Radical Islamic Groups in Central Asia and Their External Contacts

Andrew McGregor


“Radical Islamic Groups in Central Asia and their External Contacts,” in: Central Asia and the Northern Caucasus: Salafis, Shi’ites, and Jihadists, al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center, Dubai, 2014, pp. 105-126 (Arabic language).

Introduction; Modern Origins of Islamic Militancy in Central Asia

The Islamist movement in Central Asia has its modern origins in the post-Soviet environment of Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley, a traditional cultural and economic meeting point now divided by the national borders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. A growing youth population, high unemployment rates and stagnant economic conditions have created conditions in the Ferghana usually associated with the growth of Islamist militancy, but effective (though heavy-handed) security measures and a general lack of resonance for the Islamist project means the region has avoided the massive sectarian clashes predicted after the emergence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) [1] and its predecessors in the 1990s.

Central Asia MapThe Salafist approach to Islam favored by most Islamist militant groups in the region is mixed in Central Asia to a large degree with Deobandism, a pan-Islamic revival movement developed in India as a reaction to 19th century British imperialism. Deobandism became politically radicalized in modern Pakistan and came to be the basis of the Taliban system in Afghanistan

Salafist Islam and Islamist militancy initially made inroads in Central Asia in the dying days of the Soviet empire as residents of the region began to explore their Islamic heritage in the interests of reasserting local identities in a post-Soviet and possibly post-secular world. Scholarships to Salafist religious/educational institutions helped introduce reformist Islam to Central Asia through the medium of its own young scholars. However, conditions have changed since the days when Central Asia emerged from seven decades of official atheism and the militants’ message does not seem to have the same penetration it once did, even in the face of continued drivers of radicalism such as poverty, lack of access to education and authoritarian repression.

Adolat, the predecessor to the IMU, established Shari’a law under the direction of the late Tahir Yuldash (formerly Yuldashev; a.k.a. Muhammad Tahir Faruq; 1967 – 2009) in the town of Namangan in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley in 1991. [2] Adolat was eventually repressed by the Uzbekistan government, but Yuldash and several other prominent members escaped to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where they formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as a means of expelling the regime of Islam Karimov and founding an Islamic Caliphate that would eventually spread throughout the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia. [3] There are reports that Yuldash travelled throughout the Gulf region in the 1990s, establishing funding conduits with sympathetic groups and individuals, including the Uzbek diaspora in Saudi Arabia, formed from survivors of the 1918-1928 anti-Soviet Basmachi Rebellion in Central Asia. [4] Yuldash also travelled to Turkey and Pakistan, attempting to gain the financial and material support of the intelligence services of those nations. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is believed to have responded favorably to the IMU commander’s overtures. [5] The strong Saudi influence on the IMU appears to have had its origins in Tahir Yuldashev’s religious training and fundraising activities in the Kingdom.

A unit of roughly 100 to 200 IMU fighters under the leadership of commander Juma Namangani (a.k.a. Jumaboy Ahmadjonovich Hojiyev, a reputed former Soviet paratrooper in the Soviet war in Afghanistan) gained military experience fighting alongside Islamist factions in the Tajikistan civil war (1992-97) but found no place for the movement in the negotiated settlement of 1997, leading the movement to shift to bases in Afghanistan under the sponsorship of the Taliban. From there, the IMU launched its 1999-2000 campaign in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan which ultimately failed to achieve its goal of entering Uzbekistan and deposing President Karimov (the movement was also targeting the rulers of Kyrgyzstan at this point). Though the campaign was largely restricted to small-scale attacks and hostage-taking (including the commander of Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry), the militants’ apparent better training and equipment reduced national security forces to chasing the group around the mountains and briefly caused alarm in regional capitals.

IMU Escape to FATA – A problem of relevance

The movement proclaimed its allegiance to Mullah Omar and the Taliban when the U.S.-led alliance invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. The IMU suffered a severe blow when Juma Namangani, its military leader and the architect of its surprising if ultimately multi-nation Central Asian campaign, was killed during an American bombing of pro-Taliban positions in Kunduz.

In an operational sense, the IMU never recovered from the death of Namangani, their unchallenged military commander. With his death passed the time when the movement could mount large operations that created serious concern in the capitals of the Central Asian republics. Under military pressure from the U.S. and its allies, the IMU left for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Afghanistan in 2001, establishing themselves in the Wana region of South Waziristan.

Having escaped the U.S.-Northern Alliance offensive in Afghanistan, the movement took refuge in the Wana regin of South Waziristan, where they enjoyed the protection of local warlord Maulvi Nazir and the Ahmadzai Wazir until 2007, when they were expelled for offending local customs and behaving like “occupiers.” [6] The movement then intensified its alliance with a new patron from the Mahsudi rivals of the Ahmadzai Wazir, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Baitullah Mehsud, though some fighters appear to have joined the Taliban in Afghanistan or to have joined previous waves of disillusioned fighters in making a stealthy return home. During their residency in north-western Pakistan, many of the original members of the movement established successful farms and businesses as well as integrating into the local community through intermarriage. The IMU’s last confirmed operations of any significance in Central Asia occurred in 2004. The movement has claimed responsibility for attacks in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2009-2010, but these claims seem more likely to have been an attempt to reassert some relevance for the movement in Central Asia.

The IMU’s gradual loss of purpose in its long exile from Central Asia is often reflected in reports that members of the movement frequently act as bodyguards for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leaders or as enforcers-for-hire in the FATA region. In December 2012, Federal Minister Shaykh Waqas Akram (Pakistan Muslim League-Q) told Pakistan’s National Assembly that Uzbek militants of the IMU were acting in league with various banned organizations in Punjab Province and were ready to carry out terrorist acts for a payment of $40,000. [7] The minister’s claims came only days after a devastating suicide attack by a squad of militants on Peshawar’s Bach Khan Airport on December 15. Though the attack was claimed by the TTP, authorities blamed Uzbek militants based on an examination of the remains of the attackers, the usual method used to generate body counts of alleged Chechens, Daghestanis, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups useful in framing local conflicts as internationally-generated threats to the state. [8]

A glimpse of the indigenization process experienced by the IMU in their Afghan/Pakistani exile can be obtained from a list of 87 IMU “martyrs” in 2011. 64 of the individuals hailed from Afghanistan, while only four came from Uzbekistan. The remainder originated in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Germany, Pakistan and Tatarstan (Russian Federation). [9] Analyst Jacob Zenn has pointed out that even “the IMU’s current ‘mufti’ (expert in Islamic law), Abu Zar al-Burmi, is an Urdu and Arabic-speaking Pakistani national of Burmese Rohingya descent with neither a trace of Uzbek blood nor proficiency in the Uzbek language.” [10]
While based in FATA, the IMU developed strong ties with TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud (killed by a U.S. drone strike on August 5, 2009) and his successor Hakimullah Mehsud (killed by a U.S. drone strike on November 1, 2013), for whom members of the group often acted as local enforcers. Tahir Yuldash was himself killed by an American drone strike in Pakistan in 2009. His successor, Abu Usman Adil, developed a relationship with Hakimullah Mehsud and his TTP deputy Waliur Rahman before he was also killed by a U.S. drone strike in April, 2012. The IMU is currently led by Adil’s former deputy, Usman Ghazi.

The Threat to Tajikistan

Soon after obtaining its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan experienced a devastating civil war from 1992 to 1997 that killed roughly 100,000 people, displaced over a million more and provoked the loss of most of Tajikistan’s ethnic Russian and European population, which formed much of the country’s professional and administrative classes. The war pitted ethnic groups from the Garm and Gorno-Badakhshan regions who felt they were underrepresented in the regime of President Rahmon Nabiyev against groups from the Leninabad and Kulyab regions that had formed most of the ruling elite under Soviet rule. The disparate opposition eventually united under the banner of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), an awkward coalition of liberal democrats and Islamists. By 1993 the Garmi and allied Pamiri Isma’ili Shi’a opposition forces were suffering from serious reverses on the battlefield and a violent campaign by government forces determined to drive Garmi and Pamiri civilians from Tajikistan. Both Garmi and Pamiri civilians and Islamist fighters took refuge across the border in Afghanistan, where the Islamist fighters received arms and assistance from ethnic Tajik Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance military forces. The fighters also received religious training in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A peace and reconciliation agreement in 1997 promised a new era, but in recent years the regime expelled most of the former armed Islamist opposition from their posts in the reconciliation government, adding to a wave of unrest fueled by corruption, economic failure and the revival of Islam after decades of Soviet repression. [11]

The Tajik Civil War has often been characterized as an Islamist-led rebellion against the central government, though there were other elements behind the violence that had more to do with tribal and regional rivalries than with religious observance. According to journalist Igor Rotar, who covered the struggle for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “even the combatants themselves admit that the civil war was not so much a political struggle as a fight for power between different regional groups of Tajiks, who had not developed into a single nation at the time.” [12] Since then, however, there has been significant growth in Islamic extremism in northern Tajikistan, but few signs of involvement by external groups such as the IMU or the Afghan Taliban.

