Interviews | Security | Central Asia

Discussing Violence and Terrorism in Tajikistan

An interview with Edward Lemon.

Catherine Putz
Discussing Violence and Terrorism in Tajikistan

A national flag of Tajikistan is hoisted to the top of the 165-meter (541.34 feet) flagpole in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Tuesday, May 24, 2011.

Credit: AP Photo/Olga Tutubalina

Earlier this month, Tajikistan was once again the site of a violent incident swiftly attributed by the government to the Islamic State, which later claimed responsibility. But details are few, and those providing them — both the Tajik government headed by President Emomali Rahmon and the Islamic State, recently under new leadership — warrant questioning. To help tackle the many lingering questions about security, terrorism, and politics in Tajikistan, The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz spoke to Dr. Edward Lemon, the DMGS-Kennan Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School in Washington, D.C.

Let’s start with the November 8 alleged Islamic State attack in Tajikistan. What do we know so far about what happened?

Well, as usual the exact details are not forthcoming. The government has not released many details and cannot really be trusted to give an accurate picture anyway. We know that a violent incident took place at a border post in the Sultonobod area of Rudaki district, west of the capital near the border with Uzbekistan on November 6. The government claims there were 20 attackers, including three women. According to the government, 15 attackers and two security officers were killed, and five attackers were arrested. Radio Free Europe claims six from the government side were killed. The government claims the attackers crossed into the country from Afghanistan three days before the attack on the orders of the Islamic State (IS). The Islamic State later claimed the attack with a video of masked Tajik-speaking men pledging allegiance to the group’s new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi.

But neither the Islamic State or government narratives should be taken at face value. Unlike the previous IS attack in Tajikistan where the group put out a video clearly identifying the attackers, the masked men in the latest video may or may not be the same group that conducted the attack. IS has a track record of opportunistically claiming to be behind attacks as a way to demonstrate its successes. The government of Tajikistan has shown time and time again that its version of events cannot be trusted. Take for example the 2018 attack by IS in which four Western cyclists were killed. The government attempted to blame the attack on the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), before IS released a video of the attackers swearing allegiance, at which point the government backtracked. 

Many discrepancies remain in the government story of the latest attack. If the group crossed into the country in Qubodiyon on November 3, why did it take so long to find a target? This information came from an alleged detainee. But law enforcement uses torture to extract confessions, so his or her testimony cannot be relied upon. Why were they not properly armed for an attack with guns and bombs? Why in one of the photos is one of the dead bodies handcuffed, indicating he was killed after being captured? Why has the government removed photos of the attack from its website if it has nothing to hide? This has lead many Tajik analysts to conclude that it was the government itself that organized the attack to demonstrate the threat posed by terrorism. But this is, of course, impossible to prove. We are unlikely to get answers to these questions. And until we do, I would not trust the government narrative or Islamic State’s claims.

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Thanks to excellent reporting by Radio Free Europe and Eurasianet, we now have a clearer picture of the alleged attackers. One, named Iskandar, reportedly sold his stall in a Dushanbe bazaar to pay for the four cars used in the attack. Another, Anvar, previously served at the border post that was attacked, perhaps explaining why it was chosen. Five more of the attackers, four of whom are in detention, have been named. Two are women, three are men. All are aged between 20 and 25. One is from Bobojon Ghafurov, the others from Istaravshan, both areas in the country’s north. They include two brothers, who left their village in 2014. Like in the previous attack in 2018, which involved brothers and friends from the same village, this points to the importance of social connections in facilitating mobilization to violence. Evidence collected by independent journalists indicates that many of those involved were based in Tajikistan, rather than coming from Afghanistan as the government suggested in a potential ploy to frame the threat as external and foreign-driven.  With time, perhaps more details will emerge, but at present there are more questions than answers.

The Islamic State has reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack, which would make it the second Islamic State attack in Tajikistan since late summer 2018. In what ways does the Islamic State pose a threat to Tajikistan?

Thus far the threat has been limited. Tajikistan had the largest per capita number of foreign fighters in Central Asia, and by my reckoning the third highest per capita in the world. Since 2011, we have seen almost 2,000 Tajik citizens travel to the Middle East to take part in hostilities, if we trust the government figures. The number rises to 4,500 if we take into account those stopped at the Turkish border. Many have been killed. Some have returned voluntarily or been brought back by the government. But those who have returned have not posed a significant threat.

We have seen the attack on the Western cyclists in 2018, which was credibly claimed by IS. And then this latest incident, which could just be opportunism. The Islamic State has claimed to have instigated other violence, such as the prison riot in May which left over 30 dead. But it is hard to verify these claims. To the extent it poses a threat, it would seem that it takes the form of unsophisticated attacks involving cars, knives, or light weapons. 

While the threat of the Islamic State and terrorism in general is limited, violence in recent years in Tajikistan has been driven by local political struggles and mostly targeted the state. The process of what John Heathershaw and Parviz Mullojonov have called “authoritarian conflict management,” by which the Rahmon administration has purged the government of former warlords and extended its control over former opposition-controlled areas, has produced episodic violence in the Rasht Valley between 2008 and 2011, Khorog in 2012, and Dushanbe in 2015. Attacks that have been called terrorism have often targeted the state, in particular law enforcement and the military. These included the country’s first suicide bombing in 2010 and the most recent incident. Other violent incidents have occurred within state institutions. Two prison riots in the past year have resulted in the deaths of over 50 inmates. In other words, violence in Tajikistan has usually emerged not from international terrorism, but from the deeply corrupt authoritarian state and is perpetrated by those who have lost access to the benefits of this system or been negatively affected by it.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon was in Europe when the attack took place. What was the purpose of his trip to Europe?

Ostensibly, his trip to Switzerland and France was about boosting political and economic relations and attracting investment. Rahmon came with a large delegation, including numerous important players in the Tajik economy, such as his son-in-law Shamsullo Sohibov and Sherali Kabir, chairman of the country’s largest industrial enterprise Talco. He had high profile meetings with Emanuel Macron, Antonio Guiterres, and the Aga Khan. He also attended a conference on peace in Paris and UNESCO’s general conference.

Next year, Tajikistan is scheduled to hold both parliamentary and presidential elections. The long-running rumor has been that Rahmon is setting his son, Rustam, up to run for president. Do you think that’s likely?

Rahmon’s regime has made an immense amount of money from its control of the state. In order to secure this wealth and perpetuate the kleptocratic system, Rahmon will be looking for a smooth transition, ideally keeping power within the family. It has long appeared that Rustam has been being groomed for power. He has held senior positions in the Customs Service and government’s anti-corruption agency before becoming mayor of Dushanbe in 2017. Constitutional amendments introduced in 2016 lowered the age someone could be president to 30, meaning that Rustam, who turns 32 in December, could stand for election in 2020. At the same time, Rahmon became “Leader of the Nation,” which would allow him to continue dominating politics even if he formally retired from the presidency, as Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan did earlier this year. Rustam has increasingly appeared at his father’s side during high-profile events, greeting foreign leaders at last year’s Commonwealth of Independent States summit and walking down the red carpet with his father when they opened the Rogun hydroelectric plant in November last year. It remains to be seen whether he will actually take over in 2020, or whether Rahmon will postpone transition for a few more years.

What, if any, lessons do you think Rahmon has taken from watching power transitions in the rest of the region?

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It is, of course, difficult to say. But I do expect his advisers have been taking notes. In the past two decades, there have been seven power transitions in the region. There have been two revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, one relatively open election in which power was transferred from Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev to Sooronbay Jeenbekov, two regional presidents have died in office, and one retired. The three most recent transitions have all created scenarios that Rahmon would like to avoid. 

First, I think Rahmon will have seen what happened in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov died in office in 2016, and new President Mirziyoyev has made moves to transform the country, purging many members of the old elite. Similarly, he will have seen the government of Jeenbekov turn against members of the former government, culminating in the former president’s arrest on corruption and murder charges earlier this year. Rahmon will definitely want to avoid being held to account for the various crimes perpetrated by his regime. In fact, he already amended the constitution in 2016 to grant himself legal immunity for life. Finally, he will also have seen what has happened in Kazakhstan. There Nazarbayev has managed to maintain his position as the most powerful person in the country, but new leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has faced unprecedented protests against his rule. Rahmon seems to be following the model of Kazakhstan, in which he will cede the presidency, while remaining the dominant figure inside the country. However, he will realize that political transitions are moments of danger for authoritarian regimes, and he will be preparing to counter potential resistance to the move both from within the regime and from the public.

Tajikistan’s international partners — like Russia, China, and the United States –all have their own set of interests in the region. How does Tajikistan’s apparent insecurity impact their respective policies toward the country?

I think it is fair to say that all the major powers view Tajikistan’s security through the lens of Afghanistan. Each sees it as a weak state with a lengthy border with a conflict-ridden state to the south. All are concerned over the possibility of spillovers of terrorism and insurgency. Russia guarded the Tajik-Afghan border until 2005 and still has a large military base in the country. Concerned about possible spillovers from Afghanistan, China has become a major security partner for Tajikistan, holding its first bilateral military exercises there in 2016 and opening its second military base outside of its borders in the Pamirs. The United States has long supported the Tajik military by transferring non-lethal equipment, conducting training and joint exercises. While the U.S. government has raised human rights issues with the Tajik government, it lacks the will or capacity to force change within the country. Ultimately, all three major powers favor stability and the status quo over political change and the instability this could trigger.