Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajikistan: Shadow-Boxing with Militant Threat

How high is the risk of Islamic insurgency to Tajikistan and its neighbours?
By IWPR staff
Tajikistan’s security services say their country faces a significant threat from Islamic militants, but insist they are well able to deal with any challenge. What is less clear is just how organised and dangerous any armed extremist groups are.



Tajikistan’s recent history has involved a lot of conflict: it went through a five-year civil war ending in 1997, and in 1999-2001 its northern regions were used by the banned paramilitary Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, as the launch pad for raids into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.



But since 2001 - when the IMU was driven out of its Afghan bases along with its Taleban allies - things have been relatively quiet in Tajikistan.



CROSS-BORDER RAID HIGHLIGHTS RISK



In recent months, the authorities in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have expressed concern at an apparent resurgence in the activity of armed Islamic groups in their respective parts of the Fergana valley. There have been a number of armed clashes between security forces and alleged militants, especially in southern Kyrgyzstan where the government mounted a major sweep over the summer.



A number of questions about the extent of the threat remain unanswered at the moment. Are more than a handful of militants involved? Do they belong to known Islamist extremist groups - or perhaps new ones - or are they opportunistic criminals and drug smugglers taking advantage of porous borders in rugged mountain terrain?



An armed raid in May this year served as a wake up call for Tajikistan’s border control service. A small group of armed men began by attacking a Tajik frontier post at Lakkon, on the frontier with Kyrgyzstan. After plundering guns from the guardroom, the group forced its way into the Batken region in Kyrgyz territory, where the military deployed hundreds of troops to pursue them.



The attack left three Tajik border guards and six Kyrgyz soldiers and customs officers dead. Four attackers were killed, one was captured, and some reports said others managed to escape.



The identity of the armed group was unclear, although officials suggested a link with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a banned Islamic group operating in several Central Asia states, or with the IMU, whose guerrillas were active in Batken in 1999-2001.



The Kyrgyz authorities subsequently made a number of arrests, and said they had “indisputable evidence” that the detainees were Hizb-ut-Tahrir members.



Batken regional prosecutor Ryskul Baktybaev said in July that it was now clear that Hizb-ut-Tahrir was no longer the “peace-loving organisation” of the early Nineties when it first appeared in Central Asia, and that followers were involved with other extremist Islamic groups. “There is a direct link between members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU,” he said.



SECURITY FORCES “READY FOR ANYTHING”



In the wake of the violence, Tajik border guards have stepped up security in the sector that includes Lakkon, with units redeployed from elsewhere and tighter border control procedures.



Although the border guards form the first line of defence, the ministry of internal affairs which controls the uniformed police, the ministry of security, and the army are all on hand. They all say the threat is real, but insist they can cope with anything.



“We will repulse any attack. The military training of our soldiers is very high,” said the press secretary of the state committee for border protection, Khushnud Rahmatullaev told IWPR



The IMU made a “virtual” reappearance on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States, when its leader Tahir Yuldashov emailed media outlets with a statement threatening Central Asian leaders with new attacks. Yuldashov is believed to be hiding out with other Taleban allies just inside Pakistan, on the southern Afghan border.



Amirkul Azimov, secretary of Tajikistan’s Security Council, reiterated that the country was prepared to repulse any attempt to commit terrorist acts.



“There are no groups at present that could really threaten the security of our country, although there are some that are capable of carrying out crimes of a terrorist nature,” said General Mahmadsaid Jurakulov, the head of the interior ministry’s organised crime department, citing the IMU as an example. “But they do not represent a real threat. We have enough forces, equipment and weapons to deal with them.”



The law enforcement agencies are focusing much of their attention on Hizb-ut-Tahrir, with frequent arrests of members, often for handing out leaflets rather than any intent to perpetrate violence. The group would like to see Central Asian governments overthrown, but its public statements insist this must take place through non-violent means.



Like their Kyrgyz colleagues, the Tajik authorities say they do not believe Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s intentions are entirely peaceful, and say they have evidence of links with the IMU. The two groups used to be regarded as quite different in origin, membership and modus operandi.



The interior ministry says that when officers search homes, along with Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature and copying equipment, they also find firearms and documents suggesting an IMU connection.



Jurakulov’s office says at least 400 people have been arrested on suspicions of belonging to the banned party in the last three years. Most, he stressed, were involved in disseminating the group’s ideas rather than in violence, but some were suspected of more serious crimes.



By contrast, the border guards service is primarily concerned about the 1,500 kilometre southern frontier with Afghanistan, despite the raid at Lakkon in the north. The mountainous terrain means there are many remote areas where people can enter Tajikistan unchecked.



However, the border guards appear more worried about drug smuggling than Islamic militant activity. Considerable amounts of opium and processed heroin from Afghanistan’s booming illicit narcotics economy make their way north through Tajikistan to markets in Russia and other European countries.



Despite the recent armed incidents for which Islamic militants have been blamed, some critics of the Tajik government say the threat is being deliberately exaggerated so as to justify curbs on civil rights.



“I’m not sure that this threat really exists in Tajikistan,” said political analyst Shokir Hakimov. “The authorities want to restrict people’s rights and freedoms, and the war on terrorism is convenient cover for doing so. It’s the same in other Central Asian countries….. [governments] seek to increase their power under the guise of fighting terrorism.”



QUESTIONS OVER MILITARY CAPACITY



Not everyone is certain that if a real insurgent threat did materialise, the Tajik security agencies would be able to cope. One junior military officer, for example, told IWPR on condition of anonymity that the security forces lack the money to buy uniforms, equipment and sometimes even food. There is also concern about the quality of conscripts, with many being posted as border guards despite being unfit and untrained.



The government does have at least one crack unit that could be deployed in a crisis - the army’s Airborne Assault Brigade.



“We can do anything. We can restore security at short notice,” said the force’s Captain Alexei Balashov. “This brigade is made up of elite troops. The selection process is very strict.”



Brigade members receive about 200 US dollars a month - a huge amount in a country where average monthly wages run at about 40 dollars.



General Jurakulov said interior ministry police were also adequately paid these days, after receiving a fourfold pay rise this year, so that they get about 75 dollars a month.



“Tajik [interior ministry] soldiers are paid enough,” he said. “All this talk of them being underpaid doesn’t have any substance to it.”