In 2009, Tajikistan launched Operation Kuknor (“Poppy,” loosely disguised as an anti-narcotics operation) against an armed group led by Lieutenant General Mirzo Ziyoev, a military commander of the Tajik Islamists in the civil war who was given a high military rank and his own paramilitary in the reconciliation that followed. Ziyoev was dismissed in 2006 and accused of having joined a unit of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) led by Shaykh

Nemat Azizov in June 2009, an assertion that was quickly denied by late IMU leader Tahir Yuldash, who suggested instead that Ziyoev had “fallen victim to intrigues of the government.” [13] Ziyoev was captured by security forces on July 11, 2009 and died later that day in crossfire between security forces and a group of militants that some Tajik authorities claimed were IMU gunmen, an assertion similarly denied by Tahir Yuldash. [14] A well-known guerrilla leader in the Tajik civil war, Shaykh Nemat Azizov was made leader of the Tavil-Dara division of Tajikistan’s Emergency Situations Ministry as part of the post-war reconciliation before he allegedly returned to armed opposition to the Tajik state, allegedly as an IMU commander, according to security services. [15] In July, 2009 a Daghestani individual made a televised confession that he and two other Daghestanis had joined Shaykh Nemat’s group. [16]

Some of the militants seized in 2009’s Operation Kuknor were part of a mass escape of 46 prisoners from a Tajik State Committee for National Security (SCNS) prison on August 25, 2010. A number of these militants were believed to have participated in an attack on a military convoy by an unidentified militant group in the Kamarob gorge of eastern Tajikistan, about 260 kilometers from Dushanbe, on September 19, 2010. The well-executed attack killed at least 28 soldiers (and possibly as many as 40) and left many more wounded. Though Tajik security officials identified Abdullo Rakhimov (better known as “Mullo Abdullo”) as the main suspect, the Tajik Defense Ministry insisted fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya were part of the ambush force, but, as usual, failed to provide any details on these identifications. [17] Despite a lack of evidence that the IMU, which has had little presence outside the northwest frontier region of Pakistan since 2001, was operating in large numbers in the remote Kamarob Gorge, the attack was claimed in a statement purported to have originated with IMU spokesman, Abdufattoh Ahmadi, who said the ambush was in response to a government crackdown on Islam (rather than the more likely struggle between Dushanbe and dissident former commanders who had been excluded from government): “This is our response to Tajikistan’s government, which has lately shut down a thousand mosques, which arrests Muslims without any reason and prohibits women from wearing Muslim clothes. We demand a stop to this policy. Otherwise, terrorist attacks will continue.” [18] The high death toll in the attack was at least partly explained by the poor training and inadequate equipment of the mostly young and inexperienced Tajik troops, leading to calls for the resignation of the Tajik defense minister. [19]

On September 10, 2010 a Tajik border patrol encountered what they described as a large group of Islamist fighters, including Afghan Taliban, trying to cross the border from Afghanistan. A firefight lasting nearly 24 hours ensued, with the border police eventually driving off the alleged Taliban incursion. Authorities claimed one officer and 20 Taliban were killed, though only seven Taliban bodies were recovered. The battle took place roughly 210 kilometers south of Dushanbe on the banks of the Pyandzh River in the remote autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region and on a number of islands in the river occupied by Taliban fighters. The Taliban appear to have been using the islands as a local base and the clash did not seem to be part of any effort by the Afghan Taliban to mount a campaign within Tajikistan, but was more likely an attempt to evade an ongoing U.S./ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) military operation in the area. The mountainous border along the Pyandzh River was again closed in July 2012 as Tajik authorities claimed Afghan Taliban were infiltrating Tajikistan to support former warlord Tolib Ayombekov, who was accused of murdering Major General Abdullo Nazarov, the regional security service chief. Tajik officials claimed to have captured eight Afghans who were fighting in support of Ayombekov. [20]

Tajik authorities have consistently asserted a leading role for the IMU in Tajikistan’s internal armed opposition, despite strong indications that the 2009-2011 fighting had far more to do with that nation’s tribal rivalries and internal political competition than with a Central Asian jihad. Dushanbe clearly prefers to suggest that its political violence is solely the result of the machinations of international jihadists rather than admit to continuing difficulties in creating a stable state while failing to establish a national purpose or identity that would subsume deep-set political and tribal rivalries.

Rasht ValleyRasht Valley, Tajikistan

Before and following his death during a military sweep in the Rasht Valley in April 2011, Mullo Abdullo (a.k.a. Abdullo Rahimov) was described by Tajik authorities as not only an IMU field commander, but the leader of al-Qaeda in Tajikistan, though evidence in support of these claims was never presented. [21] There is little evidence to suggest that Mullo Abdullo had ties of any significance to the IMU and it is common for Tajik courts to identify local militants as IMU members, identifications confirmed by forced confessions. [22] It is informative that most of the major charges brought against former Islamist commanders in recent years relate to crimes allegedly committed in the 1990s rather than current militant activity, a sign that the government’s offensives are directed at eliminating the former Islamist commanders from the Tajik power structure. The international “War on Terrorism” has allowed the Dushanbe regime to follow Karimov’s example in Uzbekistan and frame its struggle with opposition forces as counterterrorism operations against Islamist extremists pursuing a global jihad. This process has also been used in other Central Asian nations, as described by Tajik historian Kamoludin Abdullaev:

On the pretext of fighting Islamic terrorists, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have also rashly strengthened their defense and security bodies. Not capable to resolve problems arising from Islamist mobilization and driven by Soviet-time authoritarian impulses Central Asian governments call for external support receiving millions of dollars from the US to suppress Islamic dissent. Sadly, in the aftermath of September 11, Central Asian governments have begun to apply the rhetoric of the “war on terror” to justify their pressure on opposition. Tajikistan is another source of instability, because the military elite is comprised of former adversaries—hardened militias from pro-Communist Popular Front and United Tajik Opposition—and most gunmen are independent from the state, remaining loyal to regional political entrepreneurs and field commanders who control the remote regions, “protect” the Tajik-Afghan border and are heavily involved in illegal trafficking. [23]

Instability continues on a low scale in the Rasht Valley, in the western part of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), the last region of Tajikistan to be brought under the control of the regime of President Imam Ali Rahmon. The GBAO, located in the Pamir Mountains, occupies 45% of the territory of Tajikistan but has only 3% of the total population. The Garm district of the Rasht Valley has a long history as a center for Islamist militancy, dating back to its days as an important center for the anti-Soviet Bashmachi rebellion of the 1920’s. By now, however, most of the leading UTO Islamists are dead, indluding Abdullo, Ziyoev, Ali Bedaki and Mirzokhuja Ahmadov. Nonetheless, analyst Thomas Ruttig has noted a trend to internationalization of Islamist militancy as reported by official sources that is difficult to support with hard evidence:

If one listens to ISAF and to Central Asian governments, there are overlapping networks of jihadist terrorists subverting Afghanistan and Tajikistan, if not the whole region. Those networks, it is said, link the Taleban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) with al-Qaeda and other Pakistan-based groups. Few of these reports are substantiated by details that can be independently scrutinised. But they are often picked up by media and other outlets, presented as proven facts and amplified by repetition. [24]

Ruttig goes on to point out that much of the activity described as IMU/Taliban penetrations along Tajikistan’s borders is actually related to smuggling rather than jihad. Any IMU effort to insert itself operationally into Tajikistan will be countered by the presence of the Russian 201st Motorized Rifle Division, permanently based in Tajikistan where it has been responsible for guarding the border with Afghanistan against militant incursions since 2001.

In recent years there is greater evidence for the out movement of Tajik extremists taking refuge in Afghanistan than for an inflow of Taliban militants. Nonetheless, Tajik authorities continue to cite an al-Qaeda-assisted IMU revival in Tajikistan in league with Tajik dissidents who would otherwise seem to present only a minimal threat to the Tajik state. Presenting its troubles in the framework of the “war on terrorism” allows the Dushanbe government to avoid discussions of official nepotism, corruption and inefficiency as factors causing unrest in the country.

The European Connection – IMU and IJU

The IMU has attempted to draw on European sources for financial contributions and recruitment, particularly amongst the Turkish diaspora community. In May 2008, Dutch, French and German police announced the break-up of a financial support network run by ethnic-Turks. [25] The IMU has also produced German-language recruitment videos, which have had some limited success. The IMU has successfully recruited a number of German nationals, including Bekkay Harrach, a cell leader born in Morocco and the brothers Mounir and Yasin Chowka.

Another important connection between the Central Asian jihad and Europe was established by the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). [26] The IJU split from the IMU in 2002, led by two ethnic Uzbeks, Najmiddin Jalolov and Suhail Buranov. While sharing the IMU’s goal of deposing the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, the movement quickly displayed a more global approach to its jihad, growing close to core al-Qaeda and focusing its activities on attacks against U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan from bases in the north-west frontier region of Afghanistan and recruiting members from the West, especially Germany. Using the name Jama’at al-Jihad al-Islami, the group claimed responsibility for a series of attacks in Uzbekistan in 2004, though the Tashkent government claimed the attacks were the work of Hizb ut-Tahri and the IMU.

The IJU was central to the 2007 “Sauerland Group” plot to use car-bombs against Germany’s Ramstein Air Base (used by U.S. forces) and Frankfurt International Airport. Of the three principal suspects, one was an ethnic Turk raised in Germany and two were German converts to Islam. All three had been trained at IJU camps in South Waziristan. [27] In April 2009, Turkish police arrested members of an IMU cell operating in Turkey. Like the IMU, the IJU now seems to have adapted to a long-term presence in north-western Pakistan but appears to rely on strong support from ethnic-Turkish sources. [28]

Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Tabligh Jama’at

Despite its Palestinian/Jordanian origins and London headquarters, the Central Asian branch of the Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) movement appears to be a largely localized phenomenon, with affiliates operating with various degrees of success in most of the Central Asian nations. The movement’s international resources are well-deployed in the production of videos and internet communications, but within Central Asia, where technological resources are still in short supply, the movement relies on locally photo-copied leaflets (shabnama – “night letters”) and posters. [29] Though HuT advocates the establishment of a Central Asian caliphate (as the precursor to a global caliphate) and the full implementation of Shari’a through solely peaceful means, it is consistently treated as a militant group by authorities who regard its radical political message as being at least as dangerous as any armed group. Central Asian rulers are mindful of the example of the Askar Akayev regime in Kyrgyzstan, which was overthrown by political protests in the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” rather than by militant groups like the IMU, who have criticized the HuT’s passive approach to political change. [30] The outlawed movement’s cell structure and attention to security makes it particularly difficult to infiltrate, adding another layer of concern for authorities. [31] The harshness with which local authoritarian regimes have dealt with suspected HuT members has in turn helped convince these regimes that the movement will eventually respond with violence. While HuT’s activities do not bear the enormous costs associated with mounting an armed rebellion, the sources of its financing remain obscure, though the existing literature on the movement contains the usual but vague references to Islamic charities and private donors in the Gulf States (which include a substantial Uzbek diaspora population). After dismantling an “HuT network,” Kazakh authorities claimed the operation had “helped dismantle routes that were used to deliver books promoting extremism and money from abroad.” [32] Despite repression, the group has managed to survive, though its activities remain largely limited to the distribution of Islamist and pro-Caliphate literature.

