On July 29th, 2018, a car slammed into seven cyclists from Switzerland, the United States and the Netherlands in southern Tajikistan. The five men in the vehicle proceeded to attack the stricken tourists with knives, killing four of them. The government of Tajikistan quickly blamed the attack on the Islamic Renaissance Party, the country’s leading opposition movement, which had held two seats in parliament before being labelled a terrorist organization by the regime in 2015. 
Soon after, Islamic State media outlet Amaq released a video in which four of the attackers pledged allegiance to the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  The July incident was the first attack in Central Asia to be reliably linked to Islamic State and the first to target western tourists in over a decade.
Three months later, on November 7, a riot in a maximum-security prison in the north of Tajikistan resulted in over 25 inmates being killed. Islamic State claimed responsibility, although it did not provide any proof to back its claim. 
Together, these events have led to renewed speculation about stability in Tajikistan.
To some degree, Tajikistan does appear to have a problem with radicalization. The government of Tajikistan claims that since 2011, 1,899 citizens have joined terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, with most choosing Islamic State.  A further 2,615 were stopped while trying to cross the Turkish-Syrian border. 
This record would make Tajikistan one of the world’s largest per capita producers of foreign fighters, on a par with Tunisia and Jordan. Tajikistan also tops the list of foreign fighter suicide bombings by Islamic State. Furthermore, the former head of the country’s paramilitary police defected to Islamic State in May 2015 and rose to the rank of Minister of War within the organization.
The Dynamics of Radicalization
While recruits come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and have a range of educational levels, three general conclusions emerge from the data we have on the radicalization of Tajik citizens. 
First, most appear to have been recruited while working as migrant laborers in Russia, where over one million Tajiks reside. Far from their home communities and living in difficult conditions, migrants have proved a fertile ground for terrorist recruiters.
Second, few recruits appear to have had any formal religious training or to have been devout Muslims before being recruited. With limited knowledge of religion, the simplistic takfiri ideology seems to appeal to some angry young Tajiks who have a sense of personal injustice.
Third, connections matter. Many recruits have been radicalized through family and friendship networks. Abu Usama Noraki, the nom de guerre of 31-year-old Tojiddin Nazarov, has reportedly recruited dozens of Tajiks and been involved in planning attacks in Stockholm and Moscow.  Nine members of the Turabekov family from Mehnatabad, a tiny village on the border with Uzbekistan, travelled to Syria in 2014.  In the nearby district of Isfara, 20 people from the same village left for Syria.  In each case, the radicalization of one or two individuals seems to have drawn in members of their wider community.
As Islamic State lost the vast majority of its territory in Syria and Iraq, fears emerged of returning fighters wreaking havoc at home. Tajikistan introduced new legislation in 2015 allowing authorities to pardon citizens who voluntarily return home and express regret that they joined militant groups abroad. Since then, at least 111 Tajiks have returned home to live under close scrutiny from law enforcement. 
At present, a greater threat seems to stem from those who have not fought in Syria and Iraq. As it has lost territory, Islamic State has switched its focus to encouraging sympathizers to conduct attacks where they are living. The July attack in Tajikistan follows this model. Such unsophisticated attacks involve limited planning and are exceedingly difficult for the authorities to prevent.
A second potential threat stems from Afghanistan, which shares a 1,300 kilometer border with Tajikistan. While the flow of recruits to Syria has almost ceased, some fighters are being diverted to Afghanistan. 
Central Asians have been fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan since before the NATO invasion in 2001. A recent UN report estimated that there are some 750 Central Asian citizens fighting in Afghanistan, although this is difficult to verify. 
The Taliban have consistently declared that they have no interest north of Afghanistan, so this group has limited appeal to many Tajiks. But two other groups have been attracting Tajik citizens. One is Jamaat Ansurallah. Established in 2010 by former civil war-era commander Amriddin Tabarov, Jamaat Ansurallah has an estimated 100 fighters.  Originally aligned with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the group has moved closer to the second group, Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), merging with its fighters in 2017. 
In fact, it is ISKP that has proven most successful in attracting recruits from Central Asia. The offshoot from Islamic State, which announced its existence in 2015, has managed to absorb militants from other groups as well, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. According to sources within the organization, its fighters numbered 20,000 by early 2017 , although some analysts have argued that its strength is often exaggerated.  Dozens of Tajik citizens may well have joined ISKP, as the government claims, but the numbers are insignificant when compared with the hundreds leaving for Syria and Iraq in 2014 and 2015. 
