On April 12, in the Isfara region in the north of Tajikistan, the special services detained twenty people suspected of committing a range of aggravated criminal acts motivated by racial and religious hatred. These acts included both the murder of the leader of the local Baptist community, Sergei Bessarab, in January of this year, and the arson of several mosques whose imams, according to the members of the terrorist organization, displayed excessive loyalty to the ruling regime. According to a statement by the Office of the Prosecutor General of Tajikistan, the detained individuals mounted armed resistance before they were arrested, and a subsequent search of their homes disclosed a substantial amount of weaponry and ammunition.
It was suggested that the arrested individuals were members of the Islamic movement Bayat (“the Vow”). Bayat was said to have no ties with such organizations as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), each of which is better known in the region and is also prohibited by the authorities. Nor is it believed to be connected with the only legalized Islamic organization in the country – the Party of Islamic Revival of Tajikistan. The special services of Tajikistan have admitted that they were not aware of the existence of Bayat in the past. According to various sources, the Bayat activists are from among the Tajik citizens who fought on the side of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and some are even said to be prisoners at the American base in Guantanamo, Cuba.
The possibility of a connection between Bayat and the IMU cannot be ruled out, because in the past IMU militants have operated actively in the territory of the Ferghana Valley; they have also fought on the side of the Afghan Talibs. The investigation has revealed that Sergei Bessarab was shot to death by the terrorists for attempting to spread Christianity among the Tajiks (Information Agency Centran.ru, April 29).
The Isfara region, located in the north of Tajikistan, is one of the most religious districts in the country. The sale of alcohol in some of the villages of this region is strictly prohibited and women wear the hijab (a special head cover frequently worn by Muslim women who cover their neck and hair). There have been instances when the local Muslims even torched the liquor stores. When the president of Tajikistan, Imomali Rahmonov, visited Isfara in July of 2002, he stated that there were three Isfara natives who had fought on the side of the Taliban and who are prisoners at the American base in Guantanamo.
The positions of the Islamic Party of Revival are especially strong in the Isfara region. In the parliamentary elections of 2000, for example, the party received the overwhelming majority of votes cast in the region. In the village of Chorku – which is home to the majority of those recently detained on suspicion of terrorism – the Islamic Party of Revival received 93 percent of the vote. It should also be noted that in 1999 and 2000 IMU militants attempted to make their way to Uzbekistan in close proximity to the Isfara region of Tajikistan. According to the local residents with whom this Jamestown correspondent conversed six months ago, the IMU militants stopped in the villages of the Isfara region to get food, and they apparently departed after having left the villagers with warm memories of their visit.
Until now the main opponents of the secular regimes in Central Asia were considered to be the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Hizb ut-Tahrir party. However, it appears that in reality the list of radical Islamic organizations that oppose the present secular regimes is expanding and that the special services of the Central Asian states are not even aware of their existence. Indeed, just last week a previously unknown organization, the “Islamic Group Jihad,” claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist acts that took the lives of forty-seven people in Uzbekistan in late March of this year. Prior to that the Uzbek authorities had blamed the terrorist acts on other radical groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.