A similar, but less political organization, the Tablighi Jama’at, has also faced repressive measures in Central Asia. The Deobandi-influenced movement was founded in India in 1926 with the aim of bringing about a spiritual revival in the Muslim community through missionary work. The movement has gradually become a well-funded, global mechanism for promoting spiritual reform while avoiding political confrontations with authorities wherever possible. Unlike Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Jama’at considers the establishment of a caliphate as a long-term goal possible only after significant reforms have been achieved in the Islamic community. Despite this, the movement’s call for a return to conservative Islamic principles has alarmed the secular post-Soviet governments of Central Asia. In Tajikistan, the Jama’at was banned in March 2006 after authorities determined the movement aimed to subvert constitutional order in Tajikistan in order to establish an Islamic Caliphate. [33] The movement has made inroads in the Kyrgyz community in the Ferghana Valley and has begun spreading into the Russian Federation republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, where they have attracted the attention of Russian authorities. [34]

In 2012, Kazakhstan attempted to disrupt the movement’s activities by expelling or fining 205 Jama’at missionaries on the grounds that religious activities by unregistered organizations were prohibited. [35] The movement is also banned in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, partly because of the theory that the organization acts as a “gateway” to radicalization and eventual militant activity, based on the examples of a number of militants killed or captured worldwide who were former members of the Jama’at, which has at least 100 million members in 213 countries. Despite significant global resources, the movement’s non-political stance makes it difficult to mobilize against government repression. There are no signs at the moment that the Tablighi Jama’at intends to engage in militant activities in Central Asia.

According to Thomas Ruttig:

Statements by Central Asian governments contain high doses of self-serving alarmism, seem to exaggerate and misrepresent relatively small incidents, and describe scenarios that could only become true if different groups significantly increased the intensity, scope and coordination of their activities… Labelling all domestic dissent as ‘Islamist’ or ‘terrorist’ is a long-established pattern. [36]

The ISAF/U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the future of Central Asia’s militants

Uzbekistan’s President Karimov has warned of “an increased threat of the expansion of terrorist and extremist activities” in his nation following the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. and ISAF forces, while Tajik President Rahmon has warned of growing threats from Afghanistan due to Tajikistan’s “weak military situation” and need for modern military equipment. [37] Various Russian sources have similarly predicted that Russian troops in Tajikistan might come under fire from the Afghan Taliban after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

Attacks by Islamist militants in Uzbekistan have become rare in recent years, partly as the result of a relentless government campaign against any activity that remotely resembles any form of religious extremism. Security services have cast a wide net in their search for militants and there are numerous reports from human-rights organizations that detention can mean severe treatment and even death. Uzbekistan’s national security service, the Milliy Havfsizlik Hizmati (MHH), has even gone so far as to issue a warning in November 2011 to Uzbekistan’s writers, artists, dramatists and filmmakers to avoid the use of any kind of religious theme in their works.

At this point, the IMU has clearly shifted its focus from Uzbekistan and the other nations of Central Asia to a new role, created through a decade of effective integration, as a largely locally-recruited militia deeply engaged in the tribal politics of the Afghan-FATA frontier region. Despite numerous external claims that the IMU will head back to Central Asia to carry out new, state-threatening operations, the IMU itself has of yet given no indication of such intentions. Since relatively little is known about the discussions taking place within the IMU’s increasingly reclusive leadership, the possibility of an IMU incursion must still be regarded as a possibility, if an unlikely one. The IMU has shown itself incapable of even resisting tribal militias in South Waziristan, which does not hold promise for any IMU effort to vanquish state security forces in Uzbekistan or elsewhere in Central Asia.

A Taliban offensive into Central Asia following the withdrawal of Western forces (or an IMU offensive backed by the Taliban) would not only jeopardize the gains made by the movement in over a decade of bitter fighting, but would also bring it into almost immediate conflict with China and Russia, nations that have prepared for such an eventuality and that do not rely on the long and vulnerable supply lines of U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan.
Predictions of a Taliban overspill into Central Asia from a post-occupation Afghanistan depend greatly upon assumptions that Afghanistan’s Pashtun community harbors a previously unexpressed desire to expand into its northern neighbors or that the Taliban leadership learned nothing from its 2011 experience and is set on repeating behavior that will lead quickly to its annihilation.

The Afghan Taliban have taken little action to disrupt the northern distribution network through extra-territorial strikes, preferring to focus instead on disrupting the Karachi to Khyber Pass supply line in league with their TTP allies. If the Afghan Taliban has been reluctant to strike its Central Asian neighbors when it mattered most, this would seem to argue against Taliban aggression after the 2014 withdrawal. Linguistic, ethnic and cultural differences with the Central Asian communities would also complicate an incursion by the largely Pashtun Taliban.


All of Central Asia’s militant movements share one element in common: their political ambitions exceed their operational capacity. Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iraq, both provide more favorable grounds for financial contributions from jihad supporters in the Gulf States than Central Asia, with the added enticement to Gulf donors of being similarly Arab in nature.

Jihadists are not the only armed groups operating in Central Asia; they may even be smaller in number than trans-national narcotics trafficking groups and smuggling outfits working in the porous and difficult border regions of Central Asia. Many of the reported encounters with “foreign militants” may in reality be clashes with well-armed and highly organized trafficking groups who do not fear small detachments of border guards posted in remote places. The smugglers have at times shown a vicious intent to combat government attempts to interfere with their lucrative activities – in July 2012, suspected tobacco smugglers dragged General Abdullo Nazarov from his car outside the town of Khorog and stabbed him to death, wounding his three bodyguards and driver in the process. General Nazarov was the head of the Tajik State National Security Committee forces in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast and was directing operations against tobacco smugglers at the time. [38] The region is frequently cited by authorities as a center of Islamist militant activities.

Corruption within Central Asia’s anti-narcotics agencies has only contributed to the success of the traffickers and encouraged the identification of gangs of armed gunmen as “foreign militants” rather than local smuggling rings operating with the clandestine cooperation of elements of the regional security forces. In the latest such example, on September 19, 2013, the Kyrgyz general prosecutor’s office announced it was opening a criminal case against members of the Southern Region office of the Chief Administration for Fighting Drug Trafficking for their role in trying to smuggle more than 25 kilograms of drugs to Bishkek disguised as an official shipment. [39] In another example, police in the Kazakh city of Petropavlovsk intending to incinerate more than 100 kilograms of marijuana discovered the drugs had been replaced by bags filled with tobacco and bricks despite being stored in a secured police warehouse. [40]

The IMU’s long absence from its Central Asian homeland has inhibited its ability to recruit locally and diminished the resonance of its message in the Ferghana Valley and elsewhere. [41] The kind of political and/or religious disturbances that might indicate a welcome return to Central Asia from some elements of the population at large have not materialized. Attrition and desertion have weakened the IMU, which now likely numbers only in the hundreds of fighters rather than thousands, with many of these being locally recruited replacements for more experienced IMU veterans. In the event of an IMU reinsertion into Central Asia, many of these fighters would find themselves on unfamiliar geographical and linguistic terrain. Even surviving Uzbeks of the original IMU have experienced a high degree of social integration in their 13 year stay in Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan and might show some reluctance to leave defenseless families and homes behind to engage in somewhat improbable “invasion” of Central Asia, with or without external support.


1. Uzbek – O’zbekiston Islomiy Harakati; Arabic – Harakat al-Islamiya Uzbekistai
2. Igor Rotar, “Under the Green Banner: Islamic Radicals in Russia and the Former Soviet Union,” Religion, State & Society 30(2), June 2002, pp. 89-153.
3. See Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 137-40; Bakhtiar Babadzhanov, “Islam in Uzbekistan: From the Struggle for Religious Purity to Political Activism,” Boris Rumer (ed), Central Asia: A Gathering Storm? London: M. E. Sharpe, 2002, pp. 299-330.

