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Experts Warn of Terrorism Potential in Caucasus Region - 2001-10-13

Afghanistan is the focus of attention as the war unfolds, but terrorism could also strike the Caucasus, according to participants at a recent Congressional hearing. They warned that internal strife, to a considerable degree fomented by Russia, and weak states with few border controls are an invitation to terrorism.

The Caucasus is a potential Afghanistan, said Charles Fairbanks at a recent Congressional hearing. Director of Washington's Central Asia Institute, Mr. Fairbanks mentioned one area as particularly ripe for terrorism: the Pinkisi Valley in Georgia just south of Chechnya. It is filled with embittered Chechen refugees from the war with Russia who have no jobs or schools. Crime is rampant and militant Islam on the rise. Yet there is no sign of any Georgian authority. The state is absent.

This was the problem with Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew, said Mr. Fairbanks. "We assumed that it was such a remote and distant country and so messed up that it did not concern us what happened there. I think we have seen that areas where states are so weak like Afghanistan inevitably attract all kinds of terrorists, adventurers, criminals, and we need to be much more vigilant about that," he said.

Mr. Fairbanks said it would certainly profit the United States to pay some attention to Pankisi Valley and try to improve life for its stranded people. But U.S. government employees are instructed not to go there because it is too dangerous. Not as dangerous as it's going to be, said Mr. Fairbanks.

Moscow says Taleban members are already in Pankisi Valley and other parts of Georgia. They may not be there yet, said Zeyno Baran of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, but they may soon be arriving. "I think there is a risk that the people being bombed out of Afghanistan might try to find some refuge in the Caucasus," she said. "It is a very mountainous area. It is difficult to control the borders. Uncontrolled areas, especially in Georgia, could become more destabilized." All the more reason, she said, for the United States to prepare some defense of the oil and gas pipelines running though Georgia.

"Continued U.S. engagement is essential," said Ms. Baran, "given that oil and gas pipelines are seen as U.S. backed. Especially in light of recent terrorist attacks against the United States, greater security measures need to be taken to protect these critical infrastructure projects in Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus." Zeyno Baran said the U.S. Defense Department should train Georgians in anti-terrorist tactics while there is still time.

This danger exists, said Brenda Shaffer, director of Caspian Studies at the Kennedy School of Government. But in her opinion, the Caucasus differs from the Middle East and South Asia. The region is divided along political rather than religious lines. This makes compromise more possible. "For instance, in a conflict between Christian Armenia and Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan, you have Iran supporting Armenia," she explained. "Religion is not the basis of cooperation in this region. We have not seen the level of violence against civilian targets, as in the Middle East." Brenda Shaffer concedes this could change if terrorism takes root.