything that is connected to Taghut (idolatry): “I reject all Kafir laws that are installed in the world. I reject all laws and systems that the infidels have installed in the Caucasus.” For it was necessary to “expel the nonbelievers from the Caucasus” and to transform the territory into the House of Peace. Moreover, “we must reconquer all historical Islamic territories outside the North Caucasus.” Umarov classified all non-Muslims as infidels and gave his blessing to kill them as “objects of destruction.”

Starting in November 2014, mid-level commanders of the Caucasus Emirate began publicly switching their allegiance from Umarov’s successor, the Emirate leader Aliaskhab Kebekov, to the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, following al-Baghdadi and his group’s declaration of a caliphate earlier in the year.89 On June 23, 2015, ISIL’s spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani accepted these pledges and announced the creation of a Caucasus Province, a new branch operating in the North Caucasus region. Adnani named the most senior defector, Rustam Asildarov, as its leader and called on other militants in the region to follow him.10 By late 2015, the militants still operating in Russia’s North Caucasus Republics had largely unified under ISIL’s Caucasus Province.11

Work for the Georgian Interior Ministry

Latest in 2012 Khangoshvili was working for the anti-terror unit of the Georgian Ministry of the Interior (MIA). According to an RT article, it was the MIA who had equipped Khangoshvili with a Georgian passport, issued to “Tornike Kawtarashvili”,12 an identity he would use in Germany later.

In 2012 he apparently took part in a false flag mission in the Lopota Valley on the Georgian-Dagestan border on behalf of the MIA, in which 14 people were killed. The official version of the story stated a group of Islamist fighters had crossed from Dagestan into Georgia and taken locals hostage when an anti-terror unit was sent to the region to intervene.1 Khangoshvili is said to have acted as a negotiator between the MIA and the Islamists because he was well versed in the scene and the area.

This version of events was denied though by various subsequent accounts, first by a November 2012 report of the “Information Center of Kakheti” (ICK).4 On April 1, 2013, Public Defender of Georgia Ucha Nanuashvili called on the Parliament of Georgia to set up an investigative commission to look into the armed clash and events leading up to that incident, saying that his own probe revealed circumstances contradicting the official version of events that was offered by the previous government. In an 800-page report, Nanuashvili alleged that the Interior Ministry’s counter-terrorist department itself had recruited 120 local Kists, Chechens (including veterans living abroad) and other North Caucasian refugees. The recruits were then armed and trained by Georgian personnel and Chechen veterans in early 2012 at Shavnabada and at the Vaziani Military Base, a site where U.S. training operations with Georgian forces take place. In August, a group of 16 Vainakhs decided to cross the Russian border on their own initiative, but were refused a passage and intercepted by Georgian Interior Ministry special forces deployed there by helicopter. After the negotiations through prominent Chechen mediators did not bring a breakthrough in the standoff, as the militants responded to the demands they would disarm by insisting they would surrender their weapons only after they reached Pankisi, seven (not 11) of them and three Georgians (including two handlers of the gunmen) were killed, and the rest of them were then escorted to Turkey.13

Also Chechen secular separatist leader Akhmed Zakayev, living in the UK since 2002, said that his (unrecognized) Chechen Republic of Ichkeria’s government-in-exile has established “a special committee” to investigate the causes of the incident. The Zakayev government’s report repeats many of the allegations contained in Nanuashvili’s report, notably that the main organizer of the armed group was Akhmed Umarov, working closely with the special services of the Georgian MIA.

But the Zakayev report gave the story yet another spin, which ultimately blames Russian insidiousness for Umarov’s successes in Chechnya, and not his pampering by Georgian, and potentially other, secret services. According to the report, Umarov had been released from the FSB prison and allowed to leave the country for Georgia, where the Russian side had hoped he would organize a large-scale international provocation and create a casus belli for occupation of all of Georgia by Russia. The report named one Akhmed Chataev (Chatayev) as on of the main instigators of the Lopota incident. 

Akhmed Chatayev

The vita of the Islamist Akhmed Chataev (Chatayev) is tale-telling of the staggering unwillingness of European authorities to lock dangerous Islamists away, and one gets the impression there was a protective hand that was shielding him from prosecution.

