Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has blamed recent killings of police on Islamic militants sympathetic to Islamic State (IS), the jihadist movement that has taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq.
Nine police officers were killed in the capital, Dushanbe, and the town of Vahdat in the attacks on September 4, which police said were staged by the former deputy defence minister, General Abduhalim Nazarzoda, reportedly a member of the Islamic Revival Party, which was ordered to cease operations in August.
General Nazarzoda is not the first senior officer to allegedly side with Islamic radicals: in late May special forces police commander Gulmurod Halimov, who disappeared in late April, posted a Youtube video claiming he had joined IS.
In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan in July law enforcement agencies also accused six people that they had killed and five others detained in a shootout in the capital, Bishkek, of being linked to IS; they were allegedly planning terrorist attacks in the country, according to the intelligence agencies.
But secular authoritarian regimes in Central Asia have long been using the alleged threat of radical Islam to suppress opposition, and have blamed radical Islamic groups – such the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in the past and Islamic State (IS) now – for insurgencies sparked by their crackdowns. Often the reality is that the rise in religiosity and the sparking of rebellions are a response to poor socioeconomic conditions, corruption and dictatorship.
Parviz Mullojanov, a Dushanbe-based political analyst, believes Central Asian governments deliberately exaggerate the threat of IS in the region, and their suppression of secular opposition and moderate Islamic believers is a “boon” for IS.
“At the moment and in the near future IS will not pose a direct threat to Central Asian countries because the policy of IS aims to attract resources, above all human resources, to Syria and Iraq. IS leaders consider local jihadi organisations and its representatives as recruitment agencies responsible for propaganda and mobilisation of fights and their deployment to territories controlled by IS,” Mullojanov tells bne IntelliNews. “In most case, Central Asian fighters who left for Syria have not yet started coming back so that it is actually a one-way journey at the moment.”
According to estimates by national intelligence agencies, there are hundreds of nationals from Central Asian countries among the ranks of IS in Syria and Iraq alone. Estimates range between 300 and 500 fighters per country. Some of them are believed to have even gone to Syria and Iraq with their wives and children. In November 2014 IS posted a propaganda video of child soldiers from Kazakhstan showing them undergo military training with AK47s, with one child vowing to kill non-believers.
On September 8 the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry also cited intelligence it had received that 45 Kyrgyz nationals had died fighting for IS in the conflict in Syria and Iraq.
Mullojanov believes that a significant boost in activities of radical Islamic underground in Central Asia should be expected only in the long run. “Several factors will help this – firstly, the deepening socioeconomic crisis, combined with Central Asian governments’ inability to carry out efficient and meaningful reforms; secondly, the gradual demise of secular and moderation opposition parties in the region which is practically turning radical fundamentalists into an only and real alternative to the local regimes,” he explains.
Filling the vacuum
In particular, Mullojanov believes, “enormous opportunities for IS and other radical groups are being opened by the closure of the Islamic Revival Party in Tajikistan as the newly-formed vacuum will be quickly filled in by extremists”. “For the entire region the closure of the party will mean the actual cancellation of a dialogue between secular governments and moderate Islamists,” the analyst says.
The Tajik ban has given rise to concerns about political stability in the country where the region’s only Islamic-leaning opposition was allowed to operate as a result of power-sharing peace deal that ended a bloody civil war between Rahmon’s regime and Islamic rebels in 1992-1997.
Despite President Rahmon’s suggestion of a link between the insurgents in Tajikistan and IS, there is no information between links Tajik rebels and IS, Mullojanov believes. At the same time, the group’s propaganda is so universal that it appeals to a wide range of social groups from convinced Salafis to ordinary people who are far from being pious, he says.
In a bid to contain the spread of Islamic practices in the country Tajik authorities have embarked on a campaign to discourage Islamic trends as alien to national values and customs. Restrictions have been put on religious education, while women have been banned from wearing hijabs and men from growing beards.
“This policy is a great boon for IS and if this policy stops propagandists of IS and other radical organisations will simply not know what to say in their video clips and leaflets,” the Tajik analyst says, referring to IS’s use of the bans in propaganda tools for recruitment. “All these are secondary bans which cannot really influence the level of the religiosity of the population but they significantly increase the level of politicisation of Islam in regional countries.”
Artur Medetbekov, a Bishkek-based security analyst, agrees with Mullojanov that the ideological vacuum left by the demise of the communist regime in Central Asia is quickly being filled by preachers of radical Islam, who contrast Islamic values with the decline of morality linked with globalisation and Westernisation.
Another major problem that helps recruitment is the lack of job opportunities at home, while IS and other radical groups often attract people who have got used to working in Russia and other countries as labour migrants with the promise of good pay, the Kyrgyz analyst believes.
A slowdown in the Russian economy has shrunk job opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Central Asian migrant workers, while a weak ruble has depressed the earnings raised by those who still manage to find jobs.
While agreeing that other Central Asian governments will utilise the threat of IS and other Islamic groups to step up a crackdown on moderate believers and their political opponents, this is impossible in Kyrgyzstan where large-scale protests have toppled two presidents in the past decade. “The public will not allow the government to launch a witch hunt against political opponents using some terrorists and extremists,” Medetbekov tells bne IntelliNews. “The government will not resort to this either because we have strong civil and public control over the government,” he says.