4. Kamoludin Abdullaev, “Integrating Political Islam in Central Asia: the Tajik Experience,” November 3, 2010, http://kamolkhon.com/integrating-political-islam-in-central-asia-the-tajik-experience/
5. Michael Feldholm, “From the Ferghana Valley to Waziristan and Beyond: The Role of Uzbek Islamic Extremists in the Civil Wars of Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Islam, Islamism and Politics in Eurasia Report no. 22, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program/Monterey Institute for International Studies, August 25, 2010, http://csis.org/files/publication/100825_Hahn_IIPER_22.pdf
6. Andrew McGregor, “South Waziri Tribesmen Organize Counterinsurgency Lashkar,” Terrorism Monitor, January 14, 2008, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=4649&tx_ttnews[backPid]=167&no_cache=1#.Unf3JhAljoY
7. “Punjab banned outfits in contact with Uzbek militants, NA told,” Dawn [Karachi], December 18, 2012, http://dawn.com/news/772230/punjab-banned-outfits-in-contact-with-uzbek-militants-na-told
8. Amir Mir, “TTP using Uzbeks to conduct terrorist attacks,” The News [Islamabad], December 18, 2012, http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-2-149025-TTP-using-Uzbeks-to-conduct-terrorist-attacks; “Uzbek militants behind Peshawar Airport attack,” The Nation [Islamabad], December 17, 2012, http://www.nation.com.pk/pakistan-news-newspaper-daily-english-online/national/17-Dec-2012/uzbek-militants-behind-peshawar-airport-attack; See also Christian Bleuer, “Instability in Tajikistan? The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Afghanistan Factor,” OSCE Academy, 2012, http://www.osceacademy.net/upload/file/bleuer_policy_brief7.pdf .
Twelve years of claims by various terrorism “experts” regarding a Chechen military presence in Central Asia, whether as part of IMU, Taliban or al-Qaeda formations, have yet to yield any proof of the existence of these phantom legions of fanatical Chechen extremists. See Brian Glyn Williams, “On the Trail of the ‘Lions of Islam’: Foreign Fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 1980-2010,” Orbis 55(2), 2011, pp. 216-39.
9. See http://furqon.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=195:-1432-2011-&catid=1:2011-08-26-10-42-51.
10. Jacob Zenn, “The Indigenization of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,” Terrorism Monitor, January 26, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[swords]=8fd5893941d69d0be3f378576261ae3e&tx_ttnews[any_of_the_words]=uzbekistan&tx_ttnews[pointer]=11&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=38931&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=abba18744b7d716ca4d2c38bcecd7340#.UmaT5hAliRN
11. Michael Taarnby, Islamist Radicalization in Tajikistan: An Assessment of Current Trends, Korshinos Center for Socio-Political Studies/OSCE Tajikistan, Dushanbe, 2012.
12. Igor Rotar, “Will Tajikistan’s Karategin Valley Again Become a Militant Stronghold?” Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 13, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=39842&tx_ttnews[backPid]=587&no_cache=1#.Unf2axAljoY \

13. RFE/RL Uzbek Service, July 16, 2009; Ferghana.ru, July 16, 2009.
14. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “IMU Leader Says Group Did Not Kill Former Tajik Minister,” July 16, 2009, http://www.rferl.org/content/IMU_Leader_Says_Group_Did_Not_Kill_Former_Tajik_Minister/1778214.html ; see also Millat [Dushanbe], July 23; al-Jazeera, July 16, 2009; IWPR, July 23, 2009.
15. See Interfax, August 5, 2009; Asia Plus [Dushanbe], July 29, 2009.
16. See Asia-Plus [Dushanbe], July 28, 2009.
17. See RIA Novosti, September 20, 2010; Itar-Tass, September 26, 2010.
18. Roman Kozhevnikov, “Al-Qaeda ally claims Tajik attack, threatens more,” Reuters, September 23, 2010, http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/09/23/us-tajikistan-security-idUSTRE68M28M20100923; See also Radio Liberty Tajik Service, September 23, 2010; Ferghana.ru, September 24, 2010.
19. See Farazh [Dushanbe], September 22, 2010; Chark-i Gardun [Dushanbe], September 22, 2010.

20. Moign Khawaja, “Tajik security forces clash with Taliban along border,” Foreign Policy Journal, September 13, 2010, http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2010/09/13/tajik-security-forces-clash-with-taliban-along-border/; Reuters, “Tajikistan seals Afghan border, NATO trucks can pass,” July 27, 2012, http://tribune.com.pk/story/413786/tajikistan-seals-afghan-border-nato-trucks-can-pass/
21. Lola Olimova, “Few tears shed for ‘Tajik Bin Laden’,” IWPR, May 5, 2011, http://iwpr.net/report-news/few-tears-shed-tajik-bin-laden
22. Alexander Sodiqov and Payam Foroughi, “Tajik Security Agencies Face Allegations of Detainee Abuse and Extrajudicial Killings,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 7, 2011, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=38753&tx_ttnews[backPid]=512&no_cache=1#.Unf2JRAljoY
23. Kamoludin Abdullaev, “Integrating Political Islam in Central Asia: the Tajik Experience,” November 3, 2010, http://kamolkhon.com/integrating-political-islam-in-central-asia-the-tajik-experience/
24. Thomas Ruttig, “Talebs in Tajikistan? The ‘terrorist spill-over’ hype,” Afghan Analysts Network, October 10, 2013, http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/talebs-in-tajikistan-the-terrorist-spill-over-hype
25. Einar Wigen, Islamic Jihad Union: Al-Qaeda’s Key to the Turkic World? Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, 2009.
26. Uzbek – Islomiy Jihod Ittihodi; Arabic – Itiha’ad al-Jihad al-Islami.
27. “Terroralarm in Deutschland: Die Bombenbauer aus der Provinz,” Spiegel Online, September 7, 2009, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/terroralarm-in-deutschland-die-bombenbauer-aus-der-provinz-a-504464-3.html
28. Guido Steinberg, “A Turkish al-Qaeda: The Islamic Jihad Union and the Internationalization of Uzbek Jihadism,” Strategic Insights, Center for Contemporary Conflict. December 30, 2007, http://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/fachpublikationen/sbg_IJU_Strategic_Insights_ks.pdf
29. Ehsan Ahrari, “Countering the Ideological Support for HT and the IMU: The Case of the Ferghana Valley,” CSRC discussion paper 05/44, September 2005, p.5, http://www.marshallcenter.org/mcpublicweb/de/component/content/article/628-art-pubs-occ-papers-03.html?directory=19
30. “Tahir Yuldash, ‘US fiasco is nearing. Look us up in Washington’” Ferghana.Ru News Agency, October 15, 2007, http://enews.fergananews.com/article.php?id=2167
31. Dilafruz Nabiyeva, “Hizb ut-Tahrir grows more active in Tajikistan: Government takes anti-terrorist measures,” Central Asia Online, September 6, 2011, http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/features/main/2011/07/06/feature-01; “Tajikistan detains influential member of Hizb ut-Tahrir,” Interfax [Dushanbe], June 15, 2011, http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=8517
32. “Hizb ut-Tahrir network dismantled in Kazakhstan,” Interfax-Religion.com, December 22, 2006, http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=2412
33. See Central Asia Online, July 21, 2009; Interfax, August 11, 2009.
34. Igor Rotar, “Tablighi Jamaat: Islamization from Ferghana Valley to Russian regions?” Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 23, 2013, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=40356&tx_ttnews[backPid]=685&no_cache=1#.Unf15xAljoY
35. Ibid
36. Thomas Ruttig, “Talebs in Tajikistan? Part 2 on the alleged IMU-Taleban nexus,” October 11, 2013, http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/talebs-in-tajikistan-part-2-on-the-alleged-imu-taleban-nexus
37. See Trend.az [Tashkent], January 14, 2013; “President of Tajikistan informs about increasing threats from Afghanistan at CSTO summit,” AKI Press [Bishkek], September 24, 2013, http://www.akipress.com/_en_news.php?id=137484.
38. “Tajik GKNB general killed by smugglers,” Central Asia Online, July 23, 2012, http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/newsbriefs/2012/07/23/newsbrief-03
39. “Kyrgyz accuse suspected drug smugglers,” Central Asia Online/RIA Novosti, September 20, 2013, http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/newsbriefs/2013/09/20/newsbrief-01
40. “Kazakh police warehouse loses more than 100kg marijuana,” Tengri News [Astana], April 15, 2011.
41. Maksim Yeniseyev, “IMU lacks popular support: Uzbeks urge terrorist group members to lay down arms,” Central Asia Online, July 15, 2011, http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/features/main/2011/07/15/feature-01

Questions in Tajikistan over Real Target of “Terrorist” Railway Bridge Bombing in Uzbekistan

Andrew McGregor

November 28, 2011

A mysterious blast on a vital Uzbekistan rail route on November 17 has been followed by an even more mysterious Uzbek disinterest in repairing the damage or sharing details of the investigation into the incident. The Tashkent government formed a commission to investigate the bombing of the railway bridge when news of the bombing first appeared in the Uzbek press two days after the incident (Gazeta.uz, November 19).

The blast, described as a “terrorist act,” occurred at a railway bridge on the line connecting the Termez terminal at the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border and the city of Qurghonteppa in southwestern Tajikistan (Pravda Vostoka [Tashkent], November 19; RIA Novosti, November 19). More precisely, the attack came in the Surkhandarya region between the Galaba and Amu Zang stations along a stretch of line the runs parallel to the Amu Darya River. Afghanistan lies on the southern side of the river. The roughly 250 km rail line is an important commercial outlet for Tajikistan, which has lately had differences with Uzbekistan over the administration of their mutual border.

Termez is the southern terminal of the “Northern Distribution Network” (NDN), the supply network providing for U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan. Supplies must be offloaded from the rail system at Termez and transferred to trucks for the final lap into Afghanistan. The United States negotiated an agreement to use Termez in 2008, though the German military has quietly leased an air base there since 2002.

Attacks by Islamist militants in Uzbekistan have become rare in recent years, partly as the result of a relentless government campaign against any activity that remotely resembles any form of religious extremism. Security services cast a wide net in their search for militants and there are numerous reports from human rights organizations that detention can mean severe treatment and even death. A closed-door trial is currently underway in Tashkent of 16 Muslims charged with participation in “extremist religious, separatist, fundamentalist or other banned organizations” (UzNews.net, November 15). Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (NSS) has even gone so far as to issue a November 12 warning to Uzbekistan’s writers, artists, dramatists and filmmakers to avoid the use of any kind of religious theme in their works (UzNews.net, November 12).

If the bombing was the work of Islamist militants wanting to disrupt the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), their choice to attack the line to southwestern Tajikistan rather than the main line running north from Termez seems odd. The absence of a claim of responsibility if the bomb was indeed the work of Islamist militants is also very unusual. Such groups typically make maximum political value of every attack against the state or its institutions.

