In July 2018, four Western cyclists were killed in an attack conducted by five Tajikistani nationals south of Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The Islamic State-claimed attack (1) is the first known attack on foreigners in Tajikistan. (2) (a) It brings focus to several factors that signal the likelihood of an increasing terrorism threat to Tajikistan in the near future. These factors include an established Central Asian Islamic State node in Afghanistan subordinate to Islamic State Khorasan, the Islamic State's loss of physical territory in Syria and Iraq, and the prospects for those still alive among an estimated 1,300 to 2,000 (3) Tajikistan citizens who have been fighting there to return home or flee to other battlefields, such as Afghanistan.
Other factors fueling the threat are reports of the Tajikistan government's continued repression of political rivals (4) and likelihood of military operations in the Gorno-Badakhshan region (5)--actions that could serve to galvanize opposition against the Tajik government and, in turn, be exploited by jihadis to rally support for resources and fighters. Additionally, Tajik jihadis have increased their stature among global terrorist groups over the past two decades, thus making assistance from larger terrorist organizations or a renewed jihadi focus on Central Asia increasingly probable. (6) This article argues that despite the Islamic State's loss of territory in Syria and Iraq, the group maintains the ability to communicate and to direct external operations in regions such as Tajikistan and, likewise, that such conditions make it increasingly likely that Tajik elements of the Islamic State will make good on their promise to increase operational focus in their home country. On a broader level, this article also seeks to dispel the common misperception that liberating Islamic State-held territory is commensurate with winning the war against this group.
Framing the Threat of Foreign Fighter Outflow
The Islamic State's physical territory in Syria and Iraq continues to collapse, as coalition operations are ongoing against the group's last stronghold in the Euphrates River Valley in Syria and near the Iraqi border. (7) The fight will undoubtedly continue to shift to an asymmetric war, an environment to which local Iraqi and Syrian Islamic State fighters can easily adapt by blending back into the local population. For the Islamic State's remaining foreign fighters, however, this is not likely an option. While many Islamic State foreign fighters have been killed, a senior U.N. official estimated in August 2018 that there could be approximately 20,000 foreigners still alive in the Islamic State's ranks in Syria and Iraq. (8) Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are two of the larger per capita global contributors of Islamic State foreign fighters. An estimated 1,300 to 2,000 Tajikistan citizens have reportedly traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State and other jihadi groups. Those Tajik jihadis who have survived could either continue to fight with groups there, chose to return to Tajikistan, or opt to travel to other conflict zones like Afghanistan where one Tajik and several other Central Asian terror groups are established. (b)
Should Tajik jihadis decide to return home, the Tajikistan government has created an easy path for them to do so. In 2015, the government updated a law allowing authorities to pardon Tajikistan citizens returning home with the stipulation that they are remorseful and did not participate in violence. (9) In 2017, Radio Free Europe's Farangis Najibullah provided unique insight into the story of Tajik citizen and former Islamic State recruit Furqat Vatanov who was successfully reintegrated following his arrest and extradition from Turkey. (10) The updated law was probably a genuine initiative by the Tajik government to stem the flow of its citizens to conflict zones and create a peaceful pathway for their return. However, the reported repressive nature of the Tajik government may make Islamic State members who want to go home fear reprisal. This lack of trust and uncertainty may encourage them to seek other options.
Additionally, there are probably larger segments of Islamic State foreign fighters who plan to continue fighting even though the environment in Syria and Iraq grows increasingly inhospitable to their presence. Afghanistan may serve as an alternate location for Central Asian jihadis fleeing Syria and Iraq who want to continue their fight. Conveniently, Afghanistan is already home to several Central Asian terror groups. In summer 2018, the United Nations released a report stating that up to 1,000 fighters, including nationals of the Russian Federation and Central Asian States, were making their way to Afghanistan where 750 nationals of Central Asians--mainly from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan--were already located. (11) These fighters were believed to be comfortable enough to relocate among Afghans of Uzbek and Tajik ethnicity. (12) Islamic State Khorasan integrated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) into its ranks in 2015, (13) and the Tajik group Jamaat Ansarullah reportedly merged with Islamic State Khorasan in 2017. (14) According to an internal Islamic State communique to Islamic State Khorasan that was captured in Afghanistan, another group in Tajikistan--apparently separate from Jamaat Ansarullah--sought to merge with the Islamic State in 2016. (c)
Tajik foreign fighters less ideologically aligned to the Islamic State could be integrated into one of two groups in Afghanistan. The first of these groups is the al-Qa'ida-aligned and predominantly Uzbek Islamic Jihad Union in Afghanistan, which has been largely quiet since 2014. The second possibility is the Afghanistan-based wing of the predominantly Uzbek Imam Bukhari Battalion, (d) which fights under the banner of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in northwest Syria and also provided details on its website in 2016 and early 2017 regarding operations in Jowzjan Province. (15) (e) Though other groups exist in Afghanistan, Jamaat Ansarullah is probably the more likely group to integrate Tajik foreign fighters departing the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and traveling to Afghanistan.
Jamaat Ansarullah, (16) an Afghanistan-based Tajikistani terrorist group, was formed in 2010 with likely fewer than 100 members and has since received support from the IMU, the Taliban, and al-Qa'ida. The group's stated mission is to bring an 'Islamic' government to Tajikistan. (17) Beginning with its foundation, Jamaat Ansarullah sporadically published videos and disseminated messages through its website, (18) which has been inactive since 2016. The group's leader Amriddin Tabarov (19) was killed in Afghanistan in December 2015 and Tabarov's son-in-law Mavlavi (f) Salmon was appointed as the new leader by the end of 2016. (20)
In 2014, Jamaat Ansarullah sent some of its members to fight in Syria with Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qa'ida-aligned group now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. (21) At a point in 2014 or 2015, some Jamaat Ansarullah members ended up fighting alongside the Islamic State. The Islamic State...