Cover Photo: Abu Muhammed Tojiki Credit: Odnoklassniki
In December 2014, thirteen videos of Tajik jihadists fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq appeared on the Russian social networking site Odnoklassniki (Classmates). These are the first videos made by Tajiks in Iraq to be published online. At least eight different Tajik fighters appear in the clips, as well as two small children.
Ranging in length from a few seconds to twenty minutes, the clips were filmed on mobile phones and camcorders. The videos offer a glimpse of the lives of Tajik fighters, or at least the version they want us to see. Some of the videos depict the everyday lives of the fighters; they can be seen eating lunch and hanging out near the mosque. Others offer theological arguments for jihad and call on other Tajiks to join the jihad. In one video, a man using the nom de guerre Abu Umariyon calls on his brothers in Central Asian Islamist groups Jundallah and Jamoat Ansrullah to forget their “pride” and join the Islamic State. In another video, an unmasked Abu Umariyon is shown at a checkpoint in an Iraqi town. He can be seen checking cars for contraband cigarettes.
Photo: Abu Muhammad Tojiki
These brief sketches of life for Tajik fighters in Iraq tell us a few things about the dynamics of foreign fighter phenomenon in Tajikistan. First, the evidence of the existence eight more fighters brings the number of documented Tajik fighters in Syria to over sixty. Although more fighters undoubtedly exist, this estimate remains more circumspect than the Tajik government estimate of three hundred.
Second, Abu Umariyon, and potentially some of his colleagues, come from Samsolik in the Rasht Valley. The Rasht Valley in general, and Samsolik jamoat (region) in particular, have long been represented as hotbeds of Islamic extremism by the government. Samsolik is a jamoat in Nurobod district with a population of just over 6,000. Its name was linked to the conflict in the Rasht Valley between 2009 and 2011 in numerous ways. It was in this village that government forces killed Mullo Abdullo and over a dozen of his fighters in April 2011. During the civil war he was based out of nearby Komsomolobod (modern day Darband). Amriddin Tabarov, leader of terrorist organisation Jamoat Ansrullah, was born in this part of Tajikistan. Additionally, the government arrested the local imam Zaynolobuddin Mannonov in October 2010 and accused him of having received a “religious and terrorist education” in Pakistan and “sowing the seeds of conflict (jang), hostility (talosh), distrust (badgumon) and discord (badand) among residents of the […] Rasht Valley.” (Tajik Television First Channel, Dushanbe, in Tajik 1300 23 Oct 10). A specific mix of government repression and politicised religiosity is producing a disproportionate number of fighters from this corner of Tajikistan.
Whilst I have argued that the Rasht Conflict of 2009-11 was more about local politics than militant Islam, in recent years the focus of Tajik Islamists has become more international and less local. As Christian Bleuer has argued, there has also been a shift in the destination of Tajik foreign fighters away from the traditional battleground of Afghanistan and towards the Middle East. Whereas the vast majority of articles on Jamoat Ansrullah’s web portal Irshod focused on Tajikistan and Afghanistan back in 2011, now many posts focus on Syria and Iraq. This is reflected in the number of documented cases of Tajik fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Photo: Screen-grab of Abu Hamza and a friend
Third, the videos are clearly intended for propaganda purposes. The most prolific voice in this effort appears to be the youthful Abu Muhammad Tojiki. Appearing in seven videos, he calls all his countrymen, especially those working in Russia, kufr (infidels). “How can you not pray five times a day and call yourselves Muslim?” he retorts. “Join your brothers in the Islamic State!” In another clip he speaks in broken Russian, a clear attempt to appeal to a broader Russian-speaking audience. These clips are clearly finding an audience; some have over 16,000 hits. But a large gap exists between watching such videos and travelling to Syria and Iraq.
Finally, the Tajiks in the videos clearly know one another; this is clear from the sense of camaraderie they appear to share. Abu Hamza, who appears to have suffered a broken leg, can be seen in five of the videos. These include videos with Abu Muhammad Tojiki and Abu Umariyon. Whilst it is clear that the Tajiks are working together, it remains unclear how they fit with the broader structures of the Islamic State.