MOSCOW BLOG: How the ISIS attack in Russia puts Tajiks under pressure

MOSCOW BLOG: How the ISIS attack in Russia puts Tajiks under pressure
Tajik gunman in Russian court after receiving beating from security services / CC: Russian Court
By bne IntelIiNews March 28, 2024

The attack at Crocus City Hall in Krasnogorsk, Moscow on the evening of March 22, executed by Tajik migrants and claimed by ISIS-K Khorasan, a group recognised as a terrorist organisation in Russia, has sparked a complex and multi-layered debate within Russia and elsewhere about national security, migration policies and ethnic relations, something which the Putin regime is now having to tackle amid the quagmire of the war in Ukraine.

The attack, which resulted in 139 deaths and numerous injuries, prompted an outpouring of both solidarity and suspicion of the growing ethnic Muslim minority in the country and also comes at possibly the worst time for inter-ethnic relations.

In the aftermath, Russian citizens of Tajik descent, alongside the broader Tajik diaspora, have found themselves in a precarious situation. The advisory from a spokesperson for Tajiks in Russia to avoid public gatherings and stay indoors during evenings, as confirmed by Farukh Mirzoev, head of the Tajik diaspora and the House of Peoples of the Urals association, reflects a fear of potential nationalistic retaliations. To compound the threat now perceived by Russians, employers have also asked Tajik employees for updated personal information, an action that, while pragmatic on one level, could potentially cause further inter-ethnic strife in 2024.

Cancelling taxi rides

Fayzula Azimov, deputy head of the Payvand Tajik Cultural Centre in Tyumen, told URA: “We have a group where citizens of Tajikistan living in Tyumen communicate. We condemn those who attacked Crocus.

“We also discuss the fact that there is no need to ‘rock the boat’, so to speak. You need to be prudent and understanding about the possibility of people's negativity.”

He added they urge Tajiks to “be patient with this”. 

“There have already been cases. For example, for those who work as taxi drivers: people cancel orders. Someone is saying something to someone in a minibus. But in response, you need to remain silent, that’s all,” Azimov said.

This Russian scrutiny is not limited to interpersonal interactions; it extends into policy discussions and societal debates. The terrorist attack has reignited conversations about Russia's open-border policy with Central Asian countries, a policy that allows Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) citizens of these nations visa-free entry into Russia for up to 90 days. While economically beneficial, allowing for the flow of labour and financial remittances that support the Central Asian economies, this policy is now questioned for its security implications.

The ease with which terrorists could potentially exploit these open borders to infiltrate Russia and provoke radicalisation among the impoverished migrant population is a significant concern.

Watching their backs

The response from the Tajik community in Russia has been one of unequivocal condemnation of the attack and an expressed desire to stand in solidarity with the Russian people. Tajik nationals brought flowers to the memorial for the victims, and public statements from community leaders said that terrorists have “no nationality, no homeland, no religion”, echoing Tajik President Emomali Rahmon's and Russian President Vladimir Putin's earlier comments.

However, the incident has inevitably led to increased calls for tighter control over migrants, not just from Tajikistan but across Central Asia, reflecting a broader geopolitical and security challenge for Russia. Despite calls for calm from other quarters, a potential cascade effect against the community is now a real possibility. Meanwhile, the concern of the Russian leadership is the need for imported labour. Labour migration primarily from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over the past 20 years has always been met with a level of scepticism by many Slavic Russians, with these groups, along with the Kazakhs, sharing the biggest remittances market historically since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Christendom vs Islamic State

In November 2023, Orthodox Pope Patriarch Kirill warned that “the desire to get cheap labour for the sake of short-term, by and large, economic benefits should not attract to our Fatherland a huge number of people belonging to a different culture, who often do not speak Russian and have no respect for Russia, to the peoples inhabiting it."

However, Kirill chose his expressions carefully since Article 282 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation prohibits inciting ethno-religious hatred. Still, some of his compatriots convey his words more crudely, violating the law.

Meanwhile, member of the Commission of the Presidential Council of the Russian Federation on Interethnic Relations Alexander Dyukov's revelations about how Russian-Tajik schools in Tajikistan teach the history of Russian occupation illustrate the deep-seated angst of identity and memory that influence contemporary attitudes toward integration and assimilation.

These educational policies, intended to foster a smoother integration of Tajiks into Russian society, may not have the intended effect if they do not address the nuanced historical grievances and cultural differences that shape the migrant experience.

“[T]here is absolutely no doubt that, after listening to stories about Russian occupation and colonialism, graduates will integrate perfectly into Russian society. An excellent plan, reliable, like a Swiss watch,” Dyukov told Utrenniy Iug (Morning South).

Dyukov's findings challenge the efficacy of the Russian education system, revealing a curriculum that stresses the narrative of Russian occupation, colonialism and anti-colonial struggle in the history of the Tajik people. This curriculum, despite being taught under the aegis of federal Russian educational standards, incorporates a "national component" that presents a starkly different view of the historical relationship between Russia and Tajikistan than might have been anticipated by the architects of this educational initiative.

Meanwhile, buoyed by their ethnic compatriots in Iran with words from the 1970s as “Azadi” (freedom) and “Enqelab” meaning revolution, it starts to become clear how this milkshake of culture clashes is compounded by the Rahmon regime’s ineptitude at providing work opportunities or economic growth. These sentiments imported from Iran, have made Russia the belligerent, in the same way the Iranians see the US and Britain for controlling their country’s affairs from the 18th century onwards.

Shi’ites vs Sunnis

Tajik nationals — who are mostly Sunni — have been linked to a series of terrorist attacks across different countries, marking a concerning trend of international terrorism. This includes an attack in Iran, despite the historical and linguistic links between the two countries. In late October 2022, a Tajik national associated with the Islamic State carried out a deadly shooting at a shrine in Iran, resulting in at least 15 deaths and injuring more than 30 individuals. This incident is part of a broader pattern of extremist activities involving Tajik nationals in foreign countries.

Tajik citizen Rahmatollah Norouzov, a 25-year-old, was the sole individual involved in the second attack in less than one year on the Shah Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz. He was caught by worshippers during his shooting rampage in the atrium of the complex. Previously, UN experts had warned that ISIS represents the most significant terrorist threat in Afghanistan and the region, noting an increase in its operational capabilities. Norouzov was only able to mingle in the local area due to his ability to speak fluent Persian, with many locals probably likely assuming the attackers were Afghans, as many migrants visit shrines in Iran. 

The connection between these attacks reveals the transnational nature of the terrorist threat posed by radicalised individuals from Tajikistan. The involvement of Tajik nationals in such high-profile terrorist acts in Russia and Iran underscores the challenges faced by international security agencies in combating extremism that crosses borders.

Iran and Tajikistan have developed a strong and mutually beneficial relationship characterised by a series of high-level visits and significant economic and infrastructural collaborations. In May 2022, Iran opened a drone factory in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, which marks an essential step in their defence cooperation and signals Iran's broader "look to the East" foreign policy shift.

Iran has emerged as a major investor in Tajikistan, second only to China. Iran has undertaken several major projects in Tajikistan, including the Anzob Tunnel, the Sangtuda-2 Hydroelectric Power Plant, and the Rogun Dam. Also, plans were unveiled in 2011 for a $500mn Iranian-funded cement production plant in Tajikistan.

Although Iran and Tajikistan have been strengthening their ties and making significant investments in each other, recent incidents across both countries have highlighted a unique weak point where Russian and Iranian society is left wide open to ISIS-K and other Tajik based outfits which may come from the Central Asian country.