An ISIS terrorist group draws half its recruits from tiny Tajikistan

The mother of one of the suspects in the bloody attack at a concert hall near Moscow last month cried as she spoke about her son.

How, he wondered, did he go from the bumpy dirt roads of their village in Tajikistan, Central Asia, to sitting, bruised and battered, in a Russian courtroom accused of terrorism? Although he spent five years in Tajik prisons as a teenager, he said he never showed signs of violent extremism.

“We need to understand: who is recruiting young Tajiks, why do they want to highlight us as a nation of terrorists?” said her mother, Muyassar Zargarova.

Many governments and terrorism experts ask the same question.

Tajik adherents of the Islamic State – especially within its affiliate in Afghanistan known as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), or ISIS-K – have taken increasingly high-profile roles in a series of recent terrorist attacks. In the past year alone, Tajiks have been involved in attacks in Russia, Iran and Turkey, as well as foiled plots in Europe. ISIS-K is believed to have several thousand soldiers, more than half of whom are Tajiks, experts say.

“They have become central to ISKP's externally focused campaign that seeks to attract attention and more recruits,” said Edward Lemon, an international relations professor at Texas A&M University who specializes in Russia, Tajikistan and terrorism.

Analysts say a sort of double whammy leaves Tajiks vulnerable to recruitment. An increasingly authoritarian former Soviet republic, Tajikistan is among the world's poorest countries, fueling discontent and pushing millions of migrant workers to seek a better life abroad. In a country of 10 million people, the majority of workers, estimated at over two million, are looking for work abroad at any time.

And most migrants end up in Russia, where rampant discrimination, low wages, poor prospects and isolation make them vulnerable to jihadist recruiters. Officially, around 1.3 million Tajik workers are in Russia, although experts believe hundreds of thousands more work there illegally.

“The new Tajik generation has lost all faith in the future,” said Muhiddin Kabiri, exiled leader of the country's Islamic Revival Party, a moderate opposition group that was suddenly outlawed as “extremist” in 2015. “There are only two choices: a secular dictatorship and, alternatively, the Islamic State or other radical Islamic groups.”

Around 2,000 Tajiks flocked to the physical caliphate established by the Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq from 2014 to 2019. With the caliphate dismantled but not eradicated – and with branches from Africa across the Middle East to Central Asia – ISIS-K has revived some of the potential state's global ambitions.

Infantry recruitment is concentrated online, where ISIS-K maintains extensive media activity in Arabic, English, Russian and other languages. Russia is a frequent target. Many online testimonies from Tajiks suggest that Muslim men who avoid fighting with ISIS are not really men.

Asfandyar Mir, a senior counterterrorism specialist at the American Institute of Peace in Washington, highlighted the type of audio message intended to incite Tajik migrant workers in Russia. A commander who has since been killed, using the nom de guerre Furkan Falistini, addresses the local workers directly: “When the Russian police see you on the street, the Tajiks hide their eyes, hoping that the police do not see them”, he says in the video. “You should look at them so that they are afraid of you. You start killing them and God will remedy your fears.”

Days after Russia blamed four migrant workers from Tajikistan for the attack on a concert hall that killed 145 people, ISIS-K launched a Tajik-language online magazine, The Voice of Khorasan.. Its launch, just days after the first Turkish edition, appears to underline the group's growing aspirations, noted Lucas Webber, a researcher who tracks the Islamic State's presence online.

While the magazine mentioned the Islamic State's long-standing hostility towards Russia, the lead article harshly criticized the 30-year, iron-fisted rule of Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon.

“Rahmonov the Devil was the first to start eradicating Islam under the guise of being Muslim,” the article reads. In 2007 the president changed his surname to the more Tajik-sounding Rahmon, but the Islamic State uses the old one, also to highlight its close ties with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

After Tajiks suspected in the concert hall attack appeared in a Russian courtroom with injuries from apparent torture, one online poster said: “The broadcast of videos of prisoners being tortured by you has increased the thirst of thousands of brothers for your blood.”

Another post showed what appeared to be a man in military fatigues staring at television screens showing London, Paris, Rome and Madrid. “After Moscow… Who will be next?!” the English text was read.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula for radicalization, experts say, but for some young Tajik migrants, personal grievances outweigh geopolitical considerations.

Tajikistan's problems have their roots in a ferocious civil war that lasted five years, starting in 1992, after it gained independence from the Soviet Union. Mr Rahmon, a former collective farm boss who became president in 1994, signed a peace deal with the opposition guaranteeing representation.

Some criticism of government corruption and nepotism was initially allowed, and the Islamic Revival Party occupied a couple of seats in Parliament. But when the party was declared a terrorist organization, some opposition figures were killed, jailed or forced into exile. Tajikistan holds at least 1,000 political prisoners, according to Kabiri, the exiled party head.

Rahmon, 71, was born in the Soviet Union two days before Putin and they share autocratic impulses. The Kremlin has long supported Rahmon's government by stationing around 7,000 troops in Tajikistan, a rare large deployment outside Russia.

The more ISIS ties Rahmon to Putin, “the more it appears he is hitching his wagon to Russia, the less legitimate his regime seems and the more likely they are to increase their popularity among Tajiks,” said Steve Swerdlow, a professor of international sciences . relations at the University of Southern California and a veteran researcher on human rights in Central Asia.

Rahmon promoted a constitutional referendum in 2016 that allowed him to remain president for life. Press releases on the presidential website refer to him as “the Founder of peace and national unity.” The eldest son, Rustam Emomali, 36 years old, president of the National Assembly and mayor of Dushanbe, the capital, should succeed his father.

Mr. Rahmon leads a rigorous campaign against public signs of piety. People with beards or hijabs are subject to casual harassment, with their beards sometimes forcibly shaved in public or their hijabs torn. A powerful Committee on Religion, the Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations and Ceremonies oversees every aspect of worship, including the building of mosques and the printing of books.

“They have this very tight control over mainstream Islam, and anything that exists beyond that is considered extremist and dangerous,” said Lemon, the professor at Texas A&M.

Given the violence fomented by jihadists globally, Tajikistan's government has reason to be concerned, Swerdlow noted. But harsh measures can fuel the very extremism they are intended to contain.

Echoing Soviet positions, Rahmon places the blame for extremism solely on external influences. In a speech last month, he said Tajiks enjoy freedom of religion, while radical ideas come from “dubious” religious schools abroad or foreign intelligence services.

“These actions are planned by malicious groups and special services of some countries, and they take advantage of the lack of education, inexperience and ignorance of some of our young people,” the president said. More than 1,000 Tajik militants have died in foreign armed conflicts, he said, and thousands more are missing.

In terms of religious freedom, the United States has repeatedly designated Tajikistan as a “country of particular concern.” Officials from the Departments of Defense and State declined requests for interviews about extremism linked to Tajikistan.

The State Department issued a brief statement saying it had worked with Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries to strengthen law enforcement and degrade terrorist groups. A former senior Tajik police officer, trained in counter-extremism in the United States, famously became the overall military commander of the Islamic State caliphate around 2016 before he died.

After the terrorist attack outside Moscow, Russia began massive expulsions.

In Tajikistan, the mothers of three suspects listed problems their children typically faced in Russia: wages too low to pay rent or afford the permits needed to drive a taxi, for example.

“Let them answer to who bought the weapons and who gave them the equipment,” Zargarova said. “My son didn't have money for a gun.”

Milana Mazaeva contributed to the reporting.

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