Sep 15

Profiling Tajik Fighters in Syria

Cover Photo: Tajik fighter Olim Yusuf    Credit: YouTube

Since the government first admitted there was evidence that Tajik citizens were fighting with the opposition to Bashar al-Asad’s regime in May 2013, the threat posed by returning jihadists become, in the eyes of the government, one of the main security questions for the state.  But who are these Tajik jihadists and how have they ended up in Syria?

On 1 September, Iraqi TV showed an interview with a Tajik national who had been arrested on the border with Syria. His profile is typical of many Tajik fighters. Olim Yusuf, 25, was born in Dushanbe. Like many young Tajik men, he went to work on a building site in Russia, earning around $250 a month. In early 2014, he met a man named Abduvalid in the local gym. Abduvalid told him about the Islamic State (Taj.: davlati Islomi). Soon the man had convinced him to join the jihad in Syria. He flew to Turkey and after four days he was in Syria. According to Yusuf, “I went to Raqqa [the IS’s main base in northern Syria], to a town called Sadaashri. We spent 14 days there. The camp was commanded by Umar Shishani [IS Chechen leader]. There were 18 or 20 people there. Some were Arabs and others were Chechens.” In the interview Yusuf claims that he did not participate in the hostilities.

Olim Yusuf

Photo: Olim Yusuf        Credit: YouTube

Young, lacking in Islamic education and a labour migrant, Yusuf’s profile is similar to that of other Tajiks who have decided to go to 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. However, online evidence of just 22 fighters exists. Undoubtedly, there are more unreported Tajiks in Syria, but an examination of the existing data reveals a number of trends.

First, all the fighters that I have biographical information for are young men. The oldest, 41 year old Bobojon Kurbonov, was killed in August 2014. Kurbonov’s brother received a call from a Tajik-speaking militant on 26 August “congratulating” him on the martyrdom of his brother. According to the data that I have collected, he is the eighth Tajik to die in the conflict in Syria. The youngest recorded fighter was 23 year old Muhammadsoleh Sadriddinov from Isfara. He died whilst fighting near Aleppo in January 2014.

Second, most fighters are recruited in Russia. Approximately one million Tajiks currently work in Russia. Migrants are allegedly more “vulnerable” to radicalisation. They work in low-paid jobs, often experience xenophobia and endure abuse at the hands of the government. The offer of a steady income and potential glory of becoming shadid (a martyr) in Syria may be a tempting prospect for some disillusioned young migrants. Although a link between migration and radicalisation seems to exist, this remains an understudied phenomenon. Further study is needed in order to examine the dynamics through which this relationship manifests itself.

Third, many of the fighters did not express an interest in religion before they left Tajikistan. In March 2014 Kavkaz Center reported the death of Abu Ahmad al Tajik, a Kulobi whose real name was Bakhtiyor Sherov. His mother told local media that he was not particularly pious before he left for Russia in late 2013. 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.” After Bobojon Kurbonov was killed in August 2014, his brother told the media that “Bobodjon was not a religious man, and we do not understand how he was persuaded to go to war.” Like many young Muslims who join extremist groups, the Tajik recruits appear to lack knowledge of the Qu’ran, Sunnah, Sharia, or hadith. Potentially, this makes them more susceptible to the messages of extremist groups- which often have weak theological groundings.

Fourth, social connections matter. A number of the recorded fighters are members of the same family or from the same village. A quarter of the recorded fighters are from the southern city of Kulob. Other fighters have come from the north of the country and areas around Dushanbe. Interestingly, no recorded fighters come from the Rasht Valley, an area of the country long-associated with “radical Islam.”

These trends warrant further study. Scant biographical information about Tajik fighters exists online. Most of the theories surrounding the causes of radicalisation in Tajikistan- such as the migration-radicalisation link- are yet to be examined empirically. Many local analysts, understandably, do not consider a major factor in this process: the Tajik government’s repression of religion in the name of securing the secular state.