Tuesday, January 19, 2016

80 Percent of Tajiks Fighting for ISIS Recruited While in Russia, Dushanbe Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 19 – Dushanbe says that most of its citizens who are joining ISIS were recruited while working as gastarbeiters in Russia. Moscow denies this and points to domestic problems in Tajikistan. But neither the Tajik government nor the Russian one has an answer to the problem of how to respond to such people when they return home.

            Moscow has come up with a partial answer: it is banning many Central Asians from returning to Russia as gastarbeiters. Yesterday, Dushanbe said that the Russian authorities have put 333,931 Tajiks on a list of those who will not be admitted to Russia in the future (news.tj/ru/news/svyshe-333-tys-grazhdanam-tadzhikistana-doroga-v-rossiyu-zakazana).

            That may help Russia in the short term, but it makes the situation in Tajikistan even worse. Not only does this ensure that transfer payments on which Tajiks had been relying will not be reappearing anytime soon, but it likely increases recruiting opportunities for ISIS whose representatives will say  if you’re going to be treated like us, you should be with us.

            The role of Russian-based institutions in recruiting Tajiks is beyond question. Even Russian officials have admitted this, although they have tended to downplay that factor and also to accept official Dushanbe figures about how many Tajiks have gone to fight with ISIS forces in Syria.

            Dushanbe usually gives the figure of 700, of whom, it says, approximately 300 have already died, meaning that it faces the problem of the return of only about 400.  But others working on the question, Zinaida Burskaya of “Novaya gazeta” says put the figure at far more – perhaps 2500 to 3000, one equivalent to the number of ISIS fighters from the Russian Federation (novayagazeta.ru/society/71476.html).

            Even more worrisome are the figures she cites from Khudoberdi Kholiknazarov, the head of the Tajikistan Presidential Center for Strategic Research.  He says that “only 20 percent of Tajiks go [into ISIS] directly from Tajikistan. 80 percent of them do so via Russia. They are recruited there,” often at the Moscow mosque on Prospekt Mir.

            Khoknazarov concedes that the source of some of this problem lies within the borders of Tajikistan, including in the large number of illegal mosques and medrassahs opened over the last 15 years, often, he says, by the Party of the Islamic Rebirth of Tajikistan. And that is something  Dushanbe is now addressing.

            In 2010-2011, he says, the authorities closed down more than 70 medrassahs, and during the first six months of 2015, they shuttered “several hundred mosques.”  Moreover, the authorities have banned many Islamist traditions and now insist on approving the sermons delivered at the official mosques lest the wrong messages be sent.

            The authorities say that these actions are required by the need to struggle against terrorism, extremism and religious radicalism,” the “Novaya gazeta” journalist says. But “in truth, in practice, [such moves] often have exactly the opposite result,” driving people into underground mosques the authorities do not control.

            The Tajik government, Kholiknazarov says, recognizes that part of the problem is that ISIS finds it easy to recruit among Muslims who know little or nothing about their faith and thus are willing to defer to those who appear to know more.  Consequently, it is moving to reopen some of the Muslim training academies to prepare more mullahs.

            In Dushanbe now, there is an Islamic Institute and an Islamic gymnasium, and the 23 of the 26 medrassahs not working this year – apparently because they were shut down at government order – will resume their operations in the next academic year.

            Until there are enough schools at home, Koliknazarov says, the country will have to rely on mullahs trained abroad. He himself was trained in Pakistan. “The state doesn’t see any problems in this. But it is necessary that the state knows where and who is studying so that young citizens don’t fall in with terrorist organizations and sects.”

            But in the age of the Internet, Tajikistan’s supreme mufti, Saidmukkaram Abdulkolidzoda says, young people who want to find extremist methods are likely to be able to do so whatever the government does. Consequently, the struggle with ISIS will continue; and it is far from clear that either Tajikistan or Russia is winning.

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