Security forces in Tajikistan, already spooked by a burst of violence last week at a remote border outpost, were put on high alert over the weekend after mistaking hunters for armed militants.
The panic prompted the authorities to place the town of Tursunzoda, which is 50 kilometers west of the capital, Dushanbe, and a few minutes drive east of the Uzbek border, under lockdown for much of November 9.
Local residents reporting seeing helicopters hovering above the city, and the border crossing into Uzbekistan was closed temporarily.
Asia-Plus news website cited an unnamed security source as saying the alarm was raised when residents reported spotting suspicious armed individuals wearing black outfits in the Shirkent national park, which is just north of Tursunzoda.
In addition to the helicopters, armored vehicles and troops were dispatched to the area. Security checkpoints were erected along the Dushanbe-Tursunzoda road and remained there from 10 a.m. until the evening. Cars passing through were searched and passengers quizzed about their purpose of travel.
The worry was for nothing, however.
“It turned out at the people who passed on information to Dushanbe about ‘suspicious armed people in black’ had confused local hunters for possible terrorists,” the security official told Asia-Plus.
The security concerns prompted the cancellation of a concert by popular Uzbek singer Sevinch Muminova, who had been expected to perform in Tursunzoda on November 10. Concert organizers said they would refund ticket holders.
The jittery reaction to the reports of suspect individuals roaming the countryside appears to have been incited by the bloody incident that unfolded in another location in western Tajikistan on November 6, when a group of armed militants is said to have mounted an attack on a remote border outpost.
According to the official account, 15 suspected assailants were killed, along with a border guard and a police officer. The attack occurred in a near-border area in the Rudaki district.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the incident, although it stated that 10 government troops were killed, rather than the two claimed by officials. RFE/RL’s Tajik service has said it has identified at least six fatalities among government personnel.
The militant group also released video footage showing six people in masks pledging their allegiance to Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, the new leader of the Islamic State, who has taken over the role from the late Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a U.S. special forces raid in October. The statement released by the group through its Amaq news agency identifies the people in the video as the perpetrators of the border outpost attack.
The Prosecutor General’s Office said on November 8 that it has initiated a criminal investigation into the events, but it has provided few details about what occurred.
The government’s thinly detailed narrative is that a group of around 20 people crossed illegally from Afghanistan on November 3 and then made their way to the border outpost. Officials have not speculated about the ultimate goal of the group.
Prague-based news website Akhbor cited an unnamed security services officer with a fleshed-out version of the same story. The officer said that the group of attackers was in fact much more numerous and that they bought knives and axes after reaching a village in southern Tajikistan. The same source said the alleged militants then made their way to their target on dilapidated back roads that were chosen because they are largely unused and therefore free of security checkpoints.
This version of events appears to support the general thrust of the government’s story – namely, that the attackers, although Tajik nationals, had arrived on a mission from another country.
While seeking to impress on foreign donors that it is at perennial risk of incursion from militants beyond the border, Dushanbe also contrives to suggest that there is little to no risk from internal threats.
A deadly attack by a gang of young Tajik men on a group of foreign cycling tourists in July 2018 severely undermined that framework, however. Video footage surfaced at the same time showing the perpetrators vowing a pledge of allegiance in front of the Islamic State's black standard. That course of events hinted at a potentially worrying new trend for Tajikistan, whereby people could be successfully recruited by nihilistic Islamic militant groups and be compelled to carry out acts of murder without them ever leaving the country.
If the perpetrators of this latest attack prove to have been homegrown adepts to the Islamic State, this would represent an echo of the cyclist killings. For now, the government is nervously scanning the horizon for trouble while sticking to the narrative that radical Islamic violence is an imported foreign phenomenon.