CERIA Brief No. 11, February 2016
By Noah Tucker
According to estimates from the government of Tajikistan and other estimates produced within the last year, between 200-1000 Tajikistani citizens have traveled to Syria or Iraq to participate in the conflict there. In contrast to Uzbeks who have joined the conflict on sometimes opposing sides, Tajikistanis appear to almost uniformly join ISIS.
Unlike their Uzbek or Russian-language counterparts, Tajiks fighting with ISIS have no dedicated official media outlet or spokesman, but instead rely primarily on a changing series of “celebrity” commanders, briefly including defected OMON Special Operations Police Forces commander Gulmorod Halimov, whose interactions with independent journalists and religious leaders in Tajikistan and have sparked robust discussion online and in Tajikistan’s relatively more independent media.
The state’s overall message in response is that Tajiks are lured into joining ISIS as part of a grand conspiracy to undermine Tajikistan and Tajik “national values” that these messages contrast to allegedly foreign “Islamic” values – including religious expression in public spaces and religious political organizations like the IRPT. Although the state has never been able to produce any evidence of a link between ISIS and the IRPT, these arguments were central to narratives justifying classifying the party as a terrorist organization in September 2015 and arresting many of its leading members, a step that effectively destroyed the terms of the 1997 peace agreement that ended Tajikistan’s bloody five year civil war.
In response to ISIS and to state policies, social media users from Tajikistan – many of whom live and work abroad as migrants – have organized sophisticated campaigns to protest and mock state policies restricting external expressions of faith and rejecting arguments that these facilitate ISIS recruiting. The vast majority of Tajik social media users oppose the Islamic state and appear to take seriously rumors of imminent invasion from Afghanistan. A significant number of social media users also accept and perpetuate conspiracies that claim ISIS – and all other violent Islamist extremist organizations – are “fronts” created by the United States or Israel to win control of natural resources in the Middle East or create turmoil in the Islamic world. Russian media and information operations play an important role in shaping public perceptions of ISIS and the U.S.