Ever since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, Tajikistan has been under an increased threat of terrorist attacks. Exacerbating this situation is the Taliban’s endorsement of Jamaat Ansarullo (JA); the historical animosity between the Taliban and the Tajik government; and Tajikistan’s refusal to engage with the Taliban. Given these circumstances, it is probable that two recent attack attempts in Tajikistan were JA incursions carried out with the Taliban’s blessing. However, questionable details about Tajikistan’s counter-terrorist operations and the inter-departmental struggle for power between law enforcement bodies hints at the possibility that the attack attempts might have been staged. If so, it appears Tajikistan’s State Committee of National Security (GKNB) may be attempting to solidify its role as the country’s foremost security actor. Whether real or staged, the attack attempts are a harbinger of increasingly strained tensions between Tajikistan and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
JA’s Latest Two Attacks
On September 6, Tajikistan’s GKNB eliminated three JA members in the Darvaz District near the Tajik-Afghan border. The suspects allegedly crossed into Tajikistan from Afghanistan on August 29 to carry out attacks on Tajikistan’s Independence Day on September 9. They smuggled various weapons, ammunition, medical supplies, religious literature, blueprints of government buildings, and $10,000 of cash into Tajikistan in preparation for the attacks (Khovar.tj, September 6).
The September 6 attack attempt was JA’s second reported incursion into Tajikistan in 2023. On April 26, GKNB eliminated two other alleged JA fighters, who crossed into Tajikistan’s Vanj District. They also entered into the country from Afghanistan and possessed weapons, ammunition, and special communications equipment (Asiaplus.tj, September 6).
Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, highlighted these two incidents in his speech delivered at the Fifth Consultative Meeting of Heads of State of Central Asia on September 15. He stated that the Tajik authorities “prevented two attempts to break through the border by [JA] militants.” According to Rahmon, the militants planned to commit “a series of terrorist attacks in the capital and other regions of Tajikistan” (Avesta.tj, September 15).
Tajikistan Under Threat
Relations between the Taliban and Tajikistan have always been full of enmity. The two countries share a 1,357 kilometer border, and the Tajik government perceives the Taliban to be a source of instability in the region. During the Taliban’s first period of rule in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, the Tajik government supported the Taliban’s most powerful enemy, the Northern Alliance, which was a resistance group led by the ethnic Tajik Ahmad Shah Massoud (Izvestiya, September 9, 2021). Twenty years after Massou’s death at the hands of al-Qaeda, in September 2021, Rahmon posthumously awarded Massoud the Order of Ismoili Somoni (Asiaplus.tj, September 2, 2021), Tajikistan’s highest honor.
Rahmon’s action was a jab at the Taliban, with whom the Tajik government refuses to engage in any form. This refusal is done on the grounds of the Taliban’s exclusion of ethnic Tajiks and other minorities from the Afghan government. Although the Tajik government refutes it, there are multiple reports that Tajikistan still provides sanctuary and support to the Northern Resistance Front (NRF). The NRF is a group that resists Taliban rule, and is led by Ahmad Shah Massoud’s son (Hasht-e-Subh Daily, June 28).
In return, the Taliban accuse Tajikistan of interfering in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, threatening that Dushanbe will face repercussions for any anti-Taliban actions it takes (Sputnik Tajikistan, September 26, 2021). In a major anti-Tajik political move, in 2021, the Taliban even reportedly placed JA forces in charge of the five districts on the Afghan-Tajik border (Kommersant, September 27, 2021). Ever since its establishment in 2010, JA’s main goal has been overthrowing Rahmon’s government in Tajikistan and establishing a Taliban-like government there.
Parsing the Taliban-JA Partnership
Keeping JA forces close to the Tajik border provides the Taliban with leverage against the Tajik government. Both alleged JA incursions were made from Afghan provinces that are under Taliban control. Given the history and current state of relations between the Taliban and Tajik governments and the presence of JA forces close to the border, it is quite possible that the incursions were real and were carried out with the Taliban’s blessing in order to exert pressure on Tajikistan.
On the other hand, there are a number of details that suggest that the attempted attacks were false-flag attacks. The lack of detail about the apparent JA operations, the ongoing securitization of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO), and the raging inter-departmental power struggle within the Tajik security apparatus point to the possibility that GKNB might have staged the incursions itself. In the case of the first incursion (on April 26), the only available evidence about the incident came from Tajik law enforcement agencies, and the evidence was too scant to make a sound judgment. An alleged witness even stated that one of the two suspects asked for some bread when they met (Instagram/Pamir Inside, April 27). Questions, therefore, arise as to why a JA fighter on a secretive mission would meet with locals and talk to them. The fact that the JA attack attempt took place in GBAO—where the central authorities have allegedly been conducting counter-terrorism operations to suppress local dissent—has also pushed government critics in GBAO to view the JA incident as another provocation to securitize the region and justify the presence of a larger contingent of security and armed forces (Instagram/Pamir Inside, April 27).
In the case of the second incursion (on August 25), the media and public were left without many details after all suspects were killed and buried at undisclosed locations. Again, the only shred of evidence publicized was made available by GKNB. A metadata search of one of the GKNB-provided photos (which included weapons and ammunition) revealed that the photo was taken in 2020. The vague picture surrounding the incident overall has pushed investigators to look for alternative accounts of what happened. The most compelling explanation for the alleged incursion may lie in the power struggle between GKNB and the Interior Ministry on the one side and the Prosecutor General on the other (Radio Ozodi, September 4). In this account, after a failed attempt to discredit Yusuf Rahmon, the Prosecutor General (after a book was published that accused him of corruption), GKNB might have chosen to stage the incident in order to solidify its position as the indispensable security guarantor in charge of border patrol and counter-terrorism activities.
Adding uncertainty to both JA attack attempts is the fact that no terrorist group—notably including JA—has claimed responsibility for them. If the attack attempts were “real,” the lack of any claims may be explained by JA’s desire to play down responsibility after both operations failed. Whether or not the two attacks were real or staged is difficult to tell with certainty, as both versions deserve further examination. Central Asian presidents, and Rahmon in particular, are known to exaggerate the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan to justify their prolonged stay in power and eliminate opposition at home. Thus, it continues to be necessary to scrutinize state-released evidence to provide an objective assessment of the threat of terrorism.