Map showing the Termez – Qurghonteppa Rail-line running east from Termez

Though the blast occurred in Uzbekistan, the greatest harm has been inflicted on Tajikistan’s rail system, which incurred losses in finding alternative transportation for stranded passengers in Uzbekistan and now has hundreds of freight cars loaded with goods in Uzbekistan unable to cross back into southwestern Tajikistan. According to a Tajik rail official, the Uzbeks would normally have the capability of repairing such damage within a day. Instead, a Tajik offer of assistance went unacknowledged and no timetable has been set for repairs (Asia-Plus [Dushanbe], November 18). Shipping goods through another line to Dushanbe and then shipping them by truck through mountain passes to southern Tajikistan would be prohibitively expensive, so any prolonged interruption to the Termez Qurghontepparail line would have a severe effect on the Tajik economy.

Relations between Uzbekistan and the smaller and more isolated Tajikistan have been strained for at least a decade by a number of issues, most notably Tajikistan’s ongoing construction of the massive Roghun hydroelectric dam project, which Uzbekistan claims would damage that nation’s vital cotton production industry.

The latest blow to Uzbek-Tajik relations came on November 13, when an Uzbek border guard was shot and killed by Tajik border guards who were allegedly helping narcotics smugglers bring 3.84 kilograms of heroin into Uzbekistan (Interfax/AVN Online, November 17). Tajik authorities initially denied the involvement of Tajik border guards in the incident, which allegedly involved personnel from the Tajik Main Border Directorate’s Sughd regional department (Regnum, November 17). A spokesman for the Tajik Border Guards later admitted that a Tajik border guard had killed one of his Uzbek counterparts, but only did so after the Uzbeks had crossed into Tajik territory to protect the smugglers. The spokesman insisted that no drugs were found at the scene (RFE/RL, November 15).

Uzbekistan’s NSS has demanded an unbiased investigation by Tajik authorities regarding the Border Guards’ involvement in drug trafficking while warning of tough measures to counter future attacks. The drugs were apparently concealed inside electric heaters and the NSS invited their Tajik counterparts to examine the remaining heaters to see if drugs were concealed within them. Uzbek officials have, however, conceded that the Tajik border guards may have been deceived into helping smuggle electric heaters rather than narcotics, a scenario based on the claim that the guards received a far smaller payment than is normally associated with assistance in drug smuggling (Interfax/AVN [Moscow], November 17).

On the same day as the railway bridge bombing, Tashkent issued a strong warning to Tajikistan to avoid a repeat of the November 13 border incident: “Should the Tajik side act like this again, the Uzbek side retains the right to take the toughest and most resolute measures in line with the norms and practice of international relations in order to crack down on aggressive provocations on the border, to ensure the security of citizens and Uzbekistan’s territorial integrity in full” (Interfax [Moscow], November 17). In Tajikistan, however, there are now suggestions that the railway blast may have more to do with Uzbekistan’s opposition to the Roghun dam project than with terrorism (ImruzNews [Dushanbe], November 21).

This article first appeared in the November 28, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor. Reprinted in Asia Times, December 2, 2011: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/ML02Ag03.html

Jihad in the Rasht Valley: Tajikistan’s Security Dilemma

Andrew McGregor

October 4, 2010

Efforts by Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon to solve his problem with Islamist militants through lengthy sentences for detained opposition members encountered a serious reversal on August 22 when 25 militants made a dramatic escape from a State National Security Committee (SNSC) remand center Tajikistan’s capital city of Dushanbe, killing four guards in the process.

Tajikistan has experienced little internal success since obtaining its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. A devastating civil war followed from 1992 to 1997, which provoked the loss of most of Tajikistan’s ethnic Russian and European population, which formed much of the country’s professional and administrative classes. A peace and reconciliation agreement in 1997 promised a new era, but in recent years the regime has expelled most of the former armed Islamist opposition from their posts in the reconciliation government, adding to a wave of unrest fueled by corruption, economic failure and the revival of Islam after decades of Soviet repression.

The Jailbreak

The SNSC remand center in Dushanbe has its own security staff and is located inside a larger remand center operated by the Ministry of Justice. Though the escapees appear to have been in control of the SNSC facility for four hours, they nevertheless took Justice Ministry guards by surprise as they burst out of the SNSC building dressed in regulation camouflage uniforms. One car was commandeered by the fugitives, but it is unclear how the rest escaped through the city without hindrance (Avesta [Dushanbe], August 25).

Rasht Valley 2 Escape Planner Ibrohim Nasriddinov

According to one report, the escapees were able to arm themselves with 20 pistols, seven AK-47 assault rifles, one machine-gun and four grenades (Nigoh [Dushanbe], September 1). Most of the fugitives had been charged with plotting a coup against the state and had been handed stiff sentences of 15 to 30 years imprisonment by Tajikistan’s Supreme Court on August 20.  Unidentified gunmen who were believed to be part of the group of escaped prisoners fought a four-hour gun-battle with Defense Ministry outposts in the Romit Canyon (about 45 km from Dushanbe) on September 3 (Asia-Plus Online [Dushanbe], September 3; Itar-Tass, September 3).

Authorities believe the escape was organized by Ibrohim Nasriddinov, who was serving 23 years for murder and the planning of a terrorist act. Nasriddinov was caught on September 7 (Interfax, September 7). He is frequently identified as a former inmate of Guantanamo Bay although his name does not appear on the official list of prisoners (RFE/RL, August 7, 2007; Itar-Tass, September 7). There were reports that Nasriddinov was treated as a “privileged” prisoner, being allowed to move around the facility freely at night (Asia-Plus Online, September 2). Close relations between prisoners and guards coupled with understaffing (three guards for 90 prisoners) were cited as reasons for the success of the escape (Imruznews [Dushanbe], September 1).

The fugitives included 15 citizens of Tajikistan, five citizens of Russia, four citizens of Afghanistan and two citizens of Uzbekistan (Interfax, September 7; Khovar [Dushanbe], September 24). The two Uzbeks, Furkat Khalmetov and Khamidullo Yuldashov, were convicted of illegal border crossing and participating in an attempt to overthrow the government of Tajikistan, respectively (Itar-Tass, September 24).
A Dagestani escapee, Gusein Sulaymanov, was killed after wounding three policemen in a September 8 raid on a house used by militants (Interfax, September 29). Another escapee, Rahmiddin Azizov, a former Rasht Valley security officer, was killed in an operation in the Fayzobod district (Asia Plus Online, September 27; Interfax, September 29). Rahmiddin was serving a life sentence and was charged with belonging to a militant group led by his brother, Negmat (RIA Novosti, September 26).

Most of the fugitives were seized in last year’s Operation Kuknor (“Poppy”) and are alleged to have been former loyalists of Lieutenant General Mirzo Ziyoev, the military commander of the Tajik Islamists in the civil war who was given a high military rank and his own paramilitary in the reconciliation that followed the war (Itar-Tass, September 2). He was dismissed in 2006 and accused of having joined the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an assertion that was quickly denied by late IMU leader Tahir Yuldash (RFE/RL Uzbek Service, July 16, 2009; Ferghana.ru, July 16, 2009). Ziyoev was captured by security forces on July 11, 2009 and died later that day in crossfire between security forces and a group of militants (Millat [Dushanbe], July 23; al-Jazeera, July 16, 2009; IWPR, July 23, 2009).

Though some escapees were thought to be headed to the Afghanistan border, most were believed to be on their way to the eastern Tavildara district, where they were apprehended in a military sweep last year.

The Dagestan Connection

One of four Dagestanis involved in the escape, Magomet Ahkmadov was named as one of the three men who led the breakout by killing four guards and wounding two others (Interfax, August 24). The other leaders included Mirzomen Abiyev, Kazbek Dzhabailov, and Gusein Sulaymonov, who was later killed in a gunfight with police (Interfax, September 29).

Another Dagestani, Ahmad Sultanov, was sentenced to nine years in prison only days after the prison break for “circulating extremist ideas” and making calls for jihad. Sultanov is an alleged member of Dagestan’s Shari’a Jamaat, one of the most active armed Islamist groups in the North Caucasus (Itar-Tass, August 27).

The Ambush in the Kamarob Gorge

Using grenades and automatic weapons, an unidentified militant group ambushed a military convoy in the Kamarob gorge of eastern Tajikistan, about 260 km from Dushanbe, on September 19. The attack killed at least 28 soldiers and left many more wounded, leaving the government to suspect experienced guerrilla leaders like Mirzokhuja Ahmadov (a.k.a. “Belgi”), Abdullo Rakhimov and Alovudin Davlatov (a.k.a. Ali Bedak) of responsibility for the assault. Later reports put the death toll at 40 of the total 75 man detachment (RIA Novosti, September 20). The Tajik Defense Ministry insisted fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya were part of the ambush force (Itar-Tass, September 26).

Tajik security officials identified Abdullo Rakhimov (better known as “Mullo Abdullo”) as the main suspect, and a later video message from an IMU spokesman claimed responsibility on behalf of the movement, which has had little presence outside the northwest frontier region of Pakistan since 2001. Issued by Abdufattokh Ahmadi, the message said the attack was a response to several issues, including the closure of “thousands” of mosques, unreasonable detention of Muslims, a prohibition on headscarves, and government cooperation with the United States and NATO against Afghanistan’s Muslims (Radio Liberty Tajik Service, September 23; Ferghana.ru, September, 24).

Calls for the resignation of the Tajik defense minister followed criticism that the army consisted of poorly-trained and poorly-supplied workers and farmers, many of whom are young and without military experience (Farazh [Dushanbe], September 22; Chark-i Gardun [Dushanbe], September 22). Last June the United States announced it would build a $10 million Counterterrorism Training Center at Qarotogh in Tajikistan’s Shahrinav District, pending an agreement with the Tajikistan government. Both Washington and Dushanbe have made it clear that the center will train only Tajik soldiers and will not house American military personnel. U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert Blake, told reporters on September 1 that the United States had no intention of establishing a military presence in Tajikistan (Interfax, September 7).

