In May 2015, missing Tajikistan police commander Colonel Gulmurod Halimov appeared in an Islamic State video to announce his defection to the group. While his defection caused embarrassment in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, given the regime’s repressive religious policy, this development was also perhaps unsurprising. A trained sniper, Halimov was handpicked by President Emomali Rahmon to lead the country’s paramilitary police following a counter-insurgency operation in 2012. He had also received counter-terrorism training in the United States on at least five occasions. In the video, Halimov was clear on why he had left Tajikistan, saying that the regime in the predominantly Muslim, formerly Soviet, Central Asian country of eight million people “does not permit people to pray and wear Islamic hijabs” (YouTube, May 28). He also accused the security services of paying prostitutes $10 each to appear in hijabs in a video that state media had used to discredit Islam. “You passed a law prohibiting prayer on the streets. But God says you can pray anywhere,” Halimov said, underlining what he regarded as the religious basis for his decision.
Halimov’s defection is the most prominent—but not the only—case of blowback against the regime’s repressive counter-terrorism policy. Leading regime critic Izzat Amon, who advocates for Islam being given a more prominent place in public affairs, retorted after the defection: “Dear officials, continue your fight against the hijab, the beard, azan [call to prayer] and other Islamic attributes. But it will certainly come back to you like a boomerang” (Facebook, May 28). Considerable debate exists as to how many Tajik citizens are currently fighting with in Syria and Iraq. Whereas one militant has boasted that 2,000 Tajiks are currently based in Iraq and Syria, the interior ministry has given a more circumspect figure of 412 (Asia Plus [Dushanbe], January 29; Asia Plus [Dushanbe], June 7). Taking the government statistic at face value, this means only one in every 20,000 Tajik is fighting with the group. While significant, this is a smaller proportion of the country’s Muslim population than in many European and Middle Eastern countries. The majority of Tajik fighters in Iraq and Syria are aligned with the Islamic State.
While the process by which an individual comes to be recruited into a militant group varies from case to case, the existing biographical data for Tajik fighters indicates that a few common characteristics do exist. Most Tajikistanis known to be fighting (or to have fought) with the Islamic State are young males aged 18 to 40; few have received formal religious education, and the majority spent time in Russia before going to Syria or Iraq. Although the authorities have said that most recruitment takes place in Russia’s mosques, evidence from Moscow suggests that gyms and building sites are also key sites for recruitment (IslamNews [Moscow], November 22, 2014).
One prominent recruit who fit this profile was the spokesman for Tajik members of the Islamic State, Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki, who died in a U.S. airstrike in Kirkuk, Iraq, on February 11, 2015. Born Alan Chekranov in 1993, al-Tajiki grew up in the Sharituz district, located on the border with Afghanistan (Asia Plus [Dushanbe], December 8, 2011). In 2010, he graduated from high school and enrolled at the prestigious Tajik-Slavonic University in Dushanbe. Two years later, the university expelled him for missing too many classes. Like over a million young Tajiks, he moved to Russia in search of work. One year later, he returned to Tajikistan a changed man, according to his friends. He wore a beard, only spoke of the need for jihad and said he had been socializing with other Caucasians in Russia. In 2013, he travelled to Syria via Turkey. He became the most active Tajik fighter on social media, appearing in at least fifteen videos that sympathizers posted on YouTube and Odnoklassniki (EXCAS [Exeter], January 5; Odnoklassniki, December 12, 2014; Odnoklassniki, December 17, 2014; YouTube, December 25, 2014; Odnoklassniki, January 6).
As Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki’s case indicates, many Tajik militants are active on Russian social networks like Odnoklassniki and VKontakti, posting homemade videos and memes in both Tajik and Russian. Although videos featuring Tajik militants are often taken on mobile phones, some have been featured in videos produced by the Islamic State’s Russian language media outlet “Furat.” These have included footage showing Central Asian militants being trained by prominent Chechen militant Abu Jihad and a Tajikistani militant leading a suicide mission near Raqqa, Syria, in June 2015 (Twitter, June 26).
