Omalo, Georgia – Malika Kushtanashvili’s 16-year-old brother made headlines for being the youngest Georgian to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to fight in war-torn Syria.
“He said to me on the phone that it is nice there,” the 14-year-old schoolgirl told Al Jazeera.
Muslim Kushtanashvili crossed the Georgian border into Turkey on April 2 without the legally required permission from his parents because of a mistake by border police, the Georgian interior ministry says. From Turkey, he made his way south to Syria.
The young Kushtanashvili is not unique in his yearning to fight in Syria. “Both girls and boys at my school say they want to go to Syria,” said Malika, an ethnic Chechen, sitting on a bench in front of her home.
Although Georgia is a Christian-majority country, the Kushtanashvili family lives in the village of Omalo, in Georgia’s Pankisi Valley, where most of the population is Muslim.
Malika said she would also go to Syria if she could, just like the nearly 200 Pankisi residents who local community leaders estimate have joined ISIL.
Kushtanashvili’s mother, 34-year-old Aminat, said radicalisation in Pankisi started about two years ago, but she cannot understand how it all came about. She did not even know her children were affected until she was told by police that her son was in Syria among ISIL fighters.
“We didn’t know. We have never discussed it at home. Maybe he knew that we wouldn’t allow it,” said Aminat.
“It seems that he used to meet up with Wahhabis secretly in this village, and in [the nearby village of] Jokolo… They were all locals. One of them [Ayup Borchashvili] was arrested shortly after the incident, but his brother Giorgi is still free for some reason. I think that both were involved in sending my son to Syria,” she said.
The Pankisi Valley is near the border with the Russian republic of Chechnya, and 160km away from the Georgian capital Tbilisi.
The valley is part of Georgia’s eastern Kakheti region, famous for its wine-making traditions.
In the Chechen villages of Pankisi Valley, residents say prominent local leaders – influenced by Wahhabi teachings of Islam – have imposed rules banning music in public places, although music and dance are an integral part of Chechen culture.
Most women wear a veil and conservative clothes that reach their wrists and ankles. Recently, some women have started wearing the niqab – the full veil that leaves only their eyes visible.
Groups of young men chatting idly on the side of the road mostly wear long beards, and some have their long sweatpants tucked into their socks – another sign of Wahhabi influence.
“All of those influenced by them have ISIL nasheed [Islamic music] playing in their cars and phones,” Kushtanashvili’s mother Aminat said.
Temur Batirashvili is the father of ISIL’s most famous Pankisi recruit, Tarkhan, a military commander with the group who is also known as Omar al-Shishani – “the Chechen”.
Batirashvili, a Christian who is married to a Muslim woman, said Wahhabism was brought by Arabs to Russia’s volatile regions in the North Caucasus. When Chechen guerrillas escaped to Georgia’s Pankisi Valley for shelter during the second Russian-Chechen war in the 1990s, they brought radical Islam with them.
He claimed Wahhabism has become a trend in the area recently.
“Now 90 percent of the young men are Wahhabis. I don’t know what brought this trend here. Maybe poverty. I don’t know,” he said. “If you cut off lifelines to a person, I guess that’s when he decides to go [to Syria].”
As for Tarkhan, his father said he decided to go to Syria because of what he perceived as injustice.
Tarkhan was a United States-trained sergeant in the Georgian army from 2006 until 2010, before he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was arrested for illegal possession of weapons the same year, and left Georgia shortly after being released from prison in 2012.
“He called me only once, asking me whether I was praying,” said his father. “I said, ‘Of course I am. It was St George’s day recently and I lit a candle to him, begging him to protect you and bring you back.'”
Batirashvili said Tarkhan hung up and has not called him since.
Abo, who declined to give his last name, is in his 30s and is a resident of Jokolo village. He spent three months at a rebel training camp in Syria in 2012. He told Al Jazeera that 96 percent of Chechens go to Syria for the religious duty of protecting fellow Muslims from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
“No Muslim would ever go to Syria for money,” Abo said, responding to a suggestion that foreign fighters might have financial interests in joining the fight. Some of the valley’s residents, in trying to explain the trend, note there are few employment opportunities for young people in the area.
Abo refused to elaborate on his experience in Syria, but said he would return if he could, especially since Russia – which fought two wars against Chechen separatists – recently joined the war on Assad’s side.
Yet, Abo is reluctant to do so since Georgian authorities made it a criminal offence to fight abroad, tightened controls at the country’s border with Turkey, and arrested Ayup Borchashvili, a suspected ISIL middleman.
Meanwhile, Aminat sits on a bench outside her house, hoping and praying for her son to return safely. “I hope that he will change his mind. I do have hope. We are waiting for him.”
Follow Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter: @tamila87v
Follow Rabii Kalboussi on Instagram: @rabiikalboussi