Tajik Military Operations Following the Kamorab Gorge Ambush

Two days after the ambush in the Kamorab Gorge, government troops began searching houses in the Rasht Valley belonging to former members of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), the leading opposition front in the civil war. Security forces encountered resistance at the home of Mirzokhuja Ahmadov, where five of Ahmadov’s followers were killed in a gunfight. Security forces reported seizing assault rifles, grenade launchers, mines and three completed bombs containing nearly 20 kg of explosives (RIA Novosti, September 23). Ahmadov himself was not found at the scene and his whereabouts remain unknown. The former Islamist warlord was formerly head of the government’s organized crime unit in the Rasht Valley following post-civil war reintegration efforts. An attempt to arrest him in 1998 resulted in the shooting death of Oleg Zakharchenko, chief of Tajikistan’s OMON police unit, by one of Ahmadov’s men. Government officials have accused Ahmadov of sheltering Mullo Abdullo in his home since the latter’s return from Afghanistan (RFE/RL, September 28). The government attack reportedly prompted another former opposition commander, Shoh Iskandarov, to join the militants in the mountains (RFE/RL, September 22).

Rasht Valley 3Rasht Valley

The raid on Ahmadov’s residence came only a week after Defense Minister Sherali Khayrulloev, Interior Minister Abdurahim Qahhorov and SCNS Deputy Leader Mansurjon Umarov met with Ahmadov and Iskandarov to assure them military operations in the Rasht Valley were intended only to apprehend Mullo Abdullo (RFE/RL, September 15). There were also rumors that the ministers had asked for the ex-warlords’ cooperation in hunting down Mullo Abdullo. The ambush in the Kamarob Gorge appears to have led to a turnabout in government policy. According to an Interior Ministry spokesman, two more members of Ahmadov’s group were detained without resistance on September 29, but many other suspected members of Ahmadov’s group might be released due to lack of evidence (RFE/RL, September 29).

The pursuit of the spectral Mullo Abdullo, who largely disappeared from view after reports he was captured by government forces in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in 2002, and who may or may not have returned to the Rasht Valley last year, consumes much of the efforts of Tajikistan’s security forces and provides a convenient bogeyman for government use. Mullo Abdullo has not been seen in Tajikistan since September 2000, when a government offensive destroyed most of his group. Mullo Abdullo’s wife claims she does not know the whereabouts of her husband and does not believe he was responsible for the ambushed convoy (Asia-Plus Online, September 27).

Continuing military operations are being led by the chief of the Tajik General Staff, Ramil Nadyrov, and are reported to involve Tajik Special Forces and helicopter gunships (Itar-Tass, September 30; AFP, September 20). Rumors of Russian intervention in the form of troops or helicopters from the Russian 201st Motor Rifle Division base in Tajikistan began circulating after several alleged sightings in early September, but both Tajik and Russian sources denied the involvement of Russian personnel in the counterterrorist operations (Avesta, September 8; Itar-Tass, September 30). The 201st Division is permanently based in Tajikistan where it has been responsible for guarding the border with Afghanistan against militant incursions since 2001. While some Tajiks suspected Russian involvement in the hunt for the fugitives, others accused Russian or other “foreign forces” of engineering the escape (Farazh [Dushanbe], September 1; Millat [Dushanbe], September 1).

The mass escape, both alarming and humiliating, resulted in quick changes to the nation’s security leadership. Colonel-General Khairidin Abdurakhimov was relieved of his duties as head of the State National Security Committee (SNSC) “at his own request” and was replaced by Saimumin Yatimov, a former diplomat who became involved in state security matters in 2000 (Asia Plus Online, September 2; Interfax, September 7). All other top officials of the SNSC were dismissed, as well (Itar-Tass, September 2).

The Khudzhand Suicide Bombing

A rare Tajik suicide car-bombing on September 3 targeted a regional police unit in the northern town of Khudzhand (350 km north of Dushanbe), killing at least two policemen and injuring nearly two dozen others (Interfax, September 3; September 7; Asia-Plus Online, September 3; Avesta, September 3; Daydzhest Press [Dushanbe], September 9). Authorities blamed the IMU, but responsibility for the attack was later claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself Jamaat Ansarullah. The claim suggested the assailants were local in origin; “The operation was carried out in response to the killing and humiliation of our brothers and ordinary Muslims behind the walls of that God-damned place” (Kavkaz-Tsentr, September 8). A representative of Tajikistan’s Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) was hesitant in accepting the claim, saying “enemies of Islam” invent organizations with Arab names to tie Muslims to acts of violence. “As far as we know, there is no such organization even among banned religious organizations in our country. I even doubt that it exists in the world,” stated the IRP representative (Asia-Plus Online, September 11).

A September 5 explosion at a Dushanbe disco that wounded seven people was at first believed to be an attack by radical Islamists, but investigations revealed the blast was the result of “gross misconduct by visitors using pyrotechnics” (Interfax, September 7).

Taliban on the Border

On September 10, a Tajik border patrol encountered what they described as a large group of Islamist fighters, including Afghan Taliban, trying to cross the border from Afghanistan. A firefight lasting nearly 24 hours ensued, with the border police eventually driving off the Taliban incursion. Authorities claimed one officer and 20 Taliban were killed. Though only seven Taliban bodies were recovered, officials said the rest were observed being put into the river by their former comrades to be carried away. The battle took place roughly 210 km south of Dushanbe on the banks of the River Pyandzh and on a number of islands in the river occupied by Taliban fighters (Reuters, September 11; AFP, September 13).

Response from the Legal Islamist Opposition

In an effort to curb extremism, President Emomali Rahmon has asked parents to arrange for the return of their children studying at Islamic institutions abroad, claiming they were being trained as “extremists and terrorists” (Asia-Plus Online, August 30). The request proved highly controversial and brought pointed criticism from the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (the only legal Islamic party in Tajikistan) (Asia-Plus Online, August 26).

The IRP responded to the new violence by issuing a call for national unity and a halt in the process of destabilization (Ozodagon [Dushanbe], September 22). Party leader Muhiddin Kabiri said his appeals to the government to open discussions with the militant opposition had fallen on deaf ears and led to the current violence (Najot [Dushanbe], September 23). Kabiri maintains that moderates form the majority in Tajikistan, but both the secular government and the armed Islamist opposition are now dominated by extremists. The government has jailed more than 100 members of banned Islamic groups in the last year alone. Kabiri’s views on the violence were sought by assistant to the U.S. secretary of state on South and Central Asia Robert Blake during a recent two-day visit to Dushanbe (Vecherniy Dushanbe, September 7).


It is difficult to get a clear picture of the security picture in Tajikistan. Foreign press reports are quick to work al-Qaeda into their headlines, with reports suggesting all of Tajikistan’s militants are somehow operatives of that organization. Tajik authorities prefer to blame their troubles on a revival of the IMU in Tajikistan or alternatively to blame Islamist opponents of the government who have already been subject to a campaign of marginalization for some years. The possible emergence of new groups such as the Jamaat Ansarullah and the pursuit of shadowy figures such as Mullo Abdullo tend to confuse the picture even more. Along the frontier with Afghanistan there is the risk of fugitive militants escaping across the border to join the Taliban while other groups of Taliban are apparently trying to make their way into Tajikistan. Presenting its troubles in the framework of the “war on terrorism” allows the Dushanbe government to avoid discussions of official nepotism, corruption and inefficiency as factors causing unrest in the country.

The small number of militants active in Tajikistan does not pose an existential threat to the nation, as some have suggested. They have little influence outside the Rasht Valley and do not enjoy the levels of popular support the armed opposition had in the 1990s. However, economic stagnation and the continuing marginalization of all types of political opposition threaten to create the conditions in which militant groups could flourish, especially those offering an Islamic solution to Tajikistan’s problems in harmony with the nation’s ongoing grass-roots Islamic revival.

This article first appeared in the October 4, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Tajik-Uzbek Railway Dispute Underlines Fragility of NATO’s Afghan Supply Lines

Andrew McGregor

June 4, 2010

Developing supply lines to NATO forces in land-locked Afghanistan has required both logistical and diplomatic creativity. The shortest and technically easiest supply line runs from the port of Karachi through the Khyber Pass, but this is also the most insecure. One of several supply lines currently in use brings supplies by rail through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan into Afghanistan.

According to the deputy head of Tajik Railways, over 300 rail cars containing aviation fuel, oil and lubricants destined for NATO forces are parked on sidings in Uzbekistan (Eurasianet.org, May 26; Central Asia Online, May 26). They are among some 2,200 to 2,500 freight cars bound for Tajikistan that are being held on Uzbek territory (RFE/RL, May 26; Ferghana.ru, May 25). Tajik Railways say the delays began in February and are now preventing Tajikistan from exporting its fruit and vegetables (Daily Times [Lahore], May 26).

Unlike other disruptions to NATO’s Afghanistan supply lines, this latest difficulty has little to do with militant attacks or political disapproval of the NATO or American mission in Afghanistan. The basis of the current dispute is Tajikistan’s plans to construct a major hydroelectric power plant in Roghun, a measure that Uzbekistan claims would worsen regional water shortages. Many of the rail cars being held in Uzbekistan hold construction supplies for the power plant. Others hold much-needed reconstruction materials destined for Khatlon Province, which suffered heavy floods in early May. Rail wagons headed for Khatlon have been held up since May 18 (Ferghana.ru, May 25). Uzbekistan has said only that the delays are “technical.”