Despite the limited number of Tajikistani citizens who have joined the Islamic State, the regime has hyped up the threat that they pose to the country. By painting the jihadist group as an existential threat, the Tajikistani regime has created the conditions to justify a heavy-handed counter-terrorism policy. In particular, a worldview that perceives assertive secularism as modern, rational and secure, as opposed to backwards, irrational and violent religion, prevails among policymakers in Tajikistan. According to this interpretation, the Islamization of society is a sign of political radicalization. By presenting Islam itself as a dangerous force that needs monitoring, Tajikistan has created the conditions for a campaign against religion. It has accordingly passed laws to make it difficult to register religious organizations, banned those under 18-years-old from attending mosques and has restricted students studying Islam abroad. While a state-sponsored official Islamic infrastructure exists, the regime labels those falling outside of the system as potential “terrorists” and “extremists.” The security services have also taken to eliminating alleged outward signs of “radicalism,” for instance, forcing men with beards to shave them and women to remove their hijabs (Ozodagon [Dushanbe], May 7).
Groups with questionable links to religious violence, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat and groups associated with the Salafist movement, have also been outlawed. The most prominent victim of this anti-religious campaign is the regime’s civil war era opponent, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), a moderate party which pushes for a strengthening of Islam’s position in the country. Although the IRPT remains the region’s only legal religious party, it is the government’s main political rival, and the authorities have in recent years led a coordinated campaign to associate its name with extremism and instability in the popular mindset, using the rise of the Islamic State to further defame it. Numerous former members of the party have also been accused of recruiting and fighting in Syria and Iraq (TajInfo [Moscow], April 17). On the eve of the March 2015 parliamentary elections, for example, imams in Tajikistan read a sermon text prepared by the government, in which they called on voters to shun the IRPT:
The IRPT lost its two seats in parliament in elections in March after it failed to reach the 5 percent vote threshold. Subsequently, the government has accused its leader Muhiddin Kabiri of corrupt property deals in the 1990s; he remains exiled, fearing arrest if he returns (Ozodagon [Dushanbe], June 19). Additionally, on July 9, the country’s prosecutor general called on the government to ban the party, arguing that its mandate was no longer supported by the population (Khovar [Dushanbe], July 9).
Despite this range of hardline tactics against a variety of Islamic opposition groups, the state has also engaged in some “soft” tactics against the terrorist threat. For instance, the government has also engaged in an “information” campaign against the Islamic State, which includes talks by former jihadists about conditions inside Syria and Iraq (Radio Ozodi [Dushanbe], June 13). It has also enlisted the support of the state-sponsored Islamic clergy to counter the Islamic State’s messaging. For instance, in September 2014, the country’s top council of religious leaders, the Council of Ulemo, issued a fatwa against the Islamic State, calling it a “great sin” to serve in its ranks (Radio Ozodi [Dushanbe], September 25, 2014). State imams have also discussed the atrocities in Syria and Iraq in official sermons. On May 22, 2014, the Tajik parliament approved an amendment to the criminal code stipulating punishment for Tajik nationals taking part in foreign armed conflicts, although those who repent will be spared punishment (Radio Ozodi [Dushanbe], May 22, 2014). A year after this, in May 2015, the Ministry of Interior offered amnesty to those who return from the battlefield; so far, six people have reportedly taken up this offer (MVD [Dushanbe], May 11).
By marginalizing the political opposition and country’s pious Muslims, however, the regime is taking a potentially dangerous path. Not only does such heavy-handed counter-terrorism lend the Islamic State’s messaging a semblance of legitimacy and credibility, it also alienates everyday people, who have seen their personal lives encroached upon. Although the prospects for widespread instability in a country that experienced a bloody five-year civil war within living memory remains remote, some blowback is inevitable, as evidenced by the recent defection of a regime insider to the Islamic State.
Edward Lemon is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Exeter in the UK. In his research, he examines the links between migration, religion and security within Central Asian communities in Russia.