Monthly Archives: March 2017

Global Risk Insights: “Under the Radar: Tajikistan on track to be the next Afghanistan”

Tajikistan, the world’s leading exporter of suicide bombers to ISIS has the potential to become the next terrorist hotspot as a host of factors converge to put the small Central Asian nation at serious risk.

The recent publication of an expanded list of alleged terrorist groups and their sponsors by the National Bank of Tajikistan highlights the country’s growing concern about both domestic and international terrorist threats. The list includes over two hundred individuals as well as fifteen organizations; including the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). The inclusion of the IRPT on this list is important as it further highlights the de-legitimization of Tajikistan’s only recognized Islamic political party.

In the 1990s, the IRPT was part of Tajikistan’s formal political scene, with the moderate party garnering a place in government as part of the united opposition following the country’s 1992-1997 civil war. Since then President Emomalii Rahmon (who has ruled the country since 1992) and his People’s Democratic Party have slowly marginalized the IRPT, with the party outlawed in 2014, and declared a terrorist group in 2015.

Tajikistan’s anti-radicalization measures backfiring

The fall of the IRPT has been part of the government’s ongoing campaign against Islamism and overt faith in general. Motivated by fears of radicalization, the government’s slew of heavy-handed – and at times, bizarre – measures have only increased resentment among the population and provided ample recruitment material for radicals. In recent years, Tajikistan has: shut down hundreds of non-government sanctioned mosques and preachers, banned Islamic dress in schools and offices, limited public prayers, shuttered 160 stores selling Islamic clothing, banned children under 18 from mosques, restricted students from studying Islam abroad, and made it difficult to register Muslim organizations. In 2015 the government even went as far as to forcibly shave 13,000 bearded citizens.

Tajikistan 

These measures have been directly cited by radicalized Tajiks as the motivation for their decision to join radical groups. A major blow to the government came in 2015 with the defection to ISIS of U.S-trained special forces commander Colonel Gulmurod Halimov. Halimov has allegedly become ISIS’ supreme military commander and has been a major influence in encouraging other Tajiks to join the organization. In part due to Halimov’s influence, Tajikistan has become the world’s leading exporter of suicide bombers to ISIS’s battlefields: 27 Tajik suicide operations were carried out in Syria and Iraq between December 2015 and November 2016.

The irony of the situation is that “when the IRPT was part of the government, one of their main tasks was to educate people not to go to [radicals]. Once [the party was] forbidden we had an enormous increase [in the number of Tajiks joining ISIS] – students, and in one case, 40 people from the same village,” notes University of Heidelberg researcher Sophie Roche.

Around 1,100 Tajiks are believed to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, with an additional 300 having been killed there in recent years. Two Tajiks were also behind the March 8th Kabul military hospital attack that left at least 49 dead. More recently, a suspected terrorist attack was orchestrated in the Tajik city of Qurghonteppa on March 12th, with an explosion killing one person near the military prosecutor’s office: Qurghonteppa’s outskirts also saw a mysterious explosion on January 30th.

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Only ten days before on January 20th, the Tajik interior ministry announced that the government had foiled 36 terrorist attacks in 2016, with over 400 people detained for suspected terrorist links. Tajikistan is facing a serious terrorism threat, as its citizens become radicalized at home due to the government’s hardline measures, and as hundreds of fighters in Syria and Iraq return home as ISIS loses ground in the Middle East.

Alongside the recent incidents already mentioned, a Tajik native was also arrested in Russia on March 8th after authorities discovered a plan for a suicide attack in Moscow. This incident demonstrates another risk vector for Tajikistan – its large migrant worker population. Over a million Tajiks work in Russia as migrant or seasonal workers, with remittances comprising a major revenue stream for Tajikistan. Poor working conditions, abuse and a sense of hopelessness puts many Tajik workers in Russia at risk of radicalization. The convergence of these risk factors has already led to the radicalization of a substantial number of Tajiks in Russia, with Islamists using Russian social media sites like Odnoklassniki and Vkontakti to recruit followers.

With Tajikistan’s economic growth slowing from 7.4% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2016, combined with an 8.5% annual inflation rate, economic hardship will force more Tajiks to seek work elsewhere, with those who stay not faring much better. Tajikistan’s economic hardship will only continue, especially with the recent cancellation of China’s Line D oil and gas pipeline. The cancellation of Line D means Tajikistan will lose out on millions of dollars in oil and gas transit fees, thus only further weakening the economy.

Stuck in a bad neighbourhood

While these problems would be more than enough for any country, Tajikistan has the misfortune of being situated in the middle of one of the most volatile regions on Earth. With its entire mountainous southern border facing Afghanistan, which at its narrowest point is also only 40 kilometers from Pakistan’s tribal north, Tajikistan faces serious risks. Add to this Tajikistan’s border with China’s restive Xinjiang province and things look grim. China’s Kashgar prefecture is home to 40,000 ethnic Tajiks, and the local government is hiring an additional 3,000 police to reinforce the border as officials increasingly intercept weapons, drugs and extremist media. Moreover, the Pakistani military’s offensive in Waziristan has pushed Central Asian ISIS supporters into northern Afghanistan, with Tajik radicals resettling in Afghanistan and others returning back home.

Tajikistan’s Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda has estimated that there are between 10,000-15,000 militants along the Afghan-Tajik border, many of whom have cross-border connections. Indeed, Asadullah Omarkhail, governor of Afghanistan’s Kunduz provinceargues that “around three thousand Taliban fighters are active in Kunduz [and are receiving] Russian and Tajik support.” While claims about state assistance from Russia and Tajikistan to the Taliban are suspect, the group undoubtedly receives support from individuals in both countries, many of them Tajiks.

Tajikistan’s government takes these cross-border links seriously, and has recently ordered mobile phone providers to re-register all SIM cards in the country in order to thwart terrorists. First deputy head of the State National Security Committee, Mansurdzhon Umarov explained the move, stating that “we have information that on the border with our country, insurgents with the Taliban movement are actively using Tajik SIM cards.” Tajik SIM cards are popular in the region as they are cheaper, and some cases provide better service than those issued by Afghan service providers.

Tajikistan on the brink of multiple insurgencies

While the Afghan-Tajik border presents the greatest security challenge, the situation in neighbouring Uzbekistan holds important lessons, and warnings for Tajikistan. Like in Tajikistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) emerged out of resistance to a long-time leader and vehement anti-Islamist, in this case Islam Karimov. Likewise the IMU has long had cross-border dealings with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Despite this, the leadership of the IMU pledged loyalty to ISIS, with IMU emir Usman Ghasi aligning the group with Daesh in June 2015. This move caused a split in the IMU, with a splinter group retaining the IMU name, and re-affirming its allegiance to the Taliban. The existence of Jamaat Ansarullah, a Tajik IMU splinter group further connects events in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to Tajikistan.

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What happened in Uzbekistan could easily happen in Tajikistan as ISIS supporters return home and continue to push radical Islamist goals. If the government continues its hard-line approach, these radicalized individuals are likely to act against the very government whose actions initially pushed many towards radicalization in the first place. This will create tensions between these returning ISIS expats and established local, anti-government groups. The latter has ties with ethnic Tajiks in the border regions of Afghanistan and China as well as with the Taliban.

Given the existing Taliban-ISIS rivalry, Tajikistan could well see the development of a proxy-war among rival Islamist groups, with ISIS and Taliban-backed groups attacking each other as well as the government. This would in turn transform Tajikistan from an exporter to an importer of radicals, as international supporters of both ISIS and the Taliban heed each side’s respective call for support.

Under the Radar uncovers political risk events around the world overlooked by mainstream media. By detecting hidden risks, we keep you ahead of the pack and ready for new opportunities.

March 19, 2017

Under the Radar is written

by Senior Analyst Jeremy Luedi.

RFERL: Tajikistan’s Deadly Export

State suppression of unofficial Islam, the humiliation of having to work as migrant laborers abroad, and a former special-forces commander flipping to the Islamic State group: these are the main factors behind why Tajikistan finds itself the world’s leading exporter of suicide bombers to Islamic State (IS) battlefields.

Experts singled out these factors when assessing how the impoverished Central Asian state came out on top in a recent report listing the origins of suicide bombers sent to Iraq and Syria, on whose territory IS’s diminishing so-called caliphate stands.

The report by The Hague-based International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) claimed that 27 Tajiks had carried out suicide operations in Iraq and Syria from December 2015 to November 2016, the highest among all foreign individuals whose country of origin had been identified.

The report — War by Suicide: A Statistical Analysis of the Islamic State’s Martyrdom Industry — has put the spotlight on Tajikistan’s struggle against extremism and why Tajiks would be so significantly represented among IS suicide bombers.

As if to underscore the findings, the IS’s Aamaq news agency has claimed that two Tajiks were among those responsible for the suicide bombing and gun attack on a military hospital in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on March 8 that killed at least 49 people. The claim from the extremist group, which has made inroads in Afghanistan since 2015, has not been verified by either Tajik or Afghan authorities.

 ‘Disproportionality’ Of Tajiks

Tajik’s Interior Ministry said in January that around 1,100 of its citizens were fighting in Syria and Iraq. At least 300 of them have reportedly been killed there, according to Dushanbe, while more than 60 have returned home voluntarily and been pardoned by the authorities under a blanket amnesty.

Charlie Winter, the author of the ICCT report, says Tajiks are “disproportionally represented” on the list of suicide bombers — the number of Tajiks joining IS pales in comparison to that of citizens of some other countries. For example, 6,500 Tunisians and 2,500 Saudis are estimated to have joined IS.

Winter says that the statistics suggest that “Tajiks were being singled out for use in suicide attacks at least in part because of their nationality.”

Flipping To Islamic State

Analysts say the case of a high-ranking, U.S.-trained, Tajik special-forces commander who vacated his post and defected to IS in Syria could help answer the question as to why so many Tajiks are being used as suicide bombers.

Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, the former commander of the Tajik Interior Ministry’s special forces known as the OMON, reportedly joined the IS extremist group in 2015. Counterterrorism experts believe Halimov has risen through the ranks to become the top IS military commander.

“Why Tajiks have been used so frequently could be because Halimov is reported to be the IS supreme military commander,” says Edward Lemon, a fellow at Colombia University who researches Tajikistan. “It is possible that Halimov is behind the move to use Tajiks more frequently by persuading them to volunteer.”

Halimov, dressed in black IS garb, appeared in an online propaganda video in May 2015 saying he had joined the extremist group to protest the Tajik government’s ban on Islamic dress in schools and offices, and limitations on public prayer.

Under Pressure

Analysts also suggest pressure exerted by Tajikistan’s government on Islamic political and religious groups and unsanctioned Islam has played into the hands of IS recruiters.

As part of the peace deal ending the country’s 1992-97 civil war, the united Tajik opposition was guaranteed a place in government. That gave the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the dominant opposition force and the lone Islamic component, a prominent role in Tajikistan.

A screen grab of former Tajik Colonel Gulmurod Halimov in an IS propaganda video from 2015.

A screen grab of former Tajik Colonel Gulmurod Halimov in an IS propaganda video from 2015.

The inclusion of the IRPT, the first officially recognized Islamic party in Central Asia, was seen as a sign of openness on the part of Dushanbe and as giving moderates the upper hand within the party itself.

But over the years the Tajik authorities increased their control on all things relating to Islam, supporting only state-approved mosques and Islamic leaders, and shutting down hundreds of unregistered mosques across the country. In 2015 it banned the IRPT altogether and arrested its leadership.

The effort to deter citizens from Islam not in keeping with the official line, analysts note, may have pushed some believers to more dangerous streams of the religion.

“When the IRPT was part of the [government] one of their main tasks was to educate people not to go to IS,” says Sophie Roche, a researcher at the University of Heidelberg, in Germany. “Once [the party] was forbidden we had an enormous increase [of Tajiks joining IS] — students and, in one case, 40 people from one village.”

Migrant Humiliation

Analyst Lemon says IS recruiters often target individuals who are socially isolated or have experienced some form of trauma or personal crisis.

He adds that the vast majority of recruitment takes place in Russia, where millions of Tajik citizens work as migrant laborers.

Researcher Roche says the sense of “humiliation” they feel over their situation plays an important role in recruitment in Russia, where migrant workers often perform menial jobs and are often targeted for abuse and harassment.

“Most of the migrants do work which is very post-colonial and they have a loss of status in that country,” says Roche, who has researched Tajik migrants in Russia.

“If you fail in Russia because you don’t have a job or you don’t earn enough to really build a status you turn toward religion to gain respect,” says Roche, although she adds that few who turn to Islam join the ranks of IS militants.

 

RFERL

Frud Bezhan

March 12, 2017