ODESSA, Ukraine — Sometimes the world of terror and counterterror is amazingly small.
The day after at least 43 people were killed and more than 235 injured in a terrorist attack on Istanbul’s international airport, Turkish officials announced the arrest of the alleged mastermind behind the attack: Akhmed Chatayev, an ethnic Chechen from Russia who, in the past, had traveled extensively in Ukraine, Austria and Georgia.
Here in the Black Sea port of Odessa, in Ukraine, Police Chief Gen. Giorgi Lortkipanidze knows all about Chatayev. The general used to be the deputy interior minister in Georgia, and for a while, he says, had Chatayev on the government payroll.
“A few years ago I recruited Chatayev, who was a good informer and negotiator between us and Islamist underground of the Northern Caucasus; with his help we prevented several terrorist attacks on Georgia,” Gen. Lortkipanidze told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview on Friday.
For more than a year, Lortkipanidze said, he was pleased with his “recruiter and informant,“ Chatayev. “But then he turned against us and we arrested him. In August of 2012, a group of radical militants was going to cross [into Russia] from Georgia and Chatayev said he was Muslim, he could not abandon his brothers“ by informing on them, Lortkipanidze said.
In Odessa, the day before we talked, Lortkipanidze had deployed an significant number of security personnel to “prevent any destabilization” there during protests to demand the return of public court hearings. Tires burned and sirens wailed. Dozens of buff young men in body armor lined up along the neoclassical white columns of the city hall. Lortkipanidze said he suspected that there were terrorists carrying illegal weapons in the crowd of protesters. Shows of force are only one of the methods he has learned to use over the years.
On Sept. 8, 2012, the general commanded the Georgian counter-terrorist division that arrested Chatayev. But by then, the Chechen had learned how to game the system.
The alleged mastermind of the Istanbul massacre was a Russian citizen who had applied for refugee status in Austria. There, for several years, Chatayev was a representative in Europe for Doku Umarov, the leader of the Caucasus Emirate terrorist organization, according to the general.
Russia tried for years to extradite Chatayev. In 2010 he was briefly under arrest in Ukraine but neither Ukraine nor Georgia—long hostile to Russia’s secret services—would give him back to his home country.
International human rights defenders insisted that the Chatayev, a veteran of the Chechen wars, was protected by the Geneva Convention.
It was one thing to grab a terrorist and another to keep him behind the bars, the general said, “especially when politics get involved.”
A few days before Chatayev’s arrest in Georgia in September 2012, three members of Lortkipanidze’s special units were killed and at least 11 terrorists died in what later some reports described as an operation full of contradictions. Chatayev was wounded in the clash that took place not far from Georgia’s border with Dagestan, a Russian region notorious for its Islamic terrorist underground.
“Chatayev’s leg was amputated,” said the general. “We grabbed him there in the forest and wanted him to stay behind the bars for fighting against our troops.“
Chatayev was charged with illegal possession of explosives. But he was released shortly after, in spite of protests by then lame-duck President Mikheil Saakashvili (now the governor of Odessa) and Lortkipanidze.
“The problem was that the government in Georgia changed and in a couple of months the new authorities dropped the charges against Chatayev,” said the general, and this is where things get conspiratorial a typically Caucasian way.
“He must have promised them to testify against Saakashvili and me,” said the general. The [new Bidzina] Ivanishvili government let Chatayev go from jail, which was a huge mistake and a crime—I keep saying that fighting terror and politics should never been mixed together.
Russian civil society and human rights defenders do not agree with Lortkipanidze’s recollections.
Gregory Shvedov, the editor-in-chief of the Caucasian Knot website was a witness to the conflict that the Georgian special services had with Chechen militants in 2012.
“Both Saakashvili and his police commanders lied,” said Svedov. “They promised a group of Chechens a so-called ‘corridor’ to Russian Dagestan but from the very beginning they planned to kill all these Chechens,“ Shvedov said.
According to Shvedov, the Georgian interior ministry recruited young Chechens in order to kill them in cold blood and then claim the credit for preventing a purported attempt by Russia to invade Georgian territory.
Lortkipanidze denied all these allegations and referred to them as “purely political” … made up in 2012 to discredit Saakashvili.”
Lortkipanidze began to work for the post-Perestroika Georgian secret service in 1994. Since then he worked for Georgian intelligence, counterintelligence, special unit and the ministry of interior.
Today Gen. Lortkipanidze faces extensive criticism by civil society and the free press in Georgia as he fights terror, crime and corruption in the Odessa region governed by former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili.
“This one year in Odessa was harder than almost two decades in law-enforcement agencies,“ the general told The Daily Beast. Almost every week Odessa police arrest somebody for illegal weapons or explosive possession. Lortkipanidze has established a department to fight the extensive illegal weapons trade.
The Odessa region with over 3 million population on the border with EU is sinking into an internal war between corrupt but rich criminal groups and poor police troops, reformed by Gen. Lortkipanidze. The average salary for a local cop is less than $200 a month.
The general has arrested at least 14 policemen for corruption and abducting people; he has fired about 800 Odessa cops and about 500 quit themselves, because without taking bribes working for the police became unaffordable.
And just like back home in Georgia, to Lortkipanidze’s huge frustration, judges and prosecutors often worked against him and let the arrested criminals walk free.
“We were recently about to search a criminal group but a court employee took a picture of the warrant and sent it to our suspect by Viber,“ the general said. “It is important to punish the criminals as today,” he said, because in a world where terror and criminality work hand in hand, “we never know what crime they will commit tomorrow."
—This article initially stated that Akhmed Chatayev had been arrested by Turkish authorities after the Istanbul airport bombing. That is incorrect; in fact, he is likely living in ISIS-controlled territory in Syria.