Tajikistan has produced a comparatively large number of terrorists in recent years. Many of these individuals have been killed or captured in the Middle East or become disillusioned with jihadism. A small number seem to have moved to Afghanistan, where they could threaten their homeland in the future. Over the past few years, with the exception of a few isolated incidents such as the July attack, Tajikistan has proved relatively immune to terrorist attacks within its borders. When violence has erupted, as it did in the Pamirs in 2012, in the Rasht valley between 2008 and 2011 and in Dushanbe in 2015, the causes have been more closely linked to patterns of authoritarian governance than international terrorism.  Arguably, these local conflicts linked to corruption and state repression have greater potential to destabilize the country than terrorist groups do.
 Maxim Edwards, “Meet Tajikistan’s Embattled Islamists,” OpenDemocracy, 28 September 2017, https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/maxim-edwards/meet-tajikistan-s-embattled-islamists.
 “Islamic State claims responsibility for attack on tourists in Tajikistan – AMAQ,” Reuters, 30 July 2018, https://af.reuters.com/article/idAFKBN1KK29I
 “Islamic State Says It Was Behind Deadly Tajik Prison Riot,” RFE/RL, 9 November 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/is-says-behind-deadly-tajik-prison-riot/29591609.html.
 “Пешгирии ҷалби ҷавонон ба ташкилоти террористӣ вазифаи ҷомеаи шаҳрвандӣ низ ҳаст” [“Civil Society also have a Role in Preventing Young People from Participating in Terrorist Groups], Sadoi Mardum, 15 November 2018, http://sadoimardum.tj/ma-lisi-ol/peshgirii-albi-avonon-ba-tashkiloti-terrorist-vazifai-omeai-sha-rvand-niz-ast/.
 Richard Barrett, “Beyond the Caliphate,” The Soufan Group, October 2017, http://thesoufancenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Beyond-the-Caliphate-Foreign-Fighters-and-the-Threat-of-Returnees-TSC-Report-October-2017-v3.pdf.
 Charlie Winter, “War by Suicide: A Statistical Analysis of the Islamic State’s Martyrdom Industry,” ICCT Research Paper, February 2017, https://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/ICCT-Winter-War-by-Suicide-Feb2017.pdf.
 Edward Lemon, “Pathways to Violent Extremism,” Harriman Magazine, Summer 2018, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/creative/epub/harriman/2018/summer/Pathways_to_Violent_Extremism.pdf.
 Damon Mehl, “Converging Factors Signal Increasing Terror Threat to Tajikistan,” CTC Sentinel, 11, (10), November 2018, https://ctc.usma.edu/converging-factors-signal-increasing-terror-threat-tajikistan/.
 Tajik Man Tells How ISIL Harmed Family,” Caravanserai, 19 January 2017, http://central.asia-news.com/en_GB/articles/cnmi_ca/features/2017/01/19/feature-01.
 “Чорқишлоқ – зодгоҳи 20 ҷангии ҷанги Сурия” [Chorqishloq- Home of 20 Fighters for the War in Syria], Radio Ozodi, 25 September 2014, https://www.ozodi.org/a/born-place-of-tajik-militanst-of-syrian-war/26605989.html.
 “Tajikistan Grants Amnesty for Over 100 Syria, Iraqi Returnees,” Middle East Online, 8 February 2018, https://middle-east-online.com/en/tajikistan-grants-amnesty-over-100-syria-iraqi-returnees.
 Edward Lemon, “To Afghanistan Not Syria? Islamic State Diverts Tajik Fighters South,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, 17 March 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/afghanistan-not-syria-islamic-state-diverts-tajik-fighters-south/.
 “S/2018/705 Twenty-second report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” UN Security Council, July 2018, https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/news/document/s-2018-705-twenty-second-report-analytical-support-sanctions-monitoring-team-submitted-pursuant-resolution-2368-2017-concerning-isil-daesh-al-qaida-associated/.
 Antonio Giustozzi, 2018. The Islamic State in Khorasan. London: Hurst and Company, p.157.
 Ibid, p.142.
 Borhan Osman, “Another ISKP Leader “Dead”: Where is the Group Headed after Losing so Many Amirs?,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, 23 July 2017, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/another-iskp-leader-dead-where-is-the-group-headed-after-losing-so-many-amirs/.
 “Эмомали Рахмон: таджикские боевики переместились с Ближнего Востока в Афганистан” [Emomali Rahmon: Tajik Militants are Moving from the Middle East to Afghanistan], Radio Ozodi, May 12, 2018, https://rus.ozodi.org/a/29222903.html.
 Edward Lemon, “Violence in Tajikistan Emerges from within the State,” CACI-Analyst, 23 September 2015, https://cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13279-violence-in-tajikistan-emerges-from-within-the-state.html.
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