BIRKIANI, Georgia – In the summer of 2012, a former Georgian Army corporal who had served prison time for illegal possession of ammunition burned his photo albums and quit his native village.
Tarkhan Batirashvili had wanted to become a policeman, but couldn't get hired. Now, this offspring of a Christian father and a Muslim mother was about to start a new chapter in his military career — one in which he would be credited with some of ISIL's most stunning battlefield victories and rise to senior rank.
Last September, the U.S. Treasury Department placed Batirashvili — who now calls himself Omar al-Shishani and is believed by some to be ISIL's chief of military operations — on its list of "specially designated global terrorists." But to some in the Pankisi, the mountainous region of northeastern Georgia where he was born in 1986, the ginger-bearded commander is a hero and a role model.
To follow the path he blazed, as many as 200 of his young countrymen have left their villages. Batirashvili's father, Temur, is aghast.
"It's monstrous what's going on in the valley, that they are deceiving these kids and they're leaving to fight in a foreign land," the 72-year-old man said. "My son should not be in Syria."
The Pankisi is home to an estimated 5,000-7,000 descendants of Muslim Chechens who settled here in the 19th century. In the village of Omalo, locals say, a green-tile roofed building is used by preachers from the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam to enlist volunteers for jihad.
On April 2, 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili and his schoolmate Ramzan Bagakashvili, 18, joined the valley's recruits to ISIL. That Thursday, the teens left as usual for their school in Omalo. They never came home.
Muslim called friends later to say he was in Turkey. Then word came back that the 10th-grader had crossed into Syria. Muslim had no passport, so his family can't understand why Georgian border guards let him fly out of the country. They suspect authorities are protecting the recruiters.
"Here they are stirring up things, recruiting youths," said Tina Alkanashvili, Bagakashvili's mother. "You can't get authorities to watch them."