Anti-Terrorist Operation

Istanbul Airport Massacre Mastermind May be One of the Suspects Killed during Special Op in Tbilisi

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Tbilisi City Court sentenced one suspected terrorist to prison on November 24 who had been detained during the 22-hour anti-terrorist special operation in Tbilisi this week. The Prosecutor’s Office has charged the suspect for ‘involvement in a terrorist organization and providing support to terrorist work,’ which sets a jail term of 10 to 17 years.

Three suspects were killed and one is in detention following the 22-hour special anti-terrorist operation which ended in the evening of November 22, the State Security Service confirmed. The suspected terrorists were engaged in shootings with special ops from inside an apartment building in Tbilisi’s Isani district.

The Prosecutor’s Office is not revealing the identity of the detained suspect on this stage of investigation, Prosecutor Nana Khunchua said.

Prosecutor Irakli Marshania said the three deceased suspects in the case still have not been identified.

The State Security Service nor the Ministry of Internal Affairs have confirmed the identities of the three dead suspects.  

Tabula asked Prosecutor Marshania who were the suspects the State Security Service was observing over the past weeks if they cannot identify the bodies of the suspects. The prosecutor responded to Tabula’s questions that “the investigation started on November 21 and the exact actions are secret.”

Georgian and Turkish media are claiming that one of the killed suspects is Akhmed Chataev, the  alleged mastermind behind the June 2016 terror attack in the Istanbul Ataturk Airport.

Who is Ahmed Chataev?

Chataev is an ethnic Chechen and holds Russian citizenship; he is frequently referred to as ‘one-armed’ Akhmed in foreign media. Chataev was recruited as an agent for Georgia under the previous government leadership of the United National Movement.

Former deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Giorgi Lortkipanidze says Chataev was a good informator and negotiator at first between Georgia and Islamist groups in the North Caucasus, and that with Chataev’s help, many terrorist acts were prevented in Georgia. Lortkipanidze told American media outlet The Daily Beast in 2016 that “then he [Chataev] turned against us and we arrested him. In August of 2012, a group of radical militants was going to cross [into Russia] from Georgia and Chataev said he was Muslim, he could not abandon his brothers.”

Chataev was arrested by Georgian authorities in 2012 after the August 28, 2012 Lapankuri operation, in which Georgian authorities engaged in a special operation against a military group in Kakheti who were understood to be militants from the North Caucasus.

Chataev was sentenced to 3-5 years of prison for purchasing, keeping, and carrying exploding weapons. Ombudsman of Georgia Ucha Nanuashvili had said at the time that Chataev is innocent and that he should be released as soon as possible. Then-opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili also publicly doubted the Georgian government’s arrest of Chataev, commenting that “something might be happening here, some sort of adventure by the government.”

Chataev was released on December 6, 2012 by Tbilisi City Court with a 5,000 GEL pledge, two months after the Georgian Dream coalition came to power. The 5,000 GEL was returned to Chataev on January 18, 2013 when the Prosecutor’s Office dropped the charges against him. By the end of 2013 Chataev left Georgia. Two years after he joined ISIS.

After Chataev became the main suspect in the Istanbul Ataturk airport terrorist attack in summer 2016, Georgian Dream government leaders began to discuss again Chataev’s release from prison. The Chairman of Security and Defence committee of the Parliament of Georgia, Irakli Sesiashvili had stated that “we’ve got rid of Chataev, as [he was a] problem...We let him go, we didn’t - the court did. He went to Turkey and we’ve washed our hands.” Minister of Justice Tea Tsulukiani however said that she had doubts whether it was too early or not to release Chataev.

When asked by journalists on November 24 whether one of the killed suspects was Chataev, Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia said “these are versions and interpretations, we should wait till the end of the investigation.” Gakharia earlier told journalists that “investigations are being held in other countries too, and we are dealing with international terrorism.”

Chataev had a criminal record before he was arrested in Georgia in 2012. According to The Daily Mail, he was arrested in Sweden in 2008 for the illegal possession of arms and spent a year in prison when Kalashnikovs, explosives, and bullets were found in his car. The news agency also reports that Chataev lost his arm during the Second Chechen war and that in 2003 he left Russia and went to Austria, where he soon received citizenship. After he got out of jail in Sweden, Chataev reportedly went to Ukraine, when he was again arrested in 2010.

Chataev was put on a list of international terrorists by the US in 2015, as information was spread that he was training ISIS fighters. Chataev was allegedly leading one of the subdivisions, the Iarmuk batallion, which consisted of North Caucasian and mainly Chechen soldiers.

Dozens of citizens of Georgia have gone to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq from the Pankisi gorge, a region which is largely populated by ethnic Chechens. Around 30 of those who have gone have been killed.

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