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How the US May be Egging On the Growth of the Islamic State in Central Asia

Experts’ warnings come in the wake of revelations in May that Tajik Special Forces Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov joined Islamic State militants.
June 11, 2015, 2:30pm
Photo by Ria Novosti/Host Photo Agency

By supporting the corrupt, dictatorial regime of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, the United States could be fomenting the growth of the so-called Islamic State in Central Asia, political and human rights experts claim.

The experts' warnings come in the wake of revelations in May that Tajik Special Forces Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov joined Islamic State (IS) militants.

A key part of Rahmon's security apparatus, Khalimov received counterterrorism training in the US, including with Blackwater mercenaries. In a video announcing his decision, he blasted the US, saying, "I saw how you train soldiers to kill Muslims."

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In late May, a State Department spokeswomen told CNN that Khalimov went through all the appropriate vetting before he received training. Experts now fear other Tajiks might decide to follow in his footsteps.

"It's got to be an extremely uncomfortable moment for the embassy and the US government in Tajikistan," Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch who is based in Kirgizstan, told VICE News. "He [Khalimov] is a poster boy for what's wrong with this focus in US policy."

In addition to a host of other human rights abuses, President Rahmon has imposed draconian rules on pious Muslims in Tajikistan, often with the express goal of preventing extremists like IS to flourish. That policy is threatening to backfire, however, said Swerdlow.

"Human rights abuses in Tajikistan certainly create a climate that allows extremists to grow and prosper," he said.

State Department spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala said American diplomats are working for change in Tajikistan.

"We raise issues of human rights, good governance, and democratic development — including adherence to international obligations on civil and political rights and religious freedoms — at the highest levels in our bilateral discussions with Tajikistan," she said in an email to VICE News.

But those efforts don't appear to have yielded much.

A 2011 law forbids children from attending any religious events besides funerals, for example. Officials often force Muslim men to shave their beards and bar women from wearing hijabs. The president has reneged on a deal signed after a bloody civil war in the mid-1990s to give his main opposition, the Islamic Renaissance Party, a share of seats in parliament.

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Related: Tajikistan's Radical Approach on Returning Islamic State Fighters

Mountainous, landlocked Tajikstan is desperately poor. Around 1,000 children under the age of five die everyday due to unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation, according to the United Nations. Remittances from Tajik migrant workers in Russia comprise around half of the country's gross domestic product, and per capita income is around $2,700 a year.

Edward Lemon, a researcher at Britain's University of Exeter who studies the region, said IS recruiters from Chechnya have approached Tajik workers in Moscow. As the remittances of Tajik migrant workers illustrate, the pipeline between the Russian metropolis and Tajikistan is well travelled.

IS hasn't appeared to be exploiting those ties yet, said Lemon. Around 90 percent of the country professes faith in Islam. The secular legacy of communism in the former Soviet public is strong, however, so most are moderate, and only around 144 Tajiks have joined IS in Syria and Iraq, according to reports.

But Khalimov's defection to Islamic extremism could indicate that things are changing. Rahmon recently launched an amnesty program to entice Tajik IS fighters away from the extremist group, for example — a sign the dictator might be seeking to nip a growing problem in the bud.

"They have so repressed and so restricted religious practices and really targeted Islam, it is created a lot of tensions, a lot of alienation, a lot of grounds for disaffected youth to actually consider joining the Islamic State," said Swerdlow.

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In the meantime, the US continues to pump military aid into Tajikistan, a country whose stability is important because it borders Afghanistan. A US State Department Inspector General's report that criticized the American embassy in the country for whitewashing the regime's abuses said the Pentagon underwrites half of the $84 million budget of the diplomatic mission there.

"The US — although the US may not agree with all of Rahmon's policies, of course — gives them the weapons and training and the capacity to do some of things it does," said Lemon.

He said he is also concerned about other Tajik's converting to radical Islam like Khalimov, whom he met at a social event two years ago. He was surprised when he heard the colonel had joined the militant group.

"A lot of vodka was drunk," Lemon said, "and he didn't seem particularly religious."

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr

Watch the VICE News film How the US Created the Islamic State

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