Tajikistan’s top prosecutor decided this week to flesh out the official explanation for where the country’s volunteers to militant groups in Middle Eastern war zones are coming from.
As General Prosecutor Yusuf Rahmon explained in an interview to state-owned newspaper Jumuhuriat, some 85 percent of the fighters are former migrant laborers.
Rahmon presented a few anecdotal cases as evidence for his assertion. One story involved a group of Tajik citizens, who the prosecutor named as Abdurasul Ahmadov, A. Sattarov, an imam at a mosque in the northern Sughd region, and D. Tohirov. All of them are said to have come under the sway of an alleged Islamic State group member in Moscow in May.
The prosecutor said the suspected recruiter, who he identified as Ilyos Malaboyev, was not intent on enlisting people to fight in Syria, but rather to join up with other alleged IS militants already inside Tajikistan.
“They returned to the motherland, and at the Abuzari Ghifori mosque in the Jabbar Rasulov district (in Sughd), they tried to lure their countrymen into IS. They were detained and a criminal case has now been initiated against them,” Rahmon said.
As in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the government of Tajikistan says it is undertaking strenuous outreach initiatives to discourage young people from being led astray. Rahmon is particularly concerned about Salafist movements.
Believers in Salafism do not acknowledge the legitimacy of other forms of Islamic worship, including Shi'ism and Sufism. The current first appeared in Tajikistan in the early 2000s, having been brought back to the country by Tajiks that had taken refuge in Pakistan during the civil war.
Rahmon accused Salafist groups of invariably serving as a stepping stone to IS membership, although the authorities’ relationship with this particular current is a curious one.
The movement was banned after a wave of mysterious blasts in Dushanbe in 2009. The Supreme Court decision banning the activities of the Salafist movement led to a sudden drop in the organization’s public profile. The movement was designated as extremist in 2014.
Even so, the recognized leader of Tajikistan’s Salafists, the now-jailed Muhammadi Rahmatullo, was still having articles published in newspapers as recently as last year. One piece was in published in outlets owned by the government, as well as on the website of the ruling National Democratic Party of Tajikistan. It didn’t hurt that the article in question was devoted to slamming the opposition and now-banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.
The government claims it has managed to bring 147 people back home from war zones, although little is known of the fate of these people. Another 34 Tajik citizens seeking to travel abroad and join radical groups were detained at the border, according to Rahmon.
Rahmon said in the interview that foreign religious educational establishments are a primary source of concern and that since 2010, more than 3,000 Tajiks “illegally” studying at religious colleges abroad have been repatriated.
Tajikistan’s antipathy toward social media is well documented, but there are emergent pieces of technology that will prove far more complicated to contain.
Rahmon said that terrorist organizations make ample use of Zello, a mobile phone app that uses Internet connections to enable communal, ham radio-style transmissions.
Again, he offered examples and names.
Kudratullo Musulmonov and Dilovar Faizaliev were posing as migrant laborers in Russia from June through December 2015, when they were used Zello to send out appeals for volunteers to join the ranks of IS. Rahmon said they were later detained, but did not specify where and how.
Keeping tabs on Muslims inside the country may be a little easier.
On March 28, Dushanbe Mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev issued a decree to install close-circuit cameras and metal detectors in the city’s mosques — at the mosques’ own expense — in what has been cast as a preventative measure. The goal is ostensibly to ensure that mosque-goers not act excessively Muslim.
In other news of devout Muslims being harassed, Payom.net, a website run by the IRPT, claimed in a March 28 report that some 105 people in Sughd believed to have studied at religious colleges abroad were arrested around the period of President Emomali Rahmon’s recent visit to the region. According to the website’s unnamed sources, some were released against payment of a bribe, while others have been sentenced to time in prison.
The same article contends that around 100 people were detained in the southern Khatlon region in March, also because of their personal history of study abroad.
Even reports of such sustained pressure against pious Muslims have to be worrying. The authorities typically react, when obliged to do so, by denying the fact outright, although this does not always prove possible.
In early March, a few dozen young people were detained around the town of Rogun — site of a major dam project — again on suspicion of being adherents to Salafist movements.
Their relatives later besieged a local police station in the Firdavsi district, where the men were being detained, which compelled police to admit that some detentions had indeed taken place. The described detainees as “associating with terrorist-extremists.”
All the same, the Interior Ministry tried to bluff its way out of by staunchly denying media reports of local discontent, which were confirmed to EurasiaNet.org by residents of the area in question. Pictures have also been widely circulated showing groups of people massing around the police station building.
The ministry's denial, which is well worth reading in full, was faintly comical in its factual analysis.
“As far as this incident is concerned, the Interior Ministry states that the [reports] do not correspond to reality inasmuch as they do not indicate the source of the information,” the police statement read. “None of the close relatives of the detained or witnesses gathered at the police station in the Firdavsi district since unsanctioned meetings are banned under the laws of Tajikistan, and the people are aware of this.”