The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) presented its written “Worldwide Threat Assessment” to the Senate last week. The analysis confirms that the Islamic State is capable of sustaining insurgencies in both Iraq and Syria, Afghan security continues to “deteriorate,” and al Qaeda remains a threat in several parts of the globe.
Tajikistan, the world’s leading exporter of suicide bombers to ISIS has the potential to become the next terrorist hotspot as a host of factors converge to put the small Central Asian nation at serious risk.
The recent publication of an expanded list of alleged terrorist groups and their sponsors by the National Bank of Tajikistan highlights the country’s growing concern about both domestic and international terrorist threats. The list includes over two hundred individuals as well as fifteen organizations; including the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). The inclusion of the IRPT on this list is important as it further highlights the de-legitimization of Tajikistan’s only recognized Islamic political party.
In the 1990s, the IRPT was part of Tajikistan’s formal political scene, with the moderate party garnering a place in government as part of the united opposition following the country’s 1992-1997 civil war. Since then President Emomalii Rahmon (who has ruled the country since 1992) and his People’s Democratic Party have slowly marginalized the IRPT, with the party outlawed in 2014, and declared a terrorist group in 2015.
Tajikistan’s anti-radicalization measures backfiring
The fall of the IRPT has been part of the government’s ongoing campaign against Islamism and overt faith in general. Motivated by fears of radicalization, the government’s slew of heavy-handed – and at times, bizarre – measures have only increased resentment among the population and provided ample recruitment material for radicals. In recent years, Tajikistan has: shut down hundreds of non-government sanctioned mosques and preachers, banned Islamic dress in schools and offices, limited public prayers, shuttered 160 stores selling Islamic clothing, banned children under 18 from mosques, restricted students from studying Islam abroad, and made it difficult to register Muslim organizations. In 2015 the government even went as far as to forcibly shave 13,000 bearded citizens.
These measures have been directly cited by radicalized Tajiks as the motivation for their decision to join radical groups. A major blow to the government came in 2015 with the defection to ISIS of U.S-trained special forces commander Colonel Gulmurod Halimov. Halimov has allegedly become ISIS’ supreme military commander and has been a major influence in encouraging other Tajiks to join the organization. In part due to Halimov’s influence, Tajikistan has become the world’s leading exporter of suicide bombers to ISIS’s battlefields: 27 Tajik suicide operations were carried out in Syria and Iraq between December 2015 and November 2016.
The irony of the situation is that “when the IRPT was part of the government, one of their main tasks was to educate people not to go to [radicals]. Once [the party was] forbidden we had an enormous increase [in the number of Tajiks joining ISIS] – students, and in one case, 40 people from the same village,” notes University of Heidelberg researcher Sophie Roche.
Around 1,100 Tajiks are believed to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, with an additional 300 having been killed there in recent years. Two Tajiks were also behind the March 8th Kabul military hospital attack that left at least 49 dead. More recently, a suspected terrorist attack was orchestrated in the Tajik city of Qurghonteppa on March 12th, with an explosion killing one person near the military prosecutor’s office: Qurghonteppa’s outskirts also saw a mysterious explosion on January 30th.
Only ten days before on January 20th, the Tajik interior ministry announced that the government had foiled 36 terrorist attacks in 2016, with over 400 people detained for suspected terrorist links. Tajikistan is facing a serious terrorism threat, as its citizens become radicalized at home due to the government’s hardline measures, and as hundreds of