TBILISI, Georgia—He walked two blocks behind me and insisted on a café or restaurant that was sparsely populated. Given the circumstances, I couldn’t blame him.
“Levan,” as I’ll call him, was once a senior official in Georgia’s Interior Ministry. According to two current Georgian officials, he was also the recruiter and handler of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, the 40-year-old ethnic Chechen from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge region who was shot in the head and killed in central Berlin on Aug. 23 as he headed to a local mosque to attend Friday prayers.
Khangoshvili’s daylight murder in the Kleiner Tiergarten, a park full of people, bore all of the hallmarks of a carefully orchestrated assassination, a fate common to Kremlin opponents, the kind of killing to which Europe has lately grown accustomed.
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The assassin took a sinuous route from Russia to Germany through France and Poland. His murder weapon was a Glock 26 with a silencer affixed. And his tradecraft—a careful disposal of the gun, a wig, and the getaway bicycle in the Spree River, followed by a quick change of costume and appearance—contradict any suggestion of this having been a random or spontaneous crime.
Unsurprisingly, all signs point to Moscow’s culpability.
He worked closely under Levan’s direct supervision and protection for six years, passing along crucial intelligence on jihadist activity. His information, Levan said, helped neutralize an Uzbek extremist organization targeting the Caucasus and quell Islamist restiveness following Georgia’s entry into the NATO-led war in Afghanistan.
Khangoshvili also acted in a counterintelligence capacity, his former handler claimed, informing on members of his native community who had been recruited by the FSB or agents of pro-Putin Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. He even flipped one.
“There was a case when he brought a Georgian who was recruited by the Russians,” Levan said. “He got the guy to surrender to our authorities. That person in turn rendered his services to the Georgian state. He became a double agent, thanks to Zelimkhan.”
American counterterrorism officials not only found Khangoshvili’s intelligence credible and useful; in one remarkable instance, according to Levan, they operationalized it.
“Zelimkhan introduced me to a Chechen who I then introduced to our American colleagues. The Americans employed him right there in the CIA station Tbilisi, paying him money based on Zelimkhan’s assessment of him.” That agent subsequently was sent abroad by the CIA.
Levan’s story “rings true,” according to John Sipher, who served as deputy director of Russia operations at the CIA in the early 2000s. “It shows the non-stop ugly games the Russians play in other countries,” Sipher said. “They feel unafraid to engage in surveillance, espionage and murder. In this case”—the Berlin murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili—”they killed someone who was helping to keep the region safe from Islamic terrorists.”
Khangoshvili was repatriated from the pocked battlefields of Grozny in 2006 and his return to his native Georgia wasn’t exactly greeted with enthusiasm. “Our initial perception of Zelimkhan wasn’t clear at first,” Levan said. “We weren’t sure if he was on our side or not because he was freshly back from the Second Chechen War and we didn’t know if he was a radical.”
Ironically, it was an interdicted assassination attempt against the retired separatist that made him trust his government—and Levan. “There was an assassin, a South Ossetian who was hired by Russia to kill Zelimkhan and two Georgian officials,” Levan said. “The assassin got cold feet and turned himself into us in 2006. He had been jailed in Russia for armed robbery and recruited by the security services. We called Zelimkhan and informed him of the plot. After that, he developed trust toward the Georgian government. Our cooperation—our friendship, really—started.”
That friendship only grew stronger after Khangoshvili returned the favor during the notorious Lopota Gorge incident in 2012, in which 17 armed Islamist insurgents, some of them Russian citizens, attempted to steal across the Georgian border into Dagestan. What followed was a violent stand-off with the Georgian military, which lasted three days. At the end of it, 14 people were dead, three on the government’s side: two troops from the Interior Ministry’s special purpose unit and one army corporal.
Had the militants successfully crossed the border, they could easily have prompted another confrontation between Moscow and Tbilisi, a mere four years on from Russia’s internationally condemned invasion of Georgia. Georgia’s president at the time, Mikheil Saakashvili, openly referred to the incident as a provocation designed to do just that.
Khangoshvili was later cited in the regional news outlet Caucasian Knot as a “negotiator” with the insurgents, two of whom he said he knew personally. In fact, according to Levan, he did a lot more than parlay with them.
As an Interior Ministry counterterrorism official, Levan was dispatched to Lapankuri village, the scene of the crisis, to convince the Islamists to disarm and surrender. He persuaded them to release a captured Georgian border guard, but they refused his other terms. Instead, the militants told Levan they would now be taking him hostage as leverage for further negotiations with Tbilisi.
Because of his enduring moral authority with Chechens, Khangoshvili accompanied Levan to this dramatic encounter and formulated his handler’s escape plan. He lured the insurgents to another location that had better cellphone reception under the pretext of allowing Levan to call his higher-ups back at the Interior Ministry and update them on the insurgents’ demands.
“Two of the armed Chechens followed us to a place where we could make a call,” Levan recounted. “Zelimkhan said ‘Keep walking.’ He got them to steadily increase their distance from me. They followed behind. About 100 meters away there was was a Georgian Special Forces position. Zelimkhan tricked them into walking right into an ambush.”
Khangoshvili was driven off once he reached the military outpost. Then the shooting began. One of the Islamists was killed in the firefight with Georgian soldiers; 10 would be killed later in a separate clash.
“If not for Zelimkhan, I’d be dead,” Levan stated matter-of-factly, adding that his asset’s quick thinking not only eliminated a national security threat to Georgia, but also a potential one to Russia.
Nor were the would-be border-crossers a collection of weekend warriors. Akhmed Chatayev, one of the survivors of the Lopota Gorge incident and a Russian citizen, was arrested but later acquitted at trial. He then resurfaced in 2015 as the head of an elite ISIS battalion in Syria. A year later, he masterminded the terror group’s suicide bombing of Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, an atrocity that killed 45, before being killed by Georgian Special Forces in a 20-hour siege in Tbilisi at the end of 2017.
Khangoshvili would later inform on another jihadist from Pankisi wanted by virtually every nation on the planet. Tarkhan Batirashvili, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Shishani, at one point ran ISIS’s military occupation of Aleppo. When it became known that Shishani, a former Georgian commando trained by U.S. Special Forces and a veteran of the 2008 war with Russia, had gone off to Syria to join the terrorist group, Khangoshvili profiled him for Levan.
It would prove one of his last interventions on behalf of his country.
In 2012, a more Moscow-friendly government came to power in Tbilisi, and Khangoshvili became leery of further cooperation with an Interior Ministry whose staff, including Levan, was being purged in favor of loyalists to the new ruling party led by Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishivili.
Then came another assassination attempt.
In 2015, Khangoshvili was driving in Tbilisi, not far from his home, when a gunman approached his car and opened fire from three meters away. “Zelimkhan was stopped at a traffic light at Gagarin Square,” Levan said, “and amazingly all of the bullets — seven or eight — went into his arm. He had hugely thick arms. He was close to a hospital and drove himself there afterwards.”
The shooting took place in full view of CCTV cameras, yet the would-be assassin was never identified, much less apprehended. The Human Rights and Monitoring Center, a Georgian NGO, found that the government undertook a “pro forma” investigation “characterized by significant legal flaws,” which included allowing recorded evidence of the crime to be destroyed and failing to provide state protection for Khangoshvili and his family.