In the wake of US forces dropping a giant bomb on a Islamic State group camp in Afghanistan, unnamed officials in Tajikistan intimated to the media that there were numerous Tajik militants among the dead.
RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, cited security sources as saying that among that the main figures to perish was Shermahmad Safarov, who they described as the head of the Tajik contingent of Islamic State in Afghanistan.
The claim was politically explosive.
Safarov is also said to be the brother of Nazarmuhammad Safarov, a former top Tajik Defense Ministry official accused by the government of involvement in what the government says was an attempted coup in September 2015.
Since the authorities justified their crackdown on the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT, by linking them — in the absence of any evidence — to the purported coup, the implication was clear: the IRPT is linked to the Islamic State.
Radio Ozodi’s report cited the unnamed officials as claiming that Safarov fled from Tajikistan to Afghanistan in October 2015 in a bid to join the Taliban. According to this version, in 2016, Safarov fell out with the Taliban and instead decided to join the Islamic State group.
Others are offering alternate accounts, however.
Alim Sherzamonov, a leading figure with the Social-Democratic Party of Tajikistan in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, or GBAO, told EurasiaNet.org he has long known Safarov, back from the days of the civil war of the 1990s.
Safarov was an active fighter within the ranks of the armed opposition, and it was back then that he earned the Lion of Yazgulam monicker, inspired by the name of his home district in the Pamirs.
“In those times, a Badakhsani activists were on the side of the United Tajik Opposition — and [Shermahmad] was among them. In general, the Yazgulami were among the most active fighters in the UTO. He was close to the head of the UTO, Said Abdullo Nuri, and served as his bodyguard till his death,” Sherzamonov told EurasiaNet.org.
This version of events were confirmed by other UTO veterans.
“The Yazgulami were our most daring and brave fighters. But they were not the backbone of our armed force, because there were not that many of them. As for Shermahmad, he was brave and decent,” one veteran said on condition of anonymity.
Once the war was over, Safarov landed a job in the State Committee for National Security and rose to the rank of major.
“But starting in 2006, they began to purge the law enforcement departments of UTO fighters, whom they called mujaheddin. That is why he moved to Dushanbe and tried to get any job he could,” Sherzamonov said.
Sherzamonov said that once in Dushanbe, Safarov and his brother linked up with Abduhalim Nazarzoda, the former defense minister accused by the government of mounting the alleged September 2015 coup attempt.
In September 2015, Safarov’s brother, Nazarmuhammad, was arrested and later sentenced to 29 years in jail, according to Sherzamonov. That then became a pretext for the mass arrest of Yazgulamis involved with the UTO.
“After that, [Shermahmad] returned to Yazgulam. The Yazgulam valley was surrounded as troops tried to capture Shermahmad and his men. But the Yazgulamis would not give him up and instead resisted. This went on for a few days, and in the end, so as not to compromise his fellow people, he decided in October to cross over into Afghanistan,” Sherzamonov said.
Around the time coinciding with the period covered by Sherzamonov’s account, there were indeed scattered reports of unrest in the Pamirs, but in the absence of any reliable information, it was assumed this might be a show of protest about the recent decision to ban the IRPT.
Sherzamonov said Safarov had no choice but to make for Afghanistan.
“Politicians go to Europe, where they can get political asylum. But fighters do not have that choice, so going to Afghanistan was the only way he had of remaining alive,” he said.
Since that time, Safarov has apparently been in touch with his relatives in Tajikistan. But Sherzamonov said it was unlikely his old ally would have agreed to join any extremist organizations.
Brought up as a Sunni taught to live peaceably among the mainly Ismaili Shiite community in the Pamirs, Safarov was a poor fit for groups distinguished for their violent intolerance toward Muslims of different stripes.
Meanwhile, another opposition figure, the Moscow-based leader of the Vatandor movement, Dodojon Atovulloyev, claimed to EurasiaNet.org, citing his own anonymous and undisclosed sources, that Safarov was killed on April 7 by a US drone in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province.
“[His location] was given away by Afghan troops, and the American drones eliminated them in coordination with their Tajik colleagues,” Atovulloyev claimed.