Like Khangoshvili, Chatayev had also participated in the Second Chechen War and lost his  arm in the battle. He then fled Russia in 2001 to Austria where he was granted refugee status in 2003. In 2008 he and several other Chechens were detained in the Swedish town of Trelleborg. Police found weapons in his car and he spent more than a year in a local prison. On January 3, 2010, he was detained in Uzhhorod in western Ukraine. According to Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, his mobile phone contained instructions for explosives, as well as photographs of people killed in explosions. He faced extradition to Russia but on January 14, after strong protests by Amnesty International, which claimed he could face torture if he was returned to Russia, the European Court of Human Rights called upon the Ukrainian authorities not to extradite him.14 The Amnesty report lost no word about Chatayev being an Islamic fundamentalist who has been brought in connection with various terrorist activities. In August 2012, Chatayev reappeared in Georgia and was subsequently arrested in the Lopota incident. Chataev insisted that he had been brought to Lopota Valley by two MIA officials, Sandro Amiridze and the recently murdered Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, as a negotiator to talk with a group of 17 Chechen and Kist militants that intended to travel from Chechnya to Dagestan, and not from Dagestan to Chechnya as authorities at the time had claimed.4 According to Chataev, he was unarmed and was wounded when an unknown sniper suddenly shot him in his left leg as he was waiting for a reply from the authorities after relaying by phone the group’s refusal to disarm, and subsequently lost his foot.15 He was soon released from jail on bail. In January 2013, Georgian prosecutors dropped the case against him on account of absence of evidence. Soon he left Georgia with the declared intention to travel to Austria for rehabilitation.16 But apparently he instead join the Islamic State in Syria and is thought to have been the planner of the 2016 Istanbul airport attack, where 45 people were killed.1718

Informant for Ukrainian and US secret services

In May 2015, an unknown person fired several bullets at Khangoshvili as he was about to leave his house. According to various reports, he then fled with his family to Ukraine and worked as an informant for Ukrainian and US secret services against Russian interests.19 In 201620 Khangoshvili settled in Germany after another assassination attempt, i.a. using his fake Georgian identity as Tornike Kawtarashvili,1 and had applied for asylum in Germany in January 2017, which was rejected two months later. The Islamist appealed and could stay in the Federal Republic. A trial before the Administrative Court was still pending at the time of his death.1

The German security authorities were surveilling Khangoshvili because of his connections to Chechen Islamists, and he was initially classified as a threat. According to security circles quoted in Der Tagesspiegel, there were concerns that Khangoshvili would strive for a leading role in the militant Islamist scene.1

After a lengthy investigation, on December 4, 2019, the German foreign ministry formally accused Russia and its federal subject the Republic of Chechnya of sponsoring the assassination of Khangoshvili, and in response expelled two Russian GRU-employees with a diplomatic status from Berlin.21 Khangoshvili’s alleged assassin, detained by German police, had traveled with a “newly issued non-biometric Russian passport” issued to the name of Vadim Andreevich Sokolov, which investigators belief to be a fake identity.20 This fact together with the alleged stalling of Russian authorities to clarify the backgrounds of the murder, was apparently enough for German authorities to blame the Russian/Chechnyan governments for the deed.

No word being lost that Khangoshvili, as commander of the Jihadist Caucasian Emirate pampered by Georgian secret services, was on Russia’s terrorist blacklist since 2008. German public broadcasters even went as far as to whitewash Kanghoshvili’s terrorist past, by saying he was as members of a “moderate Muslim separatist group,” while at the same time showing pictures of him sporting the shahada: “There is no god but God, Mohammed is the messenger of God.”

The main voice in Georgia pushing for a decisive reaction to Khangoshvili’s murder is a US and EU backed “human rights” NGO, the “Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center,” which is funded by the European Union, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the US development aid agency US Aid, the German Society for International Cooperation and the Open Society Foundation of George Soros, some of them known for their involvement in regime change operations.

It may be a matter of time to fathom whose corpses will smell stronger from under the carpet.