On May 7, Uzbekistan imposed temporary restrictions on passenger and cargo transport to Tajikistan due to an outbreak of polio in Tajikistan (RFE/RL Tajik, May 25).  In addition, floods along the Uzbekistan line to Termiz (the Uzbek rail terminus at the Afghan border where NATO supplies are offloaded for road transport into Afghanistan) were reported to have wiped out 11 kilometers of track. Uzbekistan says it does not have sufficient funds for repairs but has refused Tajik Railroad offers to rebuild that section at its own expense (RFE/RL Tajik, May 25).

Lieutenant-Colonel Goetz Hasske, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) brushed off the impact of the delay, saying it was “not affecting logistics in the area. We have several border crossing points that we can use and we may have to reroute some shipments” (Moscow Times, May 26).

Fuel is the most vital of the NATO supplies being shipped into Afghanistan. As such, fuel tankers are the most targeted vehicles crossing into Afghanistan. Units of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) conduct regular attacks on tankers passing through Pakistan. While NATO is downplaying the impact of the supply obstruction in Uzbekistan, the delays raise further questions as to the reliability of Uzbekistan as a supply-chain partner beyond the immediate problem of replacing 300 tankers of fuel. On the bright side, the expected September completion of a connection between Afghanistan’s limited rail network at Marzar-i-Sharif and the Uzbek line at the border town of Termiz will enable some shipments to bypass Tajikistan (AFP, May 29).

This article first appeared in the June 4, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Counter-Terrorism Operations Continue in Tajikistan

Andrew McGregor

August 13, 2009

Having recently abandoned the pretense that they were running anti-narcotics sweeps rather than counterterrorist operations in eastern Tajikistan, the Interior Ministry and the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) announced on July 8 that counterterrorist operations in Tavil-Dara district were completed (Interfax, August 5; see Terrorism Monitor, June 12 for the origin of the operations). Most operations have focused on the Rasht Valley Region, particularly the Tavil-Dara District. Tavil-Dara is part of the Region of Republican Subordination (RRS- formerly Karategin Province), one of the four administrative divisions of Tajikistan. Interior Ministry and GKNB troops returned to their bases in Dushanbe after “totally destroying” Shaykh Nemat’s group of Islamist militants. Thirty members were arrested and 11 killed, including Shaykh Nemat and Lieutenant General Mirzo Ziyoev. The detainees included six Russian citizens. According to Tajik Interior Minister Abdurahim Qahhorov, military operations in Tavil-Dara have restored stability to the district (RFE/RL, July 23). Tavil-Dara was an Islamist stronghold during the 1992-1997 civil war in Tajikistan.

Tajikistan 1Lieutenant General Mirzo Ziyoev                      

On July 8, a group of vehicles tried to force their way through a Tavil-Dara checkpoint but were repulsed by security forces in a prolonged exchange of gunfire (Asia-Plus, July 9). A group of “foreign militants” attacked a National Guard post at Havz-i Kabud in Tavil-Dara on July 16, but were driven back with losses. The Tajik Interior Ministry and the GKNB issued a joint statement on July 18 identifying the five Russian militants killed at Havz-i Kabud. They included two Daghestanis, an ethnic Tatar, an ethnic Kazakh from St. Petersburg and a native of the Siberian region of Tyumen. The militants were reported to have been armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and grenades (Asia-Plus [Dushanbe], July 17; July 20).

Dushanbe blames much of the increased violence on a resurgence of activity by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Three men arrested at a checkpoint in eastern Tajikistan on July 22 were reported by police to have been members of the IMU who fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Firearms, grenades, communications equipment and homemade bombs were seized in the investigation (AFP, July23).  Six Tajiks were sentenced on July 31 to eight years in prison for their membership in the IMU. The suspects were reported to have received training at a school in Afghanistan belonging to the IMU (Khovar [Dushanbe], August 3; Interfax, July 31; August 3). Another alleged IMU operative was arrested in Khujand on August 4 in connection with the murder of two police officers in 2005 (Asia-Plus, August 4). Two IMU militants were reportedly shot by security forces in separate incidents on August 9 (RFE/RL, August 10; Reuters, August 10).

A police car was destroyed by a bomb in Dushanbe on July 30 during a summit meeting of the leaders of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia (Reuters, July 31). Two other bombs exploded several days earlier when the summit began. The bombings followed the arrest of three local men in early July on charges that they planned to commit terrorist acts in Dushanbe. All three suspects were reported to be members of the IMU and veterans of the fighting in Afghanistan (Sobytiya [Dushanbe], July 30; Dawn [Karachi], July 27). The Tajik press suggested that the bombings were connected to threats made by the Taliban regarding Tajikistan’s cooperation in establishing new supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan (Varorud [Khujand], July 29).

Recent operations have focused on a number of different individuals and groups:

  • Mirzo Ziyoev was the military commander of the Tajik Islamists during the civil war. Until recently he and his men were based in the Rasht Valley. In the reconciliation that followed the civil war, Ziyoev was made a Lieutenant General and Minister of Emergencies, a post that came with its own paramilitary. He was dismissed from the cabinet in 2006. According to the Interior Ministry, Lieutenant General Ziyoev joined an IMU unit led by Shaykh Nemat Azizov in June and was planning a series of attacks against state targets. An audiotape released by IMU leader Tahir Yuldash denied that Mirzo Ziyoev had ever been a member of the movement, suggesting instead that he had “fallen victim to intrigues of the government” (RFE/RL Uzbek Service, July 16; Ferghana.ru, July 16). He was captured by state security forces on July 11 in connection with the attack on a National Guard post. According to the Interior Ministry, Ziyoev was killed later that day when he led a security unit to convince an armed militant group to surrender. He was reported to have been killed in the resulting crossfire (Millat [Dushanbe], July 23; al-Jazeera, July 16; IWPR, July 23). Security officials reported that five Chechens were among the captured members of the militant gang (Reuters, July 17). The five are alleged to have arrived in Tajikistan to transfer “a huge amount of money accumulated from the drug trade in order to fund terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan” (Asia-Plus, July 28).

Tajikistan 2

Colonel Mahmud Khudoyberdiyev

  • Colonel Mahmud Khudoyberdiyev came to prominence in 1997, when he led an unsuccessful mutiny as commander of a Defense Ministry brigade. He escaped the rebellion’s suppression only to return in 1998, briefly capturing the northern city of Khujand before fleeing for Uzbekistan. Tashkent has denied numerous requests for his extradition. Since the beginning of the year, Tajik security services have arrested seven former members of Khudoyberdiyev’s group on charges of murder, kidnapping and terrorism, most dating back to the 1990s (Asia-Plus, August 5).
  • Militant leader Shaykh Nemat Azizov was killed by members of the Tajik Interior Ministry’s Special Forces in late July when he and a group of fighters were tracked down in a remote mountainous area in Tavil-Dara (RFE/RL Tajik Service, July 29). Formerly a well-known guerrilla leader in the Tajik civil war, Azizov was made leader of the Tavil-Dara division of the Emergency Situations Ministry as part of the post-war reconciliation before he allegedly returned to armed opposition to the Tajik state. A Daghestani man alleged to be part of Shaykh Nemat’s group was displayed on Tajik television in late July. Magomed Rukhullaevich Sabiullaev (also given as Satsiyullayev) claimed he flew from St. Petersburg to Dushanbe before participating in attacks on security forces in Nurabad and Tavil-Dara under Shaykh Nemat’s command (RFE/RL, July 28). The Daghestani’s confession stated that he and two other Daghestanis met veteran Islamist commander Mullo Abdullo in Tavil-Dara. Mullo Abdullo blessed their jihad before Shaykh Nemat armed them (Asia-Plus, July 28). Shaykh Nemat was killed on July 29 when security forces tracked his group to a remote mountain village. Azizov refused to surrender and was killed in a firefight. The Interior Ministry claimed Shaykh Nemat had entered Tajikistan to sell narcotics from Afghanistan in order to fund militant operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan (AFP, July 29). Security services also claimed Shaykh Nemat was a commander in the IMU (Interfax, August 5; Asia Plus, July 29).
  • Forty-six members of the Tablighi Jamaat, an international Islamic revival group, were arrested in the Khatlon region in mid-July (Tojikston [Dushanbe], July 16).  The Tablighis insist they are strictly apolitical, though there are suspicions that Islamist militants elsewhere may have used the cover of the Tablighi movement to facilitate an international movement (see Terrorism Focus, February 13, 2008). The Tablighi Jamaat was banned in March 2006 in the belief that the movement aims to subvert constitutional order in Tajikistan and establish an Islamic Caliphate (Central Asia Online, July 21). The 46 Jamaat members will be tried for incitement to extremism and the creation of an extremist community. In a separate case, five Jamaat members of Tajik and Russian origin were sentenced to terms of three to six years each for calling for “forcible change” to the country’s constitution (Interfax, August 11).

It is still difficult to say with any accuracy exactly what groups Tajikistan’s security forces have been battling in the mountains since May. While a mixture of native Tajiks and foreign militants appear ready to take up arms against the state, it remains to be seen if there is a taste in the Tajikistan public for a resumption of the disastrous and brutal civil war of the 1990s. Some of the violence appears to be generated by militants escaping the Pakistani military offensive on Pakistan’s northwest frontier. But other incidents appear to be based in the personal grievances of Islamists who accepted lofty government posts as part of the national reconciliation after the civil war, and who are now being dropped from government. Many of the arrests for crimes committed in the 1990s indicate that the Islamists have lost the “immunity” they once enjoyed as part of the government’s desire to restore stability to Tajikistan. As an Interior Ministry spokesman told a correspondent, “The overwhelming majority of people who remember the bitter lessons of the recent civil war well did not respond to [the militants’] provocative calls” (Itar-Tass, August 9).

This article first appeared in the August 13, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Are the Afghan Taliban Using Tajikistan’s Islamist Militants to Pressure Dushanbe on NATO Supply Routes?

Andrew McGregor

June 12, 2009

As Pakistan’s military continues to consolidate its control over the Malakand region of the North-West Frontier Province and talks of continuing on into South Waziristan, there is some apprehension in neighboring states that foreign fighters based in northwest Pakistan may begin leaving their now-endangered bases for home. Various reports claim foreign militants are on the move towards the Central Asian states in the aftermath of the Pakistan Army’s offensive against Islamist extremists in the Swat Valley (Jang [Rawalpindi], June 3; Millat [Dushanbe], May 21; Ozodagon [Dushanbe], May 21). A new military operation in eastern Tajikistan suggests the Central Asian nation is responding to the return of such extremists under the command of veteran Tajik jihadi leader Mullo Abdullo Rakhimov, though the Dushanbe-based government says it is only conducting routine anti-narcotics operations.

tajikistan 3Fighting during the Tajikistan Civil War (1992-97)

During Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war, Mullo Abdullo was an important Islamist commander, operating as part of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), an awkward coalition of liberal democrats and Islamists. If Abdullo has returned, it would mark his first known presence in Tajikistan since September 2000, when a government offensive in the Darband region destroyed most of his group, with over 40 fighters captured. Mullo Abdullo himself was reported captured in this encounter. He is supposed to have been sent on to Dushanbe, but was apparently amnestied and released, taking advantage of his unexpected freedom to leave for Afghanistan whereby according to some accounts, Ahmad Shah Masoud made him a commander in the Northern Alliance. Other reports say he joined the Taliban and was captured by government forces in Kandahar province in 2002, after which little was heard of him (Asia Plus, May 23; RFE/RL, May 21). Tajikistan authorities were unable to confirm reports of Abdullo’s detention in Afghanistan (Interfax, May 22).

The Legacy of Tajikistan’s Civil War

Government troops are currently at work in the Rasht Valley, in the western part of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO). The Garm district of the Rasht Valley has a long history as a center for Islamist militancy, dating back to its days as an important center for the anti-Soviet Bashmachi rebellion of the 1920’s. During the civil war the Garmis sided with the Islamists and suffered severe retribution for their efforts. The Rasht Valley was also the main operational base for Mullah Abdullo’s forces during the war.

The GBAO, located in the Pamir Mountains, occupies 45% of the territory of Tajikistan but has only 3% of the total population. GBAO was created by the Soviets in 1925 and joined the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic in 1929. During the civil war, the GBAO was a stronghold of Islamists affiliated with the UTO. Eastern Tajikistan is also the home of the Pamiri, an Isma’ili Shi’a people who were targeted for massacres after trying to separate from Tajikistan in 1991. The Pamiris were mostly supporters of the UTO.

Roughly 100,000 people were killed and over a million displaced in the 1992-1997 civil war, which pitted democratic reformers and Islamists against the Soviet elites of the northern Leninabad and central Kulyab regions who sought to continue their dominance of the Tajikistan government in the post-Soviet era. By 1993 the Garmi and Pamiri opposition forces were suffering from serious reverses on the battlefield and a violent campaign by government forces determined to drive Garmi and Pamiri civilians from Tajikistan. Both civilians and Islamist fighters took refuge across the border in Afghanistan, where the Islamist fighters received arms and assistance from ethnic Tajik Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance military forces. The fighters also received religious training in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A Russian intervention in the civil war brought Afghan nationals north to fight the Russians around Dushanbe in 1996. When a negotiated settlement brought an end to the war in 1997, Mullo Abdullo was one of a number of Islamist commanders who refused to lay down arms, using bases in Afghanistan to mount cross-border attacks on Tajikistani security forces in the Rasht Valley. There are claims that Abdullo participated in raids on Kyrgyzstan in the late 1990s as a field commander in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). [1]

Operation Kuknor

According to government sources, Operation Kuknor (Operation Poppy) began in the Rasht Valley on May 15 and is expected to continue until November, an unusually long period when compared to previous anti-narcotics operations. Spokesmen say the operation is designed to interdict narcotics trafficking and eliminate poppy cultivation, but this explanation has raised eyebrows in the isolated valley, which has never been part of any known smuggling routes. Its climate is also generally considered unfavorable for the cultivation of poppies. The Tajikistan Interior Ministry expanded on the reasons behind the operation:

tajikistan 4“Due to favorable weather conditions large fields of opium poppy plants and other drugs of the opium group were observed in the Afghan (northeastern) province of Badakhshan… A wide-scale operation is being carried out in Tajikistan, including in the Rasht valley, as part of the Poppy 2009 operation in order to prevent drug smuggling cases from the neighboring country and to uncover cases of cultivation of drug plants. The Interior Ministry does not have information about armed people who allegedly entered Tajikistan’s territory (Asia Plus [Dushanbe], May 23).”

The operation includes units of the Interior Ministry, the Drug Control Agency, the State Committee on National Security and Customs units. The inclusion of members of the Interior Ministry’s Special Forces is considered unusual for an anti-narcotics operation (RFE/RL, May 21). Tajik Border Guards and Drug Control Agency officers were reported to have seized more than 80 kg of drugs in eastern Darvoz District (along the north-west border of the GBAO) in the opening days of the operation, but a Dushanbe daily reported rumors of fighting between government forces and militants in the same district, noting the government could not give “a clear explanation of the situation” in eastern Darvoz (Nigoh [Dushanbe], May 28; Tojikiston [Dushanbe], May 28).

The Return of Mullo Abdullo

Reports from Russia claimed that Abdullo crossed into eastern Tajikistan several weeks ago and has been canvassing elders in the Rasht Valley for support.  The original group of 100 fighters has allegedly grown to 300 (Kommersant, May 25).

A source in the Interior Ministry stated, “It is not known who is spreading such rumors, but we will get to the bottom of this. It is quiet and calm [in the Rasht Valley], no operations are being conducted there except for Kuknor-2009” (Interfax, May 22). At the same time it was denying cross-border incursions by militants, the Interior Ministry reported the discovery of a cache of weapons in a Dushanbe home, including a grenade launcher with 27 rounds, five assault rifles, two grenades and a large quantity of ammunition (Interfax, May 23, 2009).

Whether by design or coincidence, there have recently been a number of arrests of high-profile former associates of Mullo Abdullo on charges that appear to have been ignored for years. On May 17 the Tajik Interior Ministry announced the arrest of Muzzafar Nuriddinov and several other former Islamist UTO leaders. Nuriddinov was a well-known associate of Mullo Abdullo in the period 1994-1999 and the timing of his arrest led to increased speculation in Dushanbe over the real intent of the government’s operations in the GBAO (Asia Plus [Dushanbe], May 21). Among other “past crimes” dating back to the 1990s, Nuriddinov is wanted for murdering two policemen with a Kalashnikov rifle. Prior to his involvement with Mullo Abdullo, Nuriddinov was a member of a militant group under field commander Fathullo Tojiddinov, who later became a leader of the Interior Ministry’s rapid deployment unit before being charged with possession of six kilograms of raw opium in June 2007 (Asia Plus, March 18, 2008). Another former member of Abdullo’s command, Djumaboi Sanginov, was arrested on May 31 in Dushanbe for crimes allegedly committed as a member of the UTO in 1996 (Ferghan.ru, June 1).

Another Target for Operation Kuknor?

Other reports claim the operation in the Rasht Valley is directed at arresting former opposition warlord Mirzokhuja Ahmadov for his involvement in unspecified “past crimes.” An attempt last year to arrest Ahmadov resulted in the shooting death of Colonel Oleg Zakharchenko, chief of Tajikistan’s OMON police unit, by one of Ahmadov’s followers. Ahmadov was serving as head of the anti-organized crime unit in the Rasht Valley at the time, a post he received as part of integration efforts following the civil war. During the war, Ahmadov was a well-known UTO field commander.  Ahmadov claims Zakharchenko’s death was the result of his men thinking their headquarters was under attack by gunmen. He further claims to have received a verbal pardon from Tajikistan president Emomali Rahmon (Eurasianet.org, February 5, 2008; RFE/RL April 14, May 20).


The Taliban recently warned Tajikistan against providing a new supply route for U.S. and NATO military supplies on their way to Afghanistan (Daydzhest Press, May 28). Nevertheless, Tajikistan agreed to a deal to allow non-military supplies to pass through Tajikistan as part of a vast new northern supply route meant to provide an alternative to the turbulent Khyber Pass of northwest Pakistan (BBC, April 21). If Mullo Abdullo has passed from Pakistan through Afghanistan into eastern Tajikistan, it may be part of an effort by the Taliban to convince Dushanbe to rethink its cooperation with the Coalition.

Speaking at a meeting with EU ministers working on greater cooperation with Central Asian states, Tajikistan’s Foreign Minister, Hamrokhon Zarifi, confirmed the nation’s readiness to support international anti-terrorism operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. “Threats by Taliban insurgents do not frighten us and Tajikistan signed an agreement on giving a corridor for the land transit of U.S. non-military goods to Afghanistan” (ITAR-TASS, May 29). Nevertheless, with a recent and sudden outbreak of suicide bombings and other violence in neighboring Uzbekistan raising fears of a return of Islamist fighters to that region, Dushanbe may be making efforts to preempt the penetration of Islamist fighters from Pakistan in force. An anti-narcotics operation would provide useful cover for extensive ground sweeps and the systematic collection of intelligence necessary to prevent Islamist militants from establishing new bases inside Tajikistan’s Rasht Valley.


1. Muzaffar Olimov and Saodat Olimova, “Region early warning report: Political Islam in Tajikistan,” Forum on Early Warning and Early Response (FEWER), July 31, 2001.


This article first appeared in the June 12, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor