Shortly after the Islamic State Khorasan Province’s (ISKP) first reported attack targeting Uzbek territory on April 18, one Tajik-speaking supporter on Telegram, feeling particularly inspired, urged similar operations against Tajikistan. Likewise, the official ISKP branch media outlet al-Azaim released an Uzbek-language audio statement celebrating the act, declaring it the opening salvo in the “great jihad to Central Asia.”
These hostilities have been festering for some time, as displayed in a July 2021 Islamic State (IS) video from the “Makers of Epic Battles Series” featuring a Tajik ISKP militant threatening the “taghuti” (tyrannical) government in Dushanbe, explicitly naming Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon. The animosity has also manifested in a series of IS attacks against Tajikistan over the last few years.
ISKP seeks to further exploit such sentiments and, recently, has markedly intensified its propaganda outreach to speakers of Central Asian languages inside Afghanistan and throughout the region. The Islamic State sees fertile opportunity in Central Asia and has placed an increased focus on appealing to ethnic Tajiks and criticizing Tajikistan’s government. This strategic calculation based in part on the Islamic State’s success in attracting and integrating Tajik jihadists in Iraq and Syria with the founding of the caliphate in 2014 and in Afghanistan since the branch’s emergence in 2015.
ISKP’s expanded media campaign seeks to recruit ethnic Tajik and nationals as well as incite militant violence against Tajikistan. It is also purposed to discredit the Taliban as a governing body and discredit it as a religious authority in the eyes of potential Tajik supporters.
ISKP has buttressed its Central Asia-facing propaganda efforts by running its operations through and under the umbrella of its official branch media organ, al-Azaim. The outlet has traditionally produced material in Pashto and Urdu but has now diversified its catalog with publications in Tajik, Uzbek, and other regional languages. ISKP releases Tajik-language e-books, audio statements, captioned images, translations of Islamic State statements, and even promotes a TikTok channel targeting the youth demographic.
ISKP’s Tajik and Tajikistan-Directed Propaganda Campaign
The Islamic State has bolstered its media warfare campaign directed against the Taliban government since it return to power last August. ISKP portrays the Taliban as being a Pashtun monoethnic, nationalist, democratic, Hanafi supremacist, and un-Islamic movement. They allege the Taliban oppress non-Pashtun ethnicities, and the pro-IS Voice of Hind magazine even accused the group of killing Tajiks and Uzbeks.
As part of their targeted media push, several Tajik language propaganda channels have been created on Telegram, including Tajik versions of al-Azaim and Voice of Khurasan Radio which produce online print content and audio statements. A channel called al-Azaim Tajik regularly translates Islamic State attack claims and al-Naba newsletter issues into Tajik. After the appointment of the new IS leader, al-Azaim even issued a Tajik language statement pledging bayah or allegiance.
Al-Azaim Tajik recently published three books featuring the official al-Azaim seal and Library of Movarounnahra (Transoxiana) logo, indicating some sort of connection between the two — the latter is known for publishing pro-IS print materials in Tajik. The first Tajik language book published in early March explains why jihad is obligatory, criticizing movements that claim to fight for Islam but, according to the author, are puppets of foreign powers, specifically naming the Free Syrian Army, the al-Hashd al-Shabi in Iraq, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. These groups have betrayed Islam for “worldly goals,” the author argues. The second book released in mid-April is more religious in content with a focus on Ramadan, while the third text, put out around the same time, lashed out against Turkey and its “Muslim Brotherhood” government for having ties with Israel. It is worth noting that all these materials are published in the Tajik Cyrillic alphabet, indicating that its intended audience is located outside of Afghanistan.
Voice of Khurasan Tajik — like other regional Voice of Khurasan Radio channels in Pashto, Dari, and Uzbek — released around 150 audio files from September 2021 until April 26, 2022. Most of them are brief speeches about jihad, aqidah (creed), and manhaj (methodology), but many others target the Taliban, declaring them excommunicated and calling for attacks against them and their “democracy.” Starting from January 2022, Voice of Khurasan began releasing audio on an almost daily basis, frequently featuring speaker Yusuf Tajiki, who mainly criticized the Taliban.
Apart from official channels linked to ISKP media production hubs, there are a plethora of other institutions that disseminate pro-ISKP propaganda in the Tajik language. For instance, the Telegram channel Movarounnahra (Transoxiana) publishes both official Voice of Khurasan material and unofficial supporting content, including posters and videos. Another channel is entirely dedicated to translating videos of Afghan scholars who support or supported ISKP or share similarities with the group’s ideology into the Tajik language (Cyrillic subtitles).
ISKP has attracted a number of Tajik fighters into its ranks. They have ultimately influenced the organization’s internal discourse and public rhetoric by infusing their grievances and ideas. ISKP has employed its Tajik human capital in both the propaganda and military spheres, which are intimately connected.
This is apparent in how, after conducting attacks or suicide operations, ISKP’s propagandists often celebrate their fighters, making their Tajik identities known to serve as examples of courage, devotion, and self-sacrifice for potential supporters from these communities. Instances of this include the February suicide 2017 attack on the Afghan Supreme Court in Kabul by Abu Bakr al-Tajiki; the March 2017 attack on the Daud Khan Hospital in Kabul by a five-men squad including Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tajiki and Ibrahim al-Tajiki; and the March 2020 suicide attack on a commemoration of late Hazara Hezb-e Wahdat leader Abdul Ali Mazari in Kabul carried out by Ahmad al-Tajiki and another ISKP militant.
IS and ISKP Operations Targeting Tajikistan
IS has been able to successfully conduct lethal attacks inside of Tajikistan and inflict violence against security personnel and foreign nationals in the country. In July 2018, an IS militant drove a car into a group of cyclists after which the passengers exited the vehicle and continued the assault with firearms and knives, killing four foreigners. The following year, IS gunmen clashed with Tajik border guards and police on the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan frontier.
Furthermore, Islamic State forces have reportedly been involved with multiple deadly prison riots. One took place in the northern Tajikistan city of Khujand in November 2018, which apparently killed 23 inmates and two prison guards, and the other in a facility located east of Dushanbe in May 2019, which killed three prison guards and 29 inmates, including three opposition politicians.
ISKP’s media warfare campaign places significant emphasis on the Taliban’s foreign relations and looks to create problems between the new Afghan rulers and their neighbors as well as undermine confidence in the Taliban’s ability to provide stability in the borderlands and prevent jihadis from using Afghan territory to launch attacks. The group has directly threatened and stated its intention to target Tajikistan, explicitly declaring it an enemy of the movement. Such attacks would serve in part to exacerbate the Taliban’s already contentious relations with Tajikistan, a country accused of supporting the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF). It has also been suggested that such operations could serve to provoke neighboring states into intervening so that Islamic State forces might exploit the ensuing chaos.
ISKP operations could be launched from Afghan territory, as seen with the recent rocket attack targeting Termez, Uzbekistan. Attacks could also entail cross-border incursions or involve coordination with networks inside Tajikistan. Finally, in terms of the overall security context, developing trends of ISKP violence in regions proximate to or straddling the Tajik border, such as the attacks conducted over the last few days in the northern provinces of Kunduz, Takhar, and Balkh, present very real challenges for Dushanbe.