Tajikistan: A mystery Islamic State conversion for a hopeless young man
The government is trying to blame the exiled opposition for a deadly car attack that killed four foreign cyclists this week.
Jafariddin Yusufov’s friends and neighbors say he vanished two months before the hit-and-run incident in Tajikistan this week that killed four foreign cyclists, including two from the United States.
Yusufov, 21, is said to have told people in his hometown, Nurek, that he had got a job on the giant Roghun hydroelectric dam currently under construction. His older brother, Asliddin, who had also long been unemployed, had likewise told people he was working at the dam.
On July 31, the Interior Ministry posted grisly pictures of the brothers, their disfigured bodies laid out in a row with two other people also suspected of involvement in what has now been described as a terrorist assault.
In a video statement that has shaken people in Tajikistan, Yusufov and four other suspected co-conspirators are shown in front of the Islamic State flag declaring their allegiance to the transnational militant group.
Tajikistan’s government has, however, been throwing out claims thick and fast, muddying the waters in ways that suggest the real truth may indefinitely be kept from the public.
In a widely anticipated move, authorities on July 30, several hours before the Islamic State video came to light, announced that they were pinning the whole episode on the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT.
Until March 2015, the IRPT, an intensely quietist political grouping that avoided even inciting supporters to take part in public rallies, had two seats in parliament. In September that year, the government pinned a purported coup on the party, using that as an excuse to justify banning and persecuting an increasingly marginal force whose prominent role was only rendered possible by the peace deal that brought an end to the civil war of the 1990s.
In addition to killing four suspects, Tajik authorities have also detained another five alive. All of them were paraded on national television on the evening of July 31 to express regret over what had happened and to confess their guilt. A man called Hussein Abdusamadov was described as the leader of the hit-and-run plot. State television cited officials as claiming he had trained in a terrorist camp in Iran — an utterly Shia Islam-dominated nation where the Islamic State is not known to have any perch.
Iran denied the suggestion it was in any way linked to the attack.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran dismisses any [connection to] this terrorist attack and categorically denies that there is any military base to train terrorists inside Iran,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi was cited as saying by Mehr news agency.
Several of the suspects showed signs of considerable physical maltreatment. Abdusamadov had a badly bruised eye and other lesions. Another of the suspects bore a large swelling on the side of his face and a blackened eye, which suggested he had been beaten or involved in an altercation. Yet one more, who looked intensely disheveled and whose televised confession was heavily edited with numerous jump-cuts throughout, admitted to being a member of the IRPT.
The IRPT has claimed to be exasperated by this latest claim, saying the government is making cynical use of a real threat to further hound its opponents.
“Such an unrealistic and unethical political stance shows that Tajik authorities are not only unserious in the fight against terrorism, but [they are] also trying to use the existence and activities of some terrorist groups for [a] political purpose,” the party’s exiled representatives said in an English-language statement. “Those who have carried out this terrible event explicitly declared that they have done this crime, but the Tajik authorities shamelessly ignored it.”
Pursuing an independent investigation is being rendered impossible by the way in which the Tajik state goes about its business.
Independent media has been muzzled. And even if there were any free media, it is unclear anybody would be willing to talk to reporters openly. Yusufov’s neighbors in Nurek told Eurasianet that police began knocking at their doors within three hours of the attack. Almost everybody has been summoned to the police station to face a barrage of questions about the Yusufov brothers. People are unwilling to speak freely to media for fear of yet more intimidation – long a hallmark of how Tajikistan’s security services and police work.
The haste with which police zeroed in on the Nurek address apparently stems from the fact that a license plate from the car used in the assault was found at the scene.
Jafariddin, as rendered by schoolmates and neighbors, suggests a portrait that is highly typical for many young Tajik men. He left school at 15, although he was a good student before then, since his mother is a teacher at the local school and he did not want to embarrass her with bad grades. Neighbors said nobody has had the heart to tell the mother what has happened to her sons – she knows they have been in some kind of accident, but apparently not much else.
Having completed his basic education, Jafariddin went to a trade school, after which he spent some time, around one year, in Russia.
What awaited Jafariddin at home was unemployment and the lack of few other immediate prospects. Neighbors described him alternately as somebody who enjoyed sports, as a young man who loved life, and as somewhat withdrawn. Quite how the Islamic State link came about is unknown and nobody remembers him being especially pious.
Sharofatullo Hoshimov, an imam in Nurek, freely admitted that young people scarcely attend the local mosque. Most parishioners are in the forties and over. As to where young people are seeking their spiritual education, Hoshimov was tentative, but eventually landed on a specific culprit.
“These young people use the internet. A lot of bad things can be found on the internet, and that is what they are learning from,” he said.
Attention will turn now to whether the nations from where the killed cyclists hailed will be satisfied with Tajikistan’s approach, which has extended so far to a spree of fatal reprisals and some dubious confessions. The most incendiary confession, about apparent affiliation to the Islamic State, came from the suspects themselves.
Two of the dead, Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan, were from the U.S. and were well-known in the touring community. Another of the fatalities was 56-year-old Dutchman René Wokke, who was traveling from Bangkok to Tehran with his girlfriend, Kim Postma. She survived the attack and was treated with severe shock, according to doctors in the town of Danghara. Another fatality has been named as Hamel Markus from Switzerland. One more person gravely injured when the Daewoo Leganza struck the multinational peloton of foreign cyclists was Swiss national Marie Claire Dimend.
The U.S. Embassy has limited itself so far to commending the “Tajik authorities on their professional and quick response to the incident” and promising it will work closely on the investigation as it unfolds.