Open Source Overview of the November 21-22 Tbilisi "Anti-Terrorist" Operation

On the evening of November 21, the special forces of Georgia’s State Security Service began an “anti-terrorist” operation in Tbilisi’s Isani District that would turn into a nearly day-long armed standoff with a group hauled up in an apartment in a residential building on the district’s Gabriel Salosi Street.

During the operation, which started at around 8pm on November 21 and lasted until 5pm the next day, three of the four alleged terrorists and one member of the Security Service were killed. The fourth suspect, according to a statement issued by Georgia’s Chief Prosecutor’s Office on Friday, had been arrested earlier on November 21, prior to the launch of the operation.

The Prosecutor’s Office identified the detainee as S.D., and said he had been charged for terrorist activities. S.D. and the other three, officials said, had been keeping a large amount of illegally acquired weapons in an apartment on Gabriel Salosi Street with the intention of undertaking terrorist attacks.

The detainee’s lawyer, has denied his client’s involvement in a terrorist group. He said also that S.D. was a Russian citizen and had been detained by security officers “quite far from the operation scene.”

Meanwhile, the head of Georgia’s Security Service reportedly announced on November 26 that one of the killed suspects might have been Akhmed Chatayev, a Chechen ISIS recruiter and commander who is said to be the mastermind behind the 2016 Istanbul airport bombing. This Georgian official’s allegation was later confirmed by Georgian security officials. 

Later on Sunday, Rustavi 2 released photos of the killed militants reportedly provided to them by a “secret source.” According to the same source, there had actually been not four but six people in the apartment; the other two, Rustavi cited their source as saying, had managed to escape after the special operation and were currently being searched for. 

What Happened?

The security forces began the operation at 8pm local time, after having evacuated all residents from the building. According to follow-up press releases, the law enforcement had been informed about the alleged terrorist group and their place of shelter a few weeks in advance. Prior to raiding the building, according to the same releases, the authorities had tried to negotiate the group’s non-violent surrender. The suspects, however, had refused and had gone ahead to open fire towards the security officers, fatally wounding one and injuring several others.

Hours after the operation had begun and after several mild and major episodes of fire exchange, the Security Service finally reported at 5am on November 22 that they were going to storm the building. The preparations for the storming can be seen in a video showing a large number of security forces gathering alongside Bogdan-Khmelitski Street.

Next in this video, a group of security personnel are visible in the near the southwest corner of a field in the courtyard between apartment buildings. The point of view seems to be from just west of Apartment 8 of the 48 Bogdan-Khmelitski Street block of apartment buildings.

A video released by Rustavi 2 afterwards shows thick black smoke coming out of the building and the building itself badly damaged; intensive gunfire and explosions can also be heard in the video. According to the accompanying text, the footage had been provided to Rustavi 2 by local residents, who also told the reporters the authorities had only evacuated the part of the apartment block where the terrorism suspects had barricaded themselves.

We can geolocate this footage to show where the anti-terror operation went into full swing. The apartment building, with its west-facing side visible with 2014 satellite imagery on Google Earth, is located north of where the operation began along Bogdan-Khmelitski Street.

Other videos appeared showing the aftermath of the first raid, including one shot by Facebook user Daiana Chopliani:

By 2pm on November 22, local television channels began reporting that security forces had begun deploying additional personnel and equipment to the scene with a plan to start a second raid.

A Facebook livestream by user Movlud Chopliani captured firefighters working at the scene at around 4pm.

The special forces began withdrawing from the residential area at around 5pm, marking the end of the 22-hour standoff.

At a follow-up press briefing a few hours later, Nino Giorgobiani, the spokesperson for the SSS, told reporters that as a result of the special operation, three persons with alleged links to terrorism had been liquidated, and other one had been detained. Giorgobiani also said the group had been under surveillance for several weeks, and investigators were working to establish their identities and find out their possible connections to foreign terrorist groups. None of the four suspects, she said, were Georgian citizens.

Who was Akhmed Chatayev?

Georgian security officials confirmed that Chatayev, who is also missing his left leg, was killed in the November 21-22 shoot-out.

Akhmed Chatayev, a Chechen-born ISIS commander, is listed as a terrorist by both the United States and the United Nations. He was already arrested in Georgia once in 2012 after a clash between Islamist Chechen militants and Georgian security forces. He was charged with illegal weapons possession and purchase and carrying of an explosive device; he was, however, subsequently acquitted for lack of evidence.

After his release, Chatayev is thought to have moved to Austria and later to ISIS-controlled territories in Syria and Iraq, where he “trains fighters for the Islamic State and assists in recruiting them […] and gets paid $1,000 for every recruit he manages to hook in.” 

In the early 2000s, Chatayev fought against Russian forces in the second Chechen war, during which he was badly wounded and captured by Russians. Known by the nickname “Odnorukiy” (one-armed man), he later claimed that he had lost his right arm while being tortured in a Russian prison; other reports, however, suggest that his arm was amputated during the war. The claim helped him to get a refugee status in Austria in 2003, which, in turn, prevented his extradition to Russia.

In 2008, Chatayev was arrested in Sweden for illegal possession of explosives and spent a year in a Swedish prison; he then moved to Ukraine, where he was arrested on a Russian warrant, but avoided extradition again as the European Court of Human Rights and Amnesty International believed he risked facing unfair trial and torture in Russia.