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Countering Extremism in Tajikistan

Government tries to obstruct Islamic State recruitment with public information as well as arrests.
By Tilav Rasulzoda, Lola Olimova

In their battle to stop people going to Syria to join Islamic State militants, the authorities in Tajikistan are using a media campaign as well as the threat of prosecution.

In July 2014, Tajikistan introduced a law making it a criminal offence to fight abroad, reflecting official concerns about the numbers joining Islamic State, which has significant numbers of Central Asians in its ranks. Officials put the number of Tajik nationals at 300, although this seems to include wives and children accompanying men who have joined up to fight.

Officials have emphasised they are prepared to offer amnesty to anyone willing to return to Tajikistan voluntarily, as long as no crime has been committed.

Sharif Qurbonzoda, chief prosecutor for the northern Soghd region, says travelling to Syria is not always treated as an offence.

“We have issued instructions that [just] making a trip to such countries should not result in a criminal case against the individual concerned. A criminal case can be launched only if we have enough information and evidence to show that the individual was a member of an armed group in a foreign country,” he told reporters.

Some of those who have returned from Syria have been freed without charge. Last summer, two men from Soghd’s Spitamen district gave themselves up to the police on their return. After an investigation by the prosecution service found that they had not broken the law, they were released and are now at home working as farm labourers.

The authorities emphasise that they will prosecute where there is evidence pointing to a crime. The prosecution service has cited a figure of 85 individuals facing criminal investigation, most of them in absentia. In Soghd, Qurbonzoda said criminal cases had been launched against 35 individuals. Some had been detained while others were in Syria. In the southern Khatlon region, at least 24 locals are currently in Syria, according to the regional prosecutor’s office.

In November, 28 individuals from the Istaravshan and Kanibadam districts of Soghd were arrested on suspicion of belonging to Jamaat Ansarullah, a group that has been accused of recruiting people to go and fight for Islamic State.

In Isfara, also in the north, more than 20 people from a cluster of villages have gone to Syria, according to Obidjon Ahmedov, the district official in charge of religious affairs. Most are from one settlement, Chorkishlak.

A local resident who spoke to IWPR on condition of anonymity said the number included wives and children. It is unclear whether the move was coordinated or how they were recruited. Some seem to have left from Russia, where they would have been among the hundreds of thousands of Tajik nationals working as migrant labour.

In a bid to deter more people from going, the Tajik government strategy includes a media campaign with video messages recorded by relatives of jihadist fighters. The Khatlon regional administration has circulated an appeal signed by a group of young people calling on their countrymen fighting in Iraq and Syria to come home.

In late January, Soghd regional TV and two private channels broadcast a programme showing two men who were under arrest on suspicion of recruiting fighters for Syria. In the footage, the two admitted wanting to “liberate Muslims” and help create an Islamic state. The programme also included interviews with the men’s parents, who condemned their actions. One father expressed regret for his son’s actions and warned other parents to be vigilant.

Another programme featured the father of a man from Spitamen who was arrested last year together with nine accomplices and accused of leading a local cell of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. This group is allied with the Taleban and active in Pakistan and Afghanistan; its links with Islamic State are unclear.

Akbar Sharifov, a police spokesman in Soghd region, told IWPR that the aim of such programmes was to stop others joining extremist groups.

“In showing these people, we want to appeal to our citizens not to make the mistakes these men have made,” he said.

Abdumanon Raupov, from the village of Chorkuh in Isfara district, told IWPR that broadcasts of this kind were timely, because “the public will be made aware of the real reasons behind recruitment for the war in Syria”.

Local commentators say the people recruited by Islamic State are not always committed jihadists.

“I think they initially are offered a lot of money, and then their passports are taken away and burnt,” said Rustam Davlatshoev, a lawyer from Khatlon region. “They’re left with no choice but to obey the orders of these radical groups, under threat of execution,” he said.

Ahmedov, the official in Isfara district, said recruiters cynically exploited people’s ignorance about the situation in Syria in order to get them to take part in a conflict where “Muslims are killing Muslims.”

“These groups use the fact that people are not well-informed. Sending people to Syria has become a kind of business for them,” he said.

Nematullo Mirsaidov, a Tajik journalist who writes about religious extremism, says the people drawn to Syria fall into two groups – the true believers in jihadist ideology and those who get trapped into it by economic misfortune.

“They end up in the conflict zone due to their dire economic position at home, or if they are burdened by debt while working as labour migrants,” Mirsaidov said.

For a related story, see  Does Islamic State Threaten Central Asia?

Tilav Rasulzade is an IWPR contributor in northern Tajikistan. Lola Olimova is IWPR Tajikistan editor.

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