For a group of seven international cyclists, the trip through breathtaking Tajikistan following a section of the ancient Silk Road was a dream come true. But that dream turned into a nightmare July 29, when, in a deliberate act, a dark sedan smashed through the group. The men inside got out and attacked the cyclists with knives. Four of the tourists — an American couple, a Swiss citizen and a Dutch national — were killed; the others — one Swiss, one Dutch and one French — were injured. On July 30, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the assault through its Amaq news service. In a statement, it said the attackers "were soldiers of the Islamic State and carried out the attack in response to calls to target the citizens of the coalition countries."
On July 31, Amaq released a video that it claimed featured the five young Tajik attackers claiming allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Although the video made no specific mention of the bicyclists, the youths denounced the Tajik government, said the country was "occupied by unbelievers" and made vows to attack. Tajik authorities played down the Islamic State claim and blamed the attack on the exiled Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. Authorities say they have found the damaged vehicle and have arrested or killed several suspects. However, the poorly planned and executed attack appears to be the work of grassroots jihadists, and not trained operatives.
While Tajikistan appears to be stable on the surface, underlying tensions that are held together by suppression by the government under President Emomali Rakhmon could rupture. However, like the rest of Central Asia, Tajikistan is a country in transition, and it will be important to keep a close eye on jihadism and the threat it poses to the country's shaky peace.
Youth, Poverty and Terrorism
Outside their country, Tajiks have been active participants in jihadist struggles and suicide bombings. Tajik officials say that about 1,400 of their citizens have traveled to Iraq or Syria to fight with the Islamic State. And research from the International Center for Counterterrorism at The Hague for 2015-16, indicated that Tajik involvement in suicide bombings was disproportionately high when compared with other nationalities. Tajik jihadists have joined Islamic State's Wilayat Khorasan in Afghanistan and have taken part in suicide bombings in Kabul. They have also been involved in plotting terrorist attacks in Russia and Europe. Despite all this, terrorist acts, especially those directed against foreigners, are relatively rare inside Tajikistan. Indeed, despite its shared border with Afghanistan, the low amount of terrorist activity inside the country has led Stratfor to rate the country as only a medium threat for terrorism.
However, Tajikistan remains a fragile and vulnerable state. It is a poor country in a bad neighborhood awash with weaponry and radical ideologies. Of the former Soviet states, it has the lowest per-capita gross domestic product and the highest percentage of people living in poverty. Many Tajiks travel to Russia or elsewhere abroad to find work, and remittances account for over 30 percent of GDP. Drug smuggling is also a significant part of the economy. Tajiks are heavily involved in processing Afghan opium gum into heroin and in smuggling Afghan heroin into Russia and Europe — often working with the Afghan Taliban to do so. On top of this, the country's growing population is skewed heavily toward youth — over half of its people are younger than 25.
Autocratic President Emomali Rakhmon, who has ruled the country since 1992, has suppressed opposition since the brutal civil war ended in 1997, but significant regional, clan and religious divisions remain. Rakhmon has imposed a degree of stability by applying pressure to keep those divisions from splitting open. But his ability to do so indefinitely remains in doubt. The government's heavy-handed approach to stifling opposition and religious activity has created a strong sense of resentment among certain segments of the population.
Many Tajiks, as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), have joined the Khorasan Province, the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the power of the Taliban in Afghanistan is growing. These developments raise concerns about the possibility that militants could take root in Tajikistan, developing into a threat to the government. So, was the July 29 attack a sign of a growing movement? The answer lies in looking closely at the assault itself.
Examining the Attack
The tactics in the assault seem to be consistent with those typically used by grassroot jihadists. Evidence that it was a grassroots effort can also be seen in the wording for the Islamic State's claim for the attack, which said the men were soldiers who had responded to its call. This language is typically used for jihadists inspired by the Islamic State or directed by its members through online forums. The language it uses for operatives from franchise groups or for members sent out to conduct attacks, such as the cell responsible for the Paris and Brussels attacks, is different.
In addition, the assault itself had not been planned or executed well. It's hard to imagine a more vulnerable target than a group of bicyclists on a rural stretch of highway. Yet, the attack succeeded in killing only four of them. Furthermore, it was carried out before an array of witnesses, including one who recorded it on a cellphone video.
The method of attack, a vehicular assault followed by an armed attack, corresponds exactly to tactics that the Islamic State has encouraged its grassroots supporters to employ. Similar assaults have taken place in London and in Barcelona. The choice to carry out this type of attack in the United Kingdom or Spain, where it is somewhat difficult to get firearms, makes logical sense. But weapons are much easier to obtain in Tajikistan, especially for any professional operative with connections to either the Islamic State or the Taliban.
Finally, the assault doesn't reflect the capabilities of trained operatives. Many of the Taliban's older operational leaders have been at war since 1979, and the younger ones have known warfare all their lives. They have survived 17 years of combat with U.S. and NATO troops, probably the best trained and equipped forces on the planet. That combat experience has honed the Taliban's military capabilities, including a sophisticated ability to carry out armed assaults and ambushes. They have also become quite adept at terrorist attacks, including assassinations. The Taliban and Islamic State militants in the region are capable killers and would be able to plan a much more effective attack against a group of foreign cyclists, choosing a moment of greater vulnerability, such as when they were asleep in their tents, to strike.
Keeping a Lid on Tajikistan
Within Tajikistan, jihadist activity has remained weak for several reasons. First, the Taliban remain focused on Afghanistan and do not have a larger regional agenda. Second, the Tajik government has created a pervasive security apparatus that aggressively pursues any perceived opposition, including religious extremism. Thousands of Russian troops stationed at the 201st military base back up those domestic security forces. Third, Tajikistan's long secular communist tradition also means that jihadism does not hold the same widespread appeal that it does in Afghanistan. These factors make Tajikistan a hostile operating environment for jihadists, especially those operating in formal hierarchical groups. In many ways, this has created an operational environment similar to those seen in Europe or North America — where grassroots terrorists working alone or in small cells are better able to avoid the government's attention than professional cadres linked to groups.
In some ways, Tajikistan resembles Libya under Moammar Gadhafi. The strongman was able to suppress dissent, including that by jihadists, and to keep regional and tribal fractures in check through the use of force. Once Gadhafi's control slipped, the country spiraled into civil war. Like Libya, Tajikistan is quite brittle. Government oppression, combined with a young and impoverished population, could eventually result in an increase in jihadist adherents inside the country. And if Tajikistan were to fracture, it could open up another space for extremists to operate in Central Asia.