A New Recruiting Ground for ISIS

A suspect from the Crocus City Hall attack in court in Moscow, March 2024. Yulia Morozova / Reuters
A suspect from the Crocus City Hall attack in court in Moscow, March 2024. Yulia Morozova / Reuters

In March, terrorists affiliated with Islamic State Khorasan, also known as ISIS-K, attacked Moscow’s Crocus City Hall, killing 145 people and wounding several hundred. The authorities swiftly arrested 12 young men, all of whom were from Tajikistan, the most southern and poorest republic of the former Soviet Union. Tajikistan’s economy is moribund, and the combination of a low growth rate and a youthful population has created an immense diaspora: at least a quarter of Tajikistan’s working-age men live abroad. The country they left behind is repressive, with a government as hostile to many forms of Islam as it is to any signs of dissent. Socioeconomic and political factors have combined to make young Tajik men uniquely susceptible to radicalization. Russia’s intelligence services are currently overstretched by the war in Ukraine and the need for continued action at home. But radicalization among labor migrant communities in Russia and the circulation of weapons from the Ukrainian battlefield have raised the domestic terrorist risk—and this threat is likely to grow.

A DEEP MALAISE

Tajikistan is the only country that was part of the former Soviet Union that suffered a full-scale civil war in the early 1990s. Pitching the central government (which enjoyed Russian backing) against provincial rebels, the conflict left 50,000 dead and half a million people displaced. That war sparked a massive labor migration from Central Asia to Russia, which continued in the first two decades of this century and has not been arrested by the ongoing war in Ukraine. In 2023, almost one million Tajik citizens were registered as migrants in Russia, some ten percent of Tajikistan’s population. They are the victims of the country’s weak economy. About half of Tajikistan’s population is under 25 years old, and, consequently, youth unemployment is high. Young men move abroad in search of opportunity, and the majority go to Russia.

In power since 1994, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon presides over a highly repressive regime that kills or imprisons opposition figures, including leaders and members of the main opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party, and controls the public space through propaganda and corruption. Rahmon’s regime is nepotistic, and several of his sons and daughters hold senior government positions. One son, Rustam, is the chair of the National Assembly of Tajikistan and widely believed to be his father’s successor. Because of the country’s lack of resources, the economy is struggling, reliant on remittances sent by migrants—Tajikistan has one of the highest shares of remittances to GDP ratios—and heroin trafficking from Afghanistan. The small agricultural sector, which employs half the population, remains dysfunctional, and the service sector is underdeveloped.

Since the civil war ended in 1997, the Rahmon regime has treated Islam as a threat to its legitimacy and subjected the religion to strict controls. The security services monitor sermons and religious personnel, women are forbidden to pray in mosques, and children cannot receive certain forms of religious education. All “foreign” Islamic customs—such as wearing a hijab in an Emirati or a Turkish fashion—are forbidden, and men who undergo religious education abroad are not allowed to become imams when they return. The regime accuses its opponents of being “Wahhabi”, “Salafi”, or “jihadi”—all labels used to describe foreign-inspired, political Islam. The regime routinely blames Islamism for any internal upheavals. For example, several localized conflicts in the autonomous Pamir region and its city of Khorog have been framed by the regime as Islamist, although they were mostly the result of struggles between elites. For Rahmon, the emergence of ISIS-K has, consequently, been both a blessing and a curse. Although it has enabled him to associate his opponents with Islamist militancy and potentially win international support for the resulting repressive policies, it may also destabilize his regime.

A NEW ISLAMIC IDENTITY

The Soviet Union and many of the Central Asian states born from it saw Islam as a form of national culture that had to be made subservient to the state. But that understanding is coming under increasing pressure from a more religious, universalist, and rebellious interpretation of Islam. For many in the younger generations in Tajikistan, Islam offers an attractive code of morality and discipline, a shelter from the immiseration and repression in their country. Under the influence of these trends, gender roles have been retraditionalized, with young women increasingly pushed out of the workforce and defined by their reproductive role. Many young Tajiks see themselves as part of the ummah, the global community of Muslims, rather than just members of their nation-state, and look beyond their country for inspiration. The United Arab Emirates appears to many as a successful model of a state where faith flourishes alongside modernization and economic prosperity. The Islamization of Tajik society is not in and of itself a harbinger of future mayhem and jihadi violence; those calling for terrorist attacks and the utopia of the caliphate are a very small minority. Moreover, social marginalization is more likely to drive people toward violence than religious fervor. Research on ISIS fighters conducted by academics including Harvard’s Noah Tucker has consistently shown that the main drivers for recruitment are poverty, a lack of social opportunities, and petty criminalization.

This is true of ISIS-K, which was launched in 2015 as the regional branch of the Islamic State, or ISIS, at a time when the militant group held sway in many parts of Iraq and Syria. Its mission is to unite fighters from Khorasan—a historic region that covers northern Afghanistan and much of the settled (as opposed to steppe) areas of Central Asia. Like its parent group, ISIS-K regards itself as the custodian of jihadi ideology, dedicated to creating a world caliphate. But it has also developed more local obsessions and enmities, including with the Taliban, a group that ISIS-K’s leaders accuse of being insufficiently orthodox and of promoting a nationalized, Pashtun-centric, Islam.

In Afghanistan, ISIS-K has attacked the Taliban, the Shiite Hazara minority, and Hindu and Sikh temples. But the group also has many foes outside Afghanistan. It inveighs against India—because of New Delhi’s cooperation with the government in Kabul before the Taliban takeover in 2021 and the discrimination toward Muslims that has intensified under India’s ruling Hindu nationalist government—as well as the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and Iran. The group is also set against Russia, owing to Moscow’s cooperation with Iran, Syria, and the Taliban. It has organized several terrorist acts in Turkey, as well as in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

ISIS-K has found Central Asia—and Tajikistan in particular—to be a fertile recruiting ground. It has successfully used social media to find receptive audiences via content posted in Russian and Central Asian languages. The group publishes in Cyrillic Tajik online and on social media platforms including Telegram, with at least four outlets—Protectors of the Ummat, Movarounnahr, Voice of Khurasan, and Voice of Khurasan Radio—offering religious content, news about ISIS activities, updates on regional and international affairs, and instructions for aspiring jihadis. These channels criticize Rahmon’s dictatorial and nepotistic rule, with many propaganda videos featuring faked images of his humiliation and death.

ISIS-K may be recruiting Tajik citizens radicalized at home, but it is also tapping into Tajik diaspora communities. Disenfranchised migrants, cut off from their relatives and community, living in humiliating conditions and facing xenophobia, are often more promising targets for radicalization than those who live in their own communities. Many Tajik migrants have been radicalized while in France, Germany, Russia, and Turkey. Concerned by this phenomenon and in the wake of the Crocus City Hall attacks, authorities in Turkey canceled the visa exemption that had been granted to Tajik citizens since 2018, making it harder for them to travel to the country.

A HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT

Russia has treated Tajik migrants poorly. Systemic corruption leaves them at the mercy of police decisions and extortion schemes. Xenophobia is widespread, and although Russian authorities have suppressed the skinhead violence that was prevalent in the first two decades of this century, far-right groups still regularly harass and threaten Central Asian migrants. Many migrants live in segregated spaces, in barracks or containers, in degrading conditions. Many young men have responded to these pressures and indignities by adopting an Islamic identity that stresses discipline and set moral values. For them, the ordeals of the migrant experience have turned them toward the order and comfort of religion. Since the war in Ukraine began, Moscow has pushed migrants to take Russian citizenship and then recruited them into the armed forces to fight at the front.

Russian authorities began cracking down on Tajik and other Central Asian migrants after the Crocus City Hall attacks. They have expelled several hundred who were in Russia illegally, detained hundreds in airports, and conducted intimidatory searches on centers and organizations that offer legal assistance to migrants. Moscow has also pressured the security services in Tajikistan and its Central Asian neighbors to tackle domestic Islamism. But that strategy has little chance of success, as it does not address the systemic origins of jihadi recruitment. Crackdowns and deportations will not end rural poverty, the humiliating lives that migrants lead, the lack of economic opportunities, the dissatisfaction of young people, or the difficulties migrants face integrating into host societies.

As the fastest-growing jihadi group in Russia, ISIS-K now dominates the local jihadi scene. In January, it announced a new global campaign “against Jews, Christians, and Shiites”, and it aims to recruit desperate young people to fight for the movement. Tajikistan will continue to be a cradle for jihadi recruitment—and Islamist militancy emanating from Central Asia will continue to threaten Russia, Turkey, and the West—until governments find a way to address its root causes.

Marlene Laruelle is Research Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at the George Washington University.

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