bne IntelliNews – Ahead of Moscow attack UN report warned of growing Islamic State recruitment in Central Asia

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An Afghanistan-based branch of the Salafi jihadist Islamic State group has in the past year recruited Tajik and other Central Asian militants to build to a size and sophistication that give it “the ability to project a threat into the region and beyond”, according to a report submitted to the UN Security Council.

The analysis has aroused new interest given how on March 22 Russia suffered its worst terrorist attack in two decades, with the armed assault on concert-goers at Crocus City concert hall on the edge of Moscow causing a death toll of at least 137. On March 24, four suspects, officially identified as citizens of Tajikistan according to Tass state news agency, appeared in court in the Russian capital charged over the terrorist attack. They were remanded in custody for two months.

Attention will turn to whether the four men are members of the Islamic State branch that has taken root and quickly expanded in Afghanistan, namely Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISIS-K, IS-KP, or Isil-K). ISIS-K has claimed responsibility for the attack through the Islamic State-linked Amaq news agency.

In August 2021, shortly after the US withdrew from Afghanistan and the fundamentalist militant Taliban returned to power, this publication published an article warning that Afghanistan would become the new global centre for jihadism, replacing Syria and Libya, and that the growth of the jihadist groups would pose a threat to Central Asia, Russia and China’s Xinjiang region, which is populated by the repressed Muslim Uyghurs. Russia in the past three years has promised to beef up its military base in Tajikistan to confront the threat posed by infiltration over the Tajik-Afghan border, but those plans do not appear to have been substantially followed up with Moscow distracted by its full-scale war in Ukraine.

In January, bne IntelliNews published an article by contributing columnist and Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier looking at the rising prominence of Tajiks in terrorist attacks abroad.

The UN report, submitted to the security council in January, referred to a “high concentration of terrorist groups in Afghanistan” and said that “notwithstanding a decrease in the number of attacks perpetrated by Isil-K [ISKP] and its recent loss of territory, casualties and high attrition among senior and mid-tier leadership figures … the group [is seen] as the greatest threat within Afghanistan, with the ability to project a threat into the region and beyond”.

The report also said that in the previous 12 months, ISIS-K had succeeded in recruiting leading militants from Jamaat Ansarullah (also known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Tajikistan, or TTT, or the “Tajik Taliban”), a veteran Tajikistan extremist Islamist group, as well as others in Central Asia. Last November, this publication reported how local media were warning that the training of “Tajik Taliban” suicide bombers showed the threat to Central Asia from Afghanistan was growing.

US and European intelligence agencies have observed a sharp increase in international plots linked to ISIS-K, which some analysts believe is the strongest affiliate of Islamic State outside Africa, the Guardian reported on March 24.

“Member states noted the existence of operational plots in European states planned or conducted by ISIS-K. In July and August, seven Tajik, Turkmen and Kyrgyz individuals linked to ISIL-K [ISKP] were arrested in … Germany, while planning to conduct high-impact terrorist attacks for which they were obtaining weapons and possible targets,” the UN report noted.

On March 19, German authorities arrested two Afghan suspected extremists who were said to be plotting an attack on the Swedish parliament. One of the two men was alleged to have travelled from Germany to join ISIS-K.

On December 31, German police arrested three Tajiks and one Uzbek national suspected of planning to attack Cologne Cathedral on New Year’s Eve. The men were linked by investigators to Islamic State.

Tajiks have been involved in several other plots in Europe, Iran and Turkey in recent years. In January, two Islamic State militants attacked a church in Istanbul, killing one person. They were from Tajikistan and Russia.

Earlier this month, Russian security forces killed two Kazakh nationals they claimed were planning an ISIS-K-linked attack on a synagogue in Kaluga region, south-west of Moscow.

In August 2021, ISIS-K attacked Kabul’s international airport, killing 13 US troops and more than 150 civilians. The attack took place during the chaotic US evacuation from the country.

In recent weeks, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon has remarked on the damage caused to his country’s image by the growing number of terrorist attacks involving Tajik nationals.

On March 24, in comments that will be seen as an effort at damage control in terms of Tajikistan’s profile, Rahmon, in a telephone conversation with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, condemned the Crocus City venue attack, saying: “Terrorists have no nationality, no homeland, and no religion.”

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