• Research & Analysis Services I Academic I Market & Industry I Government Policy I
Contextualizing Tajikistan in the radicalization matrix of Central Asia

Contextualizing Tajikistan in the radicalization matrix of Central Asia

On March 22, Russian capital Moscow was hit with a terror attack. At the Crocus City Hall, the terrorists opened fire at the concert goers and also threw explosives. At least 140 people have been killed in this attack and more than 150 people were injured.

Contradictory claims were made about the perpetrators of this attack. Following the attack the Islamic State (IS) claimed the responsibility stating that the attacks were carried out by its branch Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) based in Afghanistan. The western countries supported this claim. Russia, acknowledging that Islamic terrorists had carried out this attack, maintained that following the attack, the assailants were trying to escape to Ukraine, thereby hinting that the West may be indirectly involved in this terror strike on Russia.

The Russian authorities detained four assailants – Shamsidin Fariduni, Muhammadsobir Fayzov, Dalerdzhon Mirzoyev and Saidakrami Murodali, Rachabalizoda – who were identified as citizens of Tajikistan.

Having established the identity of the assailants, Russia sought cooperation from Tajikistan in the investigation of this incident. Following this attack, the Tajik authorities detained relatives of the gunmen, who carried out the Moscow attack, in the Tajik capital city of Dushanbe. Tajikistan’s special services maintained that Russian security forces were also involved in the operation to detain the suspects.

Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon, who was personally overseeing the investigation in Tajikistan, condemned the terror attack terming it shameful and terrible event. Rakhmon further urged Tajiks to protect their children from harmful influences, implying that Tajiks should steer clear of radical elements.

This terror attack has not only brought to the fore the danger that the ISKP poses for the Central Asia and South Asia, but it has also highlighted once again the radicalization that has been prevalent in Central Asia for a long time. It is pertinent to consider the background of radicalization in Central Asia and how is Tajikistan used as a springboard by the radical elements to spread their ideology in the region.

Radicalization in Central Asia

Religious extremism in Central Asia is not a new phenomenon. Religion has been employed as an instrument by several groups in the region to forward their interests and influences. Radical Islamic movements in Central Asia go back to the era of the Tsars. During the First World War, Islamic militants had opposed the Russian government’s attempts towards mobilization of Muslims to work in the rear of the front. In the 1920s the Muslims of Central Asia opposed the Bolshevik Revolution and the advance of Soviet power into Central Asia.

The struggle by the radical Islamic extremists against the Tsar and later against the communist revolutionaries led to the assumption that religious extremism would lead to the downfall of the Soviet Union. However, this assumption did not prove to be true.

For almost a decade after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the role of Islam in most of the newly created Central Asian Republics remained prominently in the cultural sphere. However since 1999 the observance of Islam in the Central Asian countries started taking a more conservative direction. There was an increase in strict adherence to the principles of Islam, people became more particular in praying regularly in the mosques, marriage ceremonies also acquired a more religious dimension and in general the youths of Central Asian countries showed greater inclination towards religion.

However, despite this spread of radical ideology among the people, the political dispensations in the Central Asian Republics were overall disinclined towards ceding space to religion in the political discourse and functioning of the governments. There was also no central authority in these countries to control religious affairs.

As a result, a lot of unaccredited religious institutions came up in the Central Asian countries. Further, absence of a central authority and lack of sufficient regulations resulted in Central Asia receiving funds, Koran and other religious literature and religious preachers (mullahs) from countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. The refusal by the governments in Central Asia to allow religious education in schools led to establishment of religious institutions to impart training to the people who started attending these unofficial schools with great enthusiasm.

Besides, the surge of Taliban in the neighbouring Afghanistan facilitated the spread of radical Islam in Central Asia. Over the decades, with the Al Qaeda and the Islamic State consolidating their base and influence in Afghanistan, radicalization became even more prevalent in the Central Asian countries.

The withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989 as a result of resistance offered by the mujahideen with the participation of fighters from several Muslim countries set the tone for the surge of Islamic movements in Central Asia.

The Adolat group was one of the earliest radical Islamic groups which were formed in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan. The Adolat militants took control of the Uzbek town of Namangan in 1991-92 and were engaged in widespread violence. The Uzbek government responded with a heavy hand which resulted in the Adolat relocating to Tajikistan where it participated in the Tajik Civil War.

The Tajikistan angle

Since the recent terror attack in Russia has link with Tajikistan, it is pertinent to consider the emergence of radicalization in Tajikistan.

As discussed previously, while Islam’s role in most of the Central Asian countries has been of cultural nature, Tajikistan was the exception. Radicalization was prevalent in Tajikistan since the 1970s in the form of clandestine madrassas imparting religious instruction to the people. While the Soviet authorities shut down these institutions, the developments in the neighbourhood saw radical Islam gaining a prominent position in the polity of Tajikistan.

Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), a prominent radical group was formed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Following the collapse the IRP tried to grab power but was unsuccessful. Later it continued to fight against the elected government in Tajikistan in the early 1990s. As a result, Tajikistan descended into a civil war from 1992 to 1997. Several members of the IRP crossed over to Afghanistan where they were trained by the mujahideen. These trained militants then carried out attacks on the Tajik territory.

Although peace accord was signed between the militants and the Tajik government in 1997 through the mediation of Russia and Iran, radicalization had taken roots in Tajikistan. As a part of this peace accord the Tajikistan government had promised government positions to the IRP. But in 2015 the Tajikistan government declared IRP as a terrorist organization which consolidated radical tendencies in the country. 

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, ethnic Tajik leaders in Afghanistan Ahmad Shah Masoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani formed a Tajik-dominated group Northern Alliance to counter the Taliban. This group used Tajikistan’s territory as a support base for launching attacks against the Taliban. The Taliban regime fell in 2001 with combined efforts of the United States and the Northern Alliance.

Further in 2010 another radical group was formed in Tajikistan called Jamaat Ansarullah which has ties with militant groups in Pakistan and the Taliban. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, it started employing members of the Jamaat Ansarullah to guard Afghanistan’s northern border in Badakhshan province.

Parallel to the Taliban establishing its rule in Afghanistan in 2021, the ISKP too has been vying for influence in the region. The ISKP has clashed with the Taliban on several occasions. The ISKP also took advantage of the IRP being labeled as a terrorist organization in Tajikistan. Due to the Tajik government’s hardened stand, the ISKP has exploited the sentiments of the conservative elements in Tajikistan. Besides, economic hardships in Tajikistan have made its population vulnerable to the lure of the ISKP.

The shift towards radicalization in Central Asia may have started as a struggle between religious conservative elements against the relatively secular political dispensations. Over a period, it has become a part of the regional fault lines that have grasped the region. The Tajikistan angle to the terror attack in Moscow is a continuing phenomenon caused by the decades-old deep-rooted radicalization in Central Asia. The Central Asian Republics, which were never identified as theocratic states, need a cohesive approach to address the issue of radicalization in the region.

The views/thoughts exprssed in the article solely belong to the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Tatvita Analysts.

Niranjan Marjani

Niranjan Marjani is an Independent Political Analyst and Researcher.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.