Islamic Extremists Gain Ground in Tajik South
The ease with which Islamic radical groups in Tajikistan are recruiting new members indicates that the policy of arresting as many suspects as possible is not working, local analysts say
Police in the south of Tajikistan say they are seeing a rise in recruitment by banned groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Jamaat Ansarullah.
Originally from Central Asia, the IMU has operated in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan for the last decade or so, as an armed faction linked to the Taleban. Jamaat Ansarullah is believed to be an offshoot of the IMU.
Anvar Nazarov, a prosecution service official in the southern Hatlon region, announced recently that 21 members of outlawed groups like the IMU and Jamaat were arrested between January and the beginning of October, and 12 were facing prosecution. Another 16 were on the wanted list.
Many cases relate to an area in the southwest of Tajikistan, adjacent to the borders with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
Lawyer Ghulom Boboev, who has represented a number of individuals accused of some of the locals accused of joining illegal groups, says many of these cases relate to one specific village called Kizil-Nishon, in the Qubodiyon district.
The authorities view Kizil-Nishon as a hotbed of IMU activity. In January 2013, district government chief Abdulmumin Ulfatov reported an upsurge in militant recruitment there, as part of a broader IMU effort to infiltrate southern Tajikistan. That same month, the State Committee for National Security put out a statement warning that the IMU was trying to get fighters across the border with Afghanistan to carry out attacks in Tajikistan. (See also Central Asia at Risk From Post-2014 Afghanistan.)
The government tends to stress external factors like the undoubted threat posed by Central Asian militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it tackles the problem head-on by arresting and jailing anyone suspected of extremist sympathies. But experts on religious affairs and security say the government could be doing a lot more to address the causes of radicalisation, which are often economic.
Hatlon has always been one of the poorest parts of a chronically poor country, and unemployment is high.
“What is needed is to identify the root causes of these crimes and do something about them, rather than regarding every villager as a criminal and taking him to court,” the chairman of Kizil-Nishon’s village council, Hojinematullo Muhammadsaidov, said.
Muhammadsaidov acknowledged that some people in the south had been radicalised, although he said this often happened when they were away from home, either studying in the capital Dushanbe or working in Russia.
Shohzod Rahimov, who heads the department for youth affairs in Hatlon region, said the authorities recognised that unemployment was a major concern.
In one initiative, he said, 25 young people from low-income families had received full funding to pursue university courses. “Of course it isn’t much, but these are just the first steps. We will continue these efforts,” he said.
Generally, however, officials tend to place all the blame on young people who get ensnared by extremist groups.
“These are young men who don’t want to study or get a vocational education, and who want to avoid conscription,” the interior ministry’s regional chief in Hatlon, General Anvar Tagoymurodov, said at a recent meeting with police under his command. He also said “a lack of parental oversight” also contributed to young people joining extremist groups.
Mirzomuddin Ikromov, an expert on religious affairs, suspects that the official policy of handing down long prison sentences is designed as a warning to parents as well as to the offenders themselves.
In a study on youth radicalisation published this October, Safovudin Jaborov, a lecturer at Dushanbe’s Russian-Tajik University, found that local issues were more of a cause than factors like the spill-over effect from Afghanistan.
Jaborov also said excessive restrictions on religious practice were driving young people from moderate forms of Islam to more radical groups.
One law dating from 2009 criminalises any kind of religious activity that is not registered with state authorities, bans private religious education, and limits the number and size of mosques. Another law from 2011 bans minors from attending organised religious events. This means under-18s are forbidden to attend mosques.
According to Jaborov, such restrictions on open practice are likely to turn young people towards more secretive groups, which are often active on the internet where they can be embraced by radical groups.
The Islamic Rebirth Party, an opposition group that operates legally in Tajikistan, watches the drift towards extremism with consternation.
According to Kamaraddin Afzali, who heads the party’s Hatlon branch, “The movements and parties that are permitted to operate are currently unable to satisfy the spiritual needs of young people, so they turn to things that are forbidden.”
In the battle for hearts and minds, the persuasive methods used by these “forbidden” groups are far more effective than the government’s punitive stance.
“Member of these groups are well-informed about the difficulties and problems facing local young people, and they are able to manipulate them easily,” Hatlon journalist Nosirjon Mamurzoda told IWPR.
Like others in the south, Mamurzoda believes the government should be investing in getting young people into employment, providing vocational education and then creating workplaces for them, for example by building new agricultural processing plants.
Sairahmon Nazriev is an IWPR contributor in Tajikistan.