EurasiaNet.org reports that according to the government narrative the greatest existential threat facing Tajikistan is posed by the Islamic State militant group. Or maybe not, some officials suggest.
For the past few years, authorities in Tajikistan have presented a murky, muddled and contradictory public message — on the one hand warning of a clear and present danger of religious extremism, while also claiming that they are containing the challenge.
In January, a top security official told reporters that the number of Tajik citizens joining the ranks of Islamic State terrorist (IS) group in 2016 had dwindled to only a few dozen. Meanwhile, according to research by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism, based in The Hague, an alarming number of Tajiks over the past year have carried out suicide missions in Syria and Iraq.
Based on data covering December 2015 through November 2016, the think tank said that of the 186 foreign citizens known to have embarked on suicide missions, easily the largest subgroup — 28 — comprised citizens of Tajikistan.
Sporadic reports also hint at a possible new trend for those joining militant groups. Given the significant setbacks endured recently by IS in Syria and Iraq, new Tajik recruits appear to be turning their attention to nearby Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, a group of five people from Tajikistan’s Khatlon region — a couple with three children — were reportedly detained in Iran, in a location along the Afghan border, as they tried to make their way to an IS outpost. RFE/RL’s Tajik Service reported that the family had traveled to Russia around six months ago and then moved onward to Turkey, from where they traveled to Iran’s Zahidan region.
Another recent example of the apparent shift toward Afghanistan involves the case of 29-year-old Muhammad Khojayev, who was recently made the subject of a criminal investigation by the Prosecutor-General’s Office in Dushanbe. RFE/RL’s Tajik Service has reported that investigators believe Khojayev, a Tajik citizen, almost successfully made his way to Afghanistan through Iran’s Zahidan region.
Whether such isolated instances represent a systematic shift, however, cannot be determined definitively at this time.
Sporadic and muddled information provided by the Tajik government complicates the ability of independent analysts to assess the situation.
While Tajiks may not constitute a statistically important percentage of the overall number of Islamic State militants, they appear to play an outsized role in terms of prestige. One well-known Islamic State commander is Gulmurod Halimov, who served as a high-ranking officer in Tajikistan’s OMON riot police before defecting in early 2015. According to some reports, Halimov recently assumed a top job in Islamic State’s hierarchy.
“Halimov’s promotion as a key militant commander appears to be a well-crafted strategy by [Islamic State]. He is not only qualified being a former special operations colonel, but it is also meant to increase recruitment among Russian-speaking individuals, including Tajiks, for its ranks,” the Singapore-based International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research observed in a paper published earlier this year.