A sedan struck seven foreign cyclists riding through Tajikistan’s Danghara district on July 29. Despite initial confused reports that it was nothing more than a car accident, grainy footage quickly emerged of the vehicle’s driver deliberately swerving to hit the bikers. A group of men then “exited the car and stabbed the cyclists with knives,” according to the United States Embassy in Dushanbe. Within minutes, four cyclists—two American, one Dutch and one Swiss—were dead, with several more injured.
The Tajikistani government mobilized rapidly and decisively. After identifying the likely location of the suspects based on the car’s license plate, a major law enforcement operation began. The exact circumstances are unclear, but four of the suspects were shot dead during the arrest and several others taken into custody. This was announced in a statement from the Tajikistan Interior Ministry, which included pictures of both the deceased and the detained.
Almost immediately, the government blamed the shattered political opposition, the Islamic National Renaissance Party (INRP) for the attack. The event was seized on as a chance to legitimize their suppression of the group. Citing a confession allegedly extracted from one of the detained men, authorities have sought to suppress any journalistic investigation into the incident that might lead to a different conclusion—that the attack was, in fact, linked to the Islamic State (IS) (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August 2).
The evidence seems to favor this hypothesis. IS, having already claimed responsibility for the attack, released a video showing five young, Russian-speaking men pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Jihadology, July 31). These individuals appear to match the photos of the suspects published by Tajikistan’s own interior ministry, although a formal identification has not been made. Furthermore, the modus operandi of the attack is a clear fulfillment of the command issued in the very first issue of IS’ online magazine Rumiyah in September 2016: Stab them, shoot them, poison them, and run them down with your vehicles’ (Jihadology, September 2016).
This phrase has been heeded by the global jihadist community. Militants launching attacks in France, Sweden and the United Kingdom, among others, have similarly used vehicles as a weapon. Difficult to detect and deadly effective, it should be of no surprise that this trend has spread to the Central Asian steppes.
An attack against tourists is extremely atypical in Central Asia, where political violence of this kind is almost unheard of. However, Central Asian—particularly Uzbek and Tajik—fighters have earned themselves a fearsome reputation in the jihadist communities of Afghanistan and the Levant. Groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, formed from the chaos of a disintegrating Soviet Union, have acted as incubators for cadres of highly trained fighters. These jihadists have continued to fight in Pakistan’s Waziristan, in support of the Afghan Taliban, and against the Syrian government. Analysts believe that Central Asian fighters represent one of the largest contingents of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria.
The conditions in Tajikistan are ripe for jihadism to flourish. The lack of economic opportunities makes the prestige and salary associated with jihadist fighters increasingly attractive to swathes of the local population. Meanwhile, the government has continually attempted to place Islam—the dominant national religion—under its control. Imams are regulated through state-controlled councils and watched carefully by intelligence officers. Expressions of Islamic piety, such as wearing the hijab or other forms of Islamic clothing, can lead to harassment and arrest.
These policies have backfired and are partially responsible for the growth of Tajikistani jihadism. The high-profile example of Gulmurod Khalimov, a former special forces police commander, who defected to IS in 2015 – disillusioned with Dushanbe’s polices towards Islam – shows the link between state suppression of religion and radicalization (Asia-Plus, June 1, 2015). The government’s insistence on blaming the INRP, which is ideologically Islamist, is indicative of Dushanbe’s intentions to further expand its control over Tajikistani religious institutions. This has, and will, further drive radicalization.
It is too early to say whether this incident is an aberration or the opening salvo of a jihadist campaign in Tajikistan. The attack against the cyclists, while unusual, showed only limited capability by this alleged cell, which has been subsequently neutralized by the Tajikistani security forces. The wording of the IS communiqué that followed, claiming that the men had responded to the “call” to action, suggests that the cell had little logistical or operational support from IS trainers and experts.
The most immediate consequence of the attack will be a further crackdown on the Tajikistani political opposition. The government’s decision to blame the INRP is clearly politically motivated and will be used to legitimize the further suppression of activists or political figures opposed to the highly authoritarian and long-standing President Emomali Rahmon. Given the near-certainty that it was IS’ pernicious ideology that led to the events of July 29, of far more importance would be an analysis of the implications that a wave of returning fighters would have on Tajikistan.
A return has never looked more likely. Military operations in Iraq and Syria have destroyed IS’ proto-state. Without urban areas in the Levant, fighters have retreated to the Hamrin Mountains to regroup (Iraqi News, December 27, 2017). In North Africa, the group’s branches in Libya and Egypt have struggled to expand their territorial holdings. Initial forays into Afghanistan have proven more successful, although IS faces an array of hostile factions, ranging from the Taliban to the U.S. Air Force. With a pre-established foothold in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, conditions in Tajikistan are ripe for exploitation and, due to porous regional borders, the situation looks bright for returning Tajik fighters.
The Tajikistani state is impoverished and will likely be hard-pressed to deal with such a scenario. Intelligence, law enforcement and military forces are poorly trained, undermanned and under-equipped. The 1300-kilometer-plus border is highly insecure and regularly crossed by smugglers, militants and other hostile actors. The Afghan government has extremely limited control in the northern province of Badakhshan, separated from Tajikistan only by the Panj River—a potential corridor for militant returnees. Russia, the major power in the region, is certainly taking the threat seriously. A recent joint military exercise between Russian troops stationed at the federation’s Tajikistan base and local military forces concentrated on defending the border regions from a concerted assault by Taliban loyalists (Press TV, July 17).
Already, the attack has likely derailed Dushanbe’s plan to boost its coffers by developing its tourism industry, concentrating on the steady stream of hikers, mountaineers and cyclists that choose to visit the steppes. Until the incident, tourism in Tajikistan was booming. Between January and July this year, Tajikistan saw around 900,000 visitors, compared to around 430,000 throughout the entirety of 2017 (Eurasianet, August 3). The French Foreign Ministry has already advised its citizens to “postpone” planned visits to the country pending the conclusion of the government investigation.
It remains to be seen whether the attack was a singular event or the first skirmish of many. What is clear though is that IS has claimed its first victims in Central Asia, on that long and lonely biking trail through the Pamir Mountains.