PANNIER: Rising prominence of Tajiks in terrorist attacks abroad may reflect loss of hope back home

PANNIER: Rising prominence of Tajiks in terrorist attacks abroad may reflect loss of hope back home
Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki, the Tajikistan-born suicide bomber whom the ISKP said attacked Kabul’s Sikh temple in June 2022. / Telegram
By Bruce Pannier January 12, 2024

In the short time that has elapsed since late December, citizens of Tajikistan have been accused of plotting or carrying out terrorist attacks in Austria, Germany, Iran and Afghanistan.

Why Tajik nationals abroad now seem to be increasingly involved with Islamic extremist groups is a curious matter, but part of the reason might be conditions back home in Tajikistan.

The political and socio-economic situation in Tajikistan is abysmal and it appears that the wretched trajectory might not change for many years, even decades.

Tajikistan has a population of more than 10mn people and it is the poorest country in Central Asia. Over one million Tajik citizens need to go abroad to find work and the remittances they send back account for some 48% of Tajikistan’s GDP. That makes Tajikistan the most remittance-dependent country in the world.

Attacks in Iran
On January 3, two suicide bombers attacked a commemorative ceremony in the southern Iranian city of Kerman for top general Qasem Soleimani who was killed in a US drone strike in 2020.

At least 94 people were killed and nearly 300 others were injured.

The next day, the Islamic State (IS) militant group claimed responsibility for the attack and, on January 5, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry said one of the bombers was a Tajik national.

The IS and its branch in Afghanistan – the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) – have staged attacks in Iran before and Tajik nationals were involved.

In August last year, an IS lone militant identified as Rahmatollah Nowruzov from Tajikistan entered the Shah Cheragh mausoleum in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz. He shot two people dead and wounded seven others.

In late October 2022, an IS militant identified as Tajik national Sobhan Kamrouni opened fire at the Shah Cheragh mausoleum, killing at least 15 people and wounding more than 30 others.

Twenty-six people were arrested in connection with that attack; all were citizens of either Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, or Tajikistan.

Cathedral plots in Germany and Austria
On December 23, police in Germany said they detained four men in the town Wesel, near the Dutch border, while police in Austria said they had detained three men in Vienna.

Three of those detained in Germany were released, but the fourth, a 30-year-old Tajik man identified only as “Muhammadrajab B.,” was kept in custody and police said he was involved in a plot to stage an attack at the Cologne Cathedral during the holiday season.

On December 31, police detained three more people, described only as being ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, in the western German cities of Duisburg, Herne, and Noervenich after uncovering evidence that the three were linked to the Tajik man detained in Wesel.

Police in Austria detained four people in connection with a plan to stage an attack at St. Stephens Cathedral in Vienna.

Those detained in Germany and Austria were part of one group that German authorities said intended to carry out terrorist attacks for ISKP.

Tajik fighters in Afghanistan
On December 31, Afghanistan’s acting Defence Minister Muhammad Yaqoob said that among the foreign fighters killed or captured in Afghanistan in 2023, the largest groups were citizens of Tajikistan and Pakistan.

Yaqoob said in 2023 more than 20 Pakistanis had been killed “in various security incidents” in Afghanistan, but claimed during this same period “dozens” of Tajik nationals were “killed or arrested”.

The Taliban defence chief did not provide any details about the Tajik citizens killed or captured in Afghanistan, so it was unclear to which group or groups these Tajiks belonged.

Since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, ISKP has expanded its propaganda aimed at recruiting Uzbeks and Tajiks in northern Afghanistan and across the border in Central Asia.

Tajik nationals have carried out several high-profile ISKP attacks in Afghanistan since August 2021. 

A Tajik national ISKP identified as Abdul Jabbar took part in a December 2022 attack on a Kabul hotel where Chinese businessmen regularly stayed, and ISKP said a Tajik citizen using the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki participated in an attack on the Sikh temple in Kabul in June 2022.

As of mid-January, Tajik authorities had not commented publicly on the recent incidents involving Tajik citizens in Austria, Germany, Iran or Afghanistan.

Why Tajik nationals?
Citizens of all five Central Asian countries are known to have joined Islamic extremist groups in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Most seemed to come from Uzbekistan, which is not surprising since, with nearly 37mn people, Uzbekistan is by some distance the most populous country in Central Asia.

The first Islamic militant group to appear in Central Asia was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which from 1999-2001 was active in the area where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan meet.

Uzbek nationals later joined, and in some cases founded, Islamic extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. Some Uzbek citizens, meanwhile, are in the ISKP in Afghanistan.

Gulmurod Halimov (Credit: screenshot).

Tajiks were previously less prominent, with the exception of Gulmurod Halimov, a former commander of special forces in Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry who defected to the Islamic State in 2015 and eventually became the terrorist group’s “minister of war.”

Halimov’s case is interesting since he was not a strongly religious person before joining IS.

In a video released shortly after he joined the terrorist group in Syria, Halimov blamed the injustice and corruption of the Tajik government for his decision to join IS.

There are many reasons an individual might join an extremist group.

But it might be more than a coincidence that when Uzbek citizens were prominent among Islamic extremist groups, Islam Karimov was Uzbekistan’s president.

Karimov was Uzbekistan’s first president, and his government was increasingly repressive until his death in the late summer of 2016. In the last years before Karimov died, there was no hope there would be any changes for the better in Uzbekistan.

Karimov’s successor, Uzbekistan’s current president Shavkat Mirziyoyev, entered office promising real change.

Mirziyoyev has, for example, eased the tight control over religion imposed by Karimov.

Since 2015, Tajikistan’s government has increasingly resembled the Karimov government that existed during the dark final years of the strongman’s life.

In late 2015, it banned the country’s largest opposition party – the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan – and, since then, it has cracked down on any group that could potentially offer any challenge to the current government.

In Tajikistan today, the majority of people have no hope that changes for the better are on the way.

Worse,  it has become clear in the last decade that Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, in power since 1992, is grooming his eldest son Rustam, 36, to be the next president, so there is next to no optimism that for positive change will be seen in coming years.

And faced by this realisation that Tajikistan is almost sure to continue on its current path for possibly decades to come, Tajik citizens are playing roles in militant groups, just as Uzbek nationals did when Karimov was in power exercising an iron grip.