Over the weekend, Turkish police detained 45 people who were reportedly on their way to Syria to join ISIS. Turkish media characterized the 25 arrested Sunday at a bus station in Gaziantep, after arriving from Istanbul, as “mainly citizens of Tajikistan.”
The Tajik embassy in Ankara, however, told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known as Radio Ozodi, that only one of those arrested in Gaziantep was actually a Tajik citizen. The nationality of the other 24 hasn’t been mentioned in the media–the Tajik connection takes up the headline.
Tajikistan, which says about 300 of its citizens have joined ISIS in Syria, has very much spun up anxiety over the return threat of fighters to Central Asia. Like its neighbors, Tajikistan has weaned military and financial support from all quarters–from Russia to the United States–in order to combat the threat of extremists returning to the region. Regional governments are using the same arguments they used for the past decade–only replacing “Taliban” with “ISIS.”
There are definitely Tajiks citizens who have joined ISIS–most notably on the international stage a former special police commander who defected in May. Unlike the stereotype of ISIS recruits, Gulmurod Halimov was not a poor man marginalized by the elites. He was an employee of the government at the top of his career. Before turning up in an ISIS propaganda video, he was (falsely) rumored to have been arrested in Turkey. News outlets like to refer to him as “American-trained” and he did receive training in the United States. But he also received training from the Russians, an equally important piece of background information. The story of his radicalization has yet to be fully told.
Turkey is generally the final stop for those wishing to travel to Syria from Central Asia–though authorities and experts say most of the Tajiks who have joined ISIS were radicalized in Russia, then used Turkey to get to to Syria. The blanket identification of people traveling to Syria to join ISIS as Tajiks is likely to be problematic for Tajiks in Turkey, legitimately, for work. Turkey is a major trading partner for Tajikistan and a destination for migrant workers.
Over 40 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP comes from remittances, 90 percent of which comes from migrant workers in Russia. Russia’s economic troubles and new migration policies–which put citizens from outside the Eurasian Economic Union at a disadvantage–has precipitated a massive drop in remittance flows. Some argue that Russia’s clamping down on migrant workers, particularly Tajiks, will push more to join ISIS. This may be true in the short term–as Tajik workers remain in Russia despite expiration of their permits, unable to get sustainable work. This makes them prime for recruitment–ISIS has been known to promise large sums of money.
For its part, Turkey is in a tough position. The country hosts nearly two million Syrian refugees and is the last stop before Syria for ISIS recruits. The West has criticized Turkey for not doing enough to stop the influx of fighters to Syria, some say prompting the country to arrest increasing numbers of suspected militants. Whether those arrested are just unfortunate foreigners or actual ISIS recruits is difficult to determine from the outside. However, in the span of three days a story about 25 Tajik ISIS recruits seems to have became a story about one Tajik ISIS recruit. Another potential angle to this is that the Tajik government is lying–not claiming all its citizens among the arrested–but that doesn’t fit into the overall narrative Dushanbe has been pushing that points fingers at Moscow for allowing Tajiks to be radicalized and Turkey for not stopping Halimov when he passed through.