If one listens to ISAF and to Central Asian governments, there are overlapping networks of jihadist terrorists subverting Afghanistan and Tajikistan, if not the whole region. Those networks, it is said, link the Taleban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) with al-Qaeda and other Pakistan-based groups. Few of these reports are substantiated by details that can be independently scrutinised. But they are often picked up by media and other outlets, presented as proven facts and amplified by repetition. This creates a data mist that helps Central Asian governments to exaggerate, if not invent, events asserting groups are present and concealing their own repressive policies against all manner of opposition forces. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig, continuing his series from Tajikistan, looks at the ‘Afghan connection’ in such reporting and weighs its substance. IMU fighters in Afghanistan; they are said to partner with Afghan Taleban. Are they a threat to Tajikistan? The Tajik government thinks yes and has blacklisted them. Photo: IMU website, via LWJ
He delivers his in-depth analysis in two parts. Part 1, published today, deals with the perception and presentation of the jihadist threat in Tajikistan, finding that much of the jihadist activity is home-grown, not instigated from abroad. Part 2 will deal specifically with the role of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Taleban-IMU nexus. Find it online tomorrow.
After Moscow signed a 30 year agreement for a military base in Tajikistan, the leading Russian news agency, RIA-Nowosti, quoted Russian and international analysts in October 2012 as saying that, “the price includes [the] risk of placing Russian servicemen under fire” in an expected “Taleban face-off … after the US forces pull out of Afghanistan in 2014”.
Regional governments and some foreign terrorism analysts are blowing the same alarmist horn. During the current UN General Assembly, the foreign ministers of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan warned of “serious threats to regional and global security from terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking emanating out of Afghanistan after 2014”. In late September 2013, at the summit of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in Sochi, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon already had mentioned “growing threats from Afghanistan” because of “its weak military security [situation]” and said that while three or four years ago drug trafficking had been the “main threat”, now it was the “movement of centres of insecurity” to the CSTO borders. Already in 2010, Stratfor, a US-based think tank, wrote:
The Afghan question also looms large. With the United States and NATO set to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan … Central Asian countries will face a much less restrained Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s relative weakness in northern Afghanistan will mitigate this threat, but the region will nonetheless be in limbo after NATO withdraws. For their part, Central Asia’s militants hope the Western withdrawal and the hoped-for Taliban rise to power will restore Afghanistan as a militant safe haven from which to pursue their home-country ambitions.
Newsweek’s Daily Beast blog provided another version of an overspill, already apparently happening in 2010. They quoted a “Taliban sub-commander in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz”:
… jihadist allies from Central Asia have started heading home … encouraged by relentless American drone attacks against the fighters’ back bases in Pakistan’s tribal areas … they’re expanding their range across the unguarded northern Afghan border into Tajikistan to create new Taliban sanctuaries there, assist Islamist rebels in the region, and potentially imperil the Americans’ northern supply lines … [beginning] in late winter 2009.… In Kunduz they joined up with fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
Even some Afghan politicians, otherwise eager to build up an “everything under control” narrative, have predicted that Taleban “could penetrate into the Central Asian states such as Tajikistan” from Pakistan, as the spokesman of Badakhshan’s provincial governor did in late August 2013.
On the other side, many call for caution. Scott Radnitz and Marlene Laruelle, for example, two US-based Central Asia analysts, call predictions of a violent overspill from Afghanistan into Central Asia “alarmism … based on faulty assumptions”. In an article for the National Interest, the two authors add that, “it is of course important for government agencies to prepare for any eventuality, including the most dire. Yet … proponents of the ‘spillover’ are highly selective in the data points they bring to bear [and neglect] details such as culture, history and political practices.”(1)
The first question is whether violence is already spilling over from Afghanistan into Tajikistan or other parts of Central Asia and, if so, how big a problem this is. The second question is whether relatively recent unrest in Tajikistan – mainly between 2008 and 2011 – has been strongly influenced by external factors and foreign fighters or whether it is largely home-grown. The third question is whether a strong joint jihadist network is covering northern Afghanistan, that is, areas close to the border with Tajikistan and other Central Asian republics, and why the influence and activity of one particular organisation is getting a lot of coverage in this context: the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. A fourth question is whether “the Taleban and its associate militant groups have increasingly come to see Tajikistan as a significant arena,” as the author of a report funded by the OSCE and published in December 2012 claims, or whether they are even active there.
Another question – whether the Central Asian populations have significantly changed their earlier negative attitude towards Afghan militants – has already been answered with a negative, in the first part of our Tajikistan series (here and earlier reporting here). The Taleban movement does not have much appeal to Tajiks, even those who might harbour less-secular inclinations than prescribed by the Tajik constitution. The cultural-linguistic barrier seems to stand in the way of such a relationship and even the Taleban’s relative success in making inroads into northern Afghanistan’s Tajik and Uzbek clergy and population (see an AAN study about the ‘insurgents of the north’ here) has not changed this situation.
Tajikistan’s terrorist threat list
If one believes the government of President Imam Ali Rahmon, the potential terrorist threat to Tajikistan is high. Since 2001, the country’s prosecutor general has banned at least 14 ‘extremist’ organisations (no official Tajik website has the list; see media reporting here and here). Not all of them are jihadist or even Muslim; the list also includes Jehovah’s Witnesses. The OSCE report already quoted divides the ‘Islamic’ groups into three sub-categories:
- “Jihadi groups that have a well-known history of armed opposition to what they perceive as un-Islamic governments”: the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), al-Qaeda, the Islamic Party of Turkestan/Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (IPT/ETIM),(2) Lashkar-e Tayba (LeT) and the Taleban; another group that was banned in May 2012 after the report came out, Jamaat Ansarullah would also belong in this category;
- “political Islamist groups” that “advocate profound societal changes based on their interpretation of Islam”: Jamaat-e Tablighi, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezb ul-Tahrir and the Salafiya;
- “relatively unknown and obscure local Tajik groups”: Dawa and Tojikiston-e Ozod.(3)
The Tajik government’s list reveals some oddities. On one hand, some groups that it had cracked down on earlier are missing, such as a local one called Bayat (Oath of Allegiance) that emerged in 1997. About Bayat, the OSCE report says that, “some have speculated that … it doesn’t even exist and was an invention of the security apparatus”. Analysts in Dushanbe told AAN something similar about Ansarullah: it might have been infiltrated by the security forces and used to drive a wedge into the underground Islamist forces; they point out that the group’s website (www.irshod.com) is still operating and was when the author last checked on 19 September.(4) Another oddity is that although two groups called Jundullah and Mujohedin-e Tajikistan (see reporting here and here) have reportedly either carried out attacks or had members arrested, they apparently are not on the list of banned groups.
On the other hand, at least four of the groups included are not really active in the country’s territory: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Pakistani group Lashkar-e Tayba, the Islamic Party of Turkestan/Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (IPT/ETIM) and the Taleban. The inclusion of IPT/ETIM – a group mainly active in Xinjiang, a Muslim-inhabited province of China, and cooperating with the Pakistani Taleban (TTP), the Haqqani network and the IMU in Pakistan’s tribal areas – can be read as a nod towards Beijing. For the Chinese leadership, ‘separatism’ is one of the three ‘evils’ to be jointly fought with the Central Asian republics in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.(5) Al-Qaeda and LeT are banned as terrorist entities by the UN, the US and the EU – in contrast to the Taleban and the Muslim Brotherhood. The list also does not specify whether ‘Taleban’ means the Afghan Islamic Movement of the Taleban (now mostly calling itself the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’) or the Pakistani Tehrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan (TTP).
Al-Qaeda can only be counted as active in Tajikistan if one accepts the definition that the IMU or IPT/ETIM or both are its ‘associates’, as many terrorism analysts and governments do.(6) Meanwhile, the only reports about the Muslim Brotherhood and the Afghan Taleban in Tajik territory are for minor activities – and some of the cases are from far in the past, not fully confirmed or only allegations. As Tajik and foreign analysts AAN talked to in Dushanbe in August confirmed, the Muslim Brothers have never been active except that leaflets (or shabname, ‘night-letters’, here, as in Afghanistan) distributed some ten years ago were signed in the name of the Brotherhood.
As for the Taleban, Reuters cited Tajik authorities on 11 September 2010 as saying that government forces had killed “at least 20 Taleban fighters … in a clash along the border with Afghanistan” while they were attempting to enter Tajik territory. The clash, according to the report, took place on the banks and islands of the Panj river that forms the border between the two countries in that area. The ownership of some islands in the Panj river and further west in the Amu Darya is disputed due to the rivers often changing course.
The terrorism watch blog The Long War Journal (LWJ) reported that these forces attempting to enter Tajikistan were “Taliban and IMU fighters … thought to have been fleeing an ISAF and Afghan operation in Kunduz”. In the same piece, as background, the Journal added that the US (in 2010) had been hunting IMU commanders in the northern Afghan provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan, and Takhar, where the terror group had, the Journal contended, integrated its operations with the Taleban’s. IMU commanders had taken on “senior roles in the Taliban’s commander structure”, it said, and on 2 September 2010, the US had killed an IMU leader “who also served as Takhar’s deputy shadow governor”. This is only one example of how ISAF claims about Taleban-IMU links are repeated as fact. In this case, the “killed IMU leader” was a civilian known to AAN. We researched this case of mistaken identity in which he and nine other civilians – all election workers – were killed in an US air strike (read here).(7)
The 11 September 2010 border clash was not the first incident in this area. Analysts based in Dushanbe told AAN about another group of Taleban that seems to have spent a previous winter in Shurobod district (Khatlon province) in Tajik territory, an area more easily accessible from the Afghan than the Tajik side of the river. A Caucasian jihadi website, Kavkazcenter, mentioned an insurgent attack on a Tajik border post there in 2008. But the sources for that report were Tajik officials and Kavkazcenter definitely had no way to verify such reports. About more recent incidents, in May 2012 and April 2013, independent media reports do not mention insurgents any more but instead ‘armed smugglers’ (here and here).
Another case of alleged Afghan involvement on the Tajik side of Panj river was the July 2012 fighting in Khorog, the capital of Gorno Badakhshan, an autonomous Tajik region. Rather than insurgent activity, this was a conflict between both governments on the one hand and a smuggling network related to former opposition members on the other hand (see earlier AAN reporting here and here, an independent Tajik view here and Jonathan Goodhand’s 2000 study of the opium trade in Badakhshan here). Tajik officials and some Russian media, however, gave many reports that ‘rebels’ in Gorno Badakhshan had links with the Taleban on the Afghan side of the border and that eight mysterious Afghans had been arrested during the fighting (read AAN reporting here). As it turned out, these reports stood on weak evidence: four of the Afghans were working in a local garage and staying in the country on work visas.
Nobody asked why the Taleban would attack Tajik border guards, without any signs of activities deeper in Tajik territory. The answer lies in further Tajik explanations of the 11 September 2010 incident: many weapons as well as extremist literature were found on the islands. This seems to indicate that the Taleban used the island as a depot, rather than a staging ground for intrusions into Tajikistan. Assertions, like in the OSCE report, that there is a “regional dimension of the overall Jihadi struggle” and that “Tajikistan may [author’s emphasis] well be considered a legitimate target from the perspective of the Taliban because of the support of the Tajik government to ISAF” are highly exaggerated. The rare clashes along the Afghan-Tajik border are no threat to Tajikistan’s overall stability; they are no more than a local threat to Tajikistan’s border security.
Home-grown militant action
When talking about a jihadist threat, the Tajik government refers to a string of clashes between its forces and former opposition fighters that happened between 2008 and early 2011 in the Gharm region (see here, here, here) and that was characterised as the “most serious political violence in Tajikistan for ten years”. These clashes allegedly had an Afghan connection which, however, remained dodgy for the lack of convincing facts. A central figure in this fighting was Mullo Abdullo, a former Tajik opposition commander who had rejected the 1997 Tajik peace agreement and has lived in Afghanistan after that.
In 2010, Abdullo reportedly returned to Tajikistan with 100 fighters – an exaggerated figure – and was joined by local ex-commanders and fighters.(8) The government sent in troops, most of the commanders involved were killed, including Abdullo, and many fighters arrested. At various times, these fighters were described by the Tajik government as IMU members or IMU-affiliated and as including Russian nationals from Dagestan, Chechnya and even St Petersburg. When, on 20 August 2010, 46 of those arrested broke out of the high security prison belonging to the State Committee for National Security (SCNS), located about 150 metres from the president’s official residence (already a surprising event), the group was now also said to include “Afghans and two Uzbeks” according to official Tajik sources. While the escapees dispersed, some reportedly to Afghanistan, another local group of fighters ambushed a Tajik army convoy one month later, killing as many as 35 troops. The government claimed the fighters had been assisted by the IMU, saying that an IMU spokesman had phoned a radio station in Dushanbe confirming this. Tajik officials claimed further – but “without providing evidence”, according to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) – that Mullo Abdullo had been appointed al-Qaeda chief for Tajikistan.(9)
Western reporting picked up and repeated these allegations without much apparent hesitation. For Stratfor, the prison escape was “conducted” by the IMU; the Jamestown Foundation, another terrorism watchdog, in contrast, saw a Jamaat-e Ansarullah connection. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) said the IMU connection was “possible if the likes of Mullo Abdullo have spent time in Pakistan’s frontier provinces” – the ‘if’ in this sentence remains the last word on the matter. There is only one, relatively obscure report that Abdullo “supported the IMU” in Afghanistan in 1999 and 2000 but none that he really went to Pakistan. The Tajik government also refused to return the corpses of the killed fighters to their families, so checking their real identities became even less possible. According to Jamestown, a group tried as IMU members in a Tajik court, in April 2012, were exclusively ethnic Tajiks from northern Tajikistan. Their IMU membership was likely established by forced confessions. “Torture, beatings and other ill-treatment are routine in places of detention in Tajikistan and thrive in a climate of widespread corruption and impunity,” Amnesty International wrote in a report in 2012.
The Tajik fighting was over by January 2011 (here a report about the last incident). Since then, not a single further incident with IMU participation was reported from any Central Asian country by any of the major terrorism watch websites such as LWJ, the Small Wars Journal, Jamestown or the CTC Sentinel of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point.
But then, in September 2010, Tajikistan’s first-ever reported suicide car bomb attack happened and the previously unknown group Jamaat-e Ansarullah emerged. The attack occurred in Khojand in the country’s north, though, far from areas known for militant activity either in the 1990s or more recently. According to official Tajik sources, another suicide attack followed in March 2012, close to Dushanbe’s central bus terminal. Analysts in Dushanbe told AAN that whether they actually had been suicide attacks was not fully established in either case. (10)
Authorities blamed the IMU again, but responsibility for the Khojand attack was later claimed by Jamaat-e Ansarullah. In 2011, an Ansarullah video surfaced with a “bearded man wearing Afghan-style clothes” uttering threats against “advocates of democracy … who pray and fast but are non-believers” nevertheless. In the most recent case, when Tajik authorities said they had arrested ten members of a terrorist group on 23 September 2013 who had allegedly planned to blow up “four gates to Dushanbe as well as buildings of the Ministry of Interior and the State Committee for National Security and several other government buildings in Dushanbe,” again an IMU-connection was alleged. Tajik authorities claimed the group’s leader had been trained in IMU camps in Pakistan.
The already quoted 2001 ICG report says what many observers have thought and written: the Tajik fighting that had ended in early 2011 was not initiated by any jihadis but was an attempt “by the president to remove one of the last [Tajik opposition] veterans with any regional influence.” Jamestown adds that, “in many of the recent terrorism cases in Tajikistan, prosecutors have alleged a nexus [with] Pakistani-based militant groups… Given the corruption and politicization of Tajikistan’s judicial system, such claims are hard to verify.” Christian Bleuer, one of the best independent Central Asia observers, summarises that, “much of the violence in Tajikistan is tied to local issues and has few, if any, strong connections to international networks of radical Islamists.” Talking up such connections is an attempt to legitimise a domestic top-down power struggle as part of the fight against international jihadism. The role, and even the existence, of Jamaat-e Ansarullah, meanwhile, remains obscure.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020