May 06

Myth or Reality? Tajik Fighters in Syria

During the conflict in the Rasht Valley between 2009 and 2011, the Tajik government frequently voiced concerns over the infiltration of “foreign mercenaries” into the country. Three years later and the government’s latest concerns are related to Tajiks joining Islamic militant groups in Syria. Syria’s grand mufti, Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun, stated in May 2014 that there are as many as 190 Tajiks fighting for the opposition. This figure has subsequently become “fact” through its frequent deployment by Tajik officials.

On 2 May, Tajik TV showed three men who had been arrested for taking part in the civil war in Syria. The narrator identified the men as Mehroj Pirzoda and Bakhtovar Majidzoda, both 23 years old and from Vahdat, and “ethnic Uzbek” Ahmadjon Ersaliyev, 25 years old, from near Qurgonteppa. They travelled to Syria in 2008 to attend the Mahadda Oli madrassa. According to Mehroj, they were sent by the Turajonzoda family, a prominent religious family based in Vahdat, some twenty kilometres from Dushanbe. In 2011, the three men participated in protests against the Assad regime organised by al-Nusra. By November 2011 they had joined the ranks of al-Nusra and received $50 per week in payment.

For the government of Tajikistan and many analysts the cause of this phenomenon is simple. Young Tajik men travel abroad to study Islam and are given money as an incentive to join militant groups. The return of these militants to Tajikistan is a major concern for the government. The profiles of those killed and arrested for fighting in Syria reveal insights into the transnational processes by which these men found themselves in Syria.

However, the government of Tajikistan often uses links with Syria as to legitimate the removal of potential opposition forces. In early March, the police announced the arrest of Davlat Cholov, a convicted murderer and rapist, brother of the former commander of the Popular Front Kurbon Cholov. A source from the National Security Committee of Tajikistan stated that Davlat has participated in the revolution in Egypt and then returned to Tajikistan to recruit local men for jihad in Syria. In October 2013 security forces arrested five Tajik nationals who had been studying at the Syrian International University. Two months later a court in Dushanbe sentenced them to two years in jail for “participation in a criminal group or in other armed groups,” despite the defence lawyer’s claim that there was no evidence that they actually fought in Syria. In February 2014, a member of the IRPT, Bahriddin Muminov, was imprisoned for allegedly fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. The evidence for his involvement was also circumstantial.

Nevertheless, undoubtedly some Tajik nationals are fighting in Syria. Since the start of the war in 2011, five Tajik nationals have been killed in the fighting. In March 2014 Kavkaz Center reported the death of Abu Ahmad al Tajik, a Kulobi whose real name was Bakhtiyor Sherov. His death came one month after that of Masrur Ibrokhimov.

Photo: RFE/RL

After leaving Kulob in spring 2013 in search of work, Al-Tajiki arrived in Syria where he joined the Second Brigade of the “Caucasus Emirate.” His obituary, published on the Kavkaz Center website, stated that he acted heroically in his battle with the “infidels” (both the Syrian government and Shiite militias) receiving two injuries. A neighbour from Kulob, interviewed by RFE/RL shortly after his death said that he was “calm young man, who never walked at night and respected his mother.”

In April 2014 a three minute video uploaded on YouTube showed Tajiks in Syria burning their passports. Speaking in broken Russian, one man states that:

We brothers came here for a new jihad, God willing. This is a Tajik kufr (non-believer) passport, God willing, we will burn them, and we have intentions, God willing , we will not go back to these kufr practices.

I have three comments on Tajik involvement in the Syrian civil war.

First, scepticism exists over the accuracy of the figures relating to the total number of Tajiks in Syria. Indeed Saidumar Husaini , deputy of the Tajik Parliament and deputy chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan , told Asia Plus that he considers that there are no more than “a few dozen” Tajik fighters. It is in the interest of both the Syrian opposition and the Tajik government to exaggerate the “foreign” presence in the Syrian war. For the opposition, it allows them to demonstrate that their cause has support from the umma (Islamic community). For Rahmon’s regime, it legitimises a repressive religious policy. The case of Tajiks perpetrating jihad beyond the country’s borders legitimates the Tajik governments move in August 2010 to bring all those studying Islam abroad back to Tajikistan. Indeed, speaking to RFE/RL in May 2013, Tajik State Committee for National Security spokesman Emom Melikov stated that the return of 2,000 Tajik youths from Islamic schools abroad since 2010 would reduce the number of Tajiks being “radicalised” abroad.

Second, this latest public confession seems to be part of a renewed attempt to blacken the name of the Turajonzoda family. Both the narrator and the detainees apportioned blame to them, as Bakhtovar states, “I received my primary religious education at Muhammadiya madrasah, which belongs to the Turajonzoda family.” The evidence for the family’s links with terrorism is tentative. The men were sent to Syria in 2008, three years before fighting broke out. At the time Damascus was a seat of Islamic learning. Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda had studied in neighbouring Jordan during the Soviet Union. What is more likely, is that this latest incident is an excuse of the government to crack down on opposition voices.

Indeed, this is not the first time that the government has attempted to discredit the Turajonzoda family. In September 2010, after 25 prisoners broke out from a maximum-security prison in Dushanbe, the government accused Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda of being a KGB agent as well as providing material support to the insurgents. In December 2011, his family came under government pressure after allegedly carrying out the Ashura ritual, which is associated with Shia Islam rather than the Sunni Hanafi form practiced in Tajikistan. It remains to be seen what will come of this latest provocation.

Third, the Tajik government continues to frame the peace-loving Tajik Self with the violent, dishonourable terrorist Other. At the end of the segment the narrator passed his judgement over Tajiks fighting in Syria:

These sort of people do not value the water and land of the motherland, peace, stability and peaceful life. They took arms in their hands in a foreign country and took part in military operations against the legal system of Syria under the cover of jihad (Source: Tajik Television First Channel, Dushanbe, 2 May 14).

The detainees have a number of warnings for young Tajik men, the “at-risk” group with regards to radicalisation.  Bakhtivor calls for “citizens of Tajikistan, especially youth, not to go to various illegal mullahs to get primary religious education. I urge parents, whose children are studying abroad, to return their children, because I regret for what I did.”

Such public spectacles, in which the condemned beg for forgiveness and highlight the error of their ways, constitute another way by which the government attempts to discipline Islam. For the Tajik government, the ability to “prove” that studying Islam abroad is dangerous helps legitimate its repressive religious policy.