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Tajikistan: Islamic Militancy No Phantom Menace

Death of veteran militant leader proves truth of warnings that fighters were infiltrating from Afghanistan.
By John MacLeod

John MacLeod

John MacLeod
IWPR Senior Editor

Shortly before al-Qaeda’s leader died in a high-profile raid in Pakistan, security forces in the Central Asian republic scored their own coup against a militant leader dubbed the “Tajik Bin Laden”.

Mullo Abdullo died as he lived, in conflict. His death in a firefight with Tajik security forces on April 16 will force analysts to rethink the threat posed by Islamic militants groups in Tajikistan and elsewhere in Central Asia.

Two years ago, the first rumours that Mullah Abdullo had reappeared in Tajikistan and was attempting to drum up support among disaffected former guerrillas from the civil war of the early 1990s were greeted with disbelief. No one had seen him, reports of his movements were sketchy, and there were stories that he was long dead and buried in Afghanistan.

It seemed too bad to be true. In Tajikistan, there were concerns that the spectre of a mullah roaming the hills in search of a new jihad was pure invention, designed to justify a security clampdown in parts of the country where the government’s writ ran thin.

The lack of hard information. and speculation about what was really going on, resulted in widely divergent readings of clashes that took place in 2009 and again in 2010 between government troops and armed locals. Was the military engaged in a counter-insurgent drive against a serious militant threat, or was it victimising local community leaders by branding them terrorists?

The public relations battle peaked after a real and bloody one last September, in which 25 soldiers died when their convoy was hit by what looked like a well-coordinated ambush in a narrow mountain gorge.

As reporting in much of the media highlighted the alleged failings of the security effort, the defence ministry grew increasingly irritated, arguing that its own performance was being slighted while no one realised the security threat it was trying to deal with.

Defence Minister Sherali Khairulloev issued an irate statement slamming what he felt was the gloating tone of some of the reporting. He asked why the independent press chose not to condemn the actions of “ruthless murderers”, and suggested this was tantamount to aiding and abetting terrorism. (See Tajik Government’s Fury Over Conflict Reporting.)

The government’s stand-off with the media did it no credit, with curbs placed on press and internet news outlets, and reporters complaining that the virtual blackout on official information about the violence meant they were unable to establish the facts.

But the minister’s basic point – that his men were fighting a real enemy rather than merely disgruntled locals – turned out to be right.

No one really knows what Mullo Abdullo was up to.

When the Tajik civil war ended in 1997, most of the opposition guerrillas agreed to disarm and return to civilian life, but a few commanders like Mullo Abdullo refused. He is believed to have spent years in Afghanistan, allied with the Taleban like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, which moved between Afghanistan and the wild northwest of Pakistan.

If he just wanted to go home, then after slipping back into Tajikistan, he could have sought quiet obscurity in some remote village. The decision to draw attention to himself and his small band of followers who came with him suggests he had an agenda.

There were already suspicions that IMU members were relocating to northern Afghanistan, particularly around Kunduz, where they could give the Taleban a useful way of planting a diversionary force that spoke local languages and could make trouble behind the NATO lines. Furthermore they could cross into Tajikistan and on into Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan fairly easily, creating at irritant for governments that have offered road, rail and air transit routes for NATO supplies.

If that is the case, then the Tajik government’s removal of Mullo Abdullo could have a major impact in warning off further infiltration.

It is true that governments in Central Asia are prone to trot out the “Islamist threat” as a way of justifying repression. But that does not cancel out the real risks posed by the likes of the IMU and Mulla Abdullo. They may still have ambitions to reinsert themselves into the region – either to justify their existence as Central Asian jihadists, as or at the behest of the Taleban.

Whether they would find significant support in Tajikistan is another matter. There are certainly plenty of young men who might be vulnerable to anti-government rhetoric, particularly if accompanied by regular pay. Analysts in Tajikistan, however, have argued over many years that this country’s population as a whole was “inoculated” against bloodshed by five years of internecine conflict, and would not take kindly to calls to repeat the experience.

John MacLeod is senior editor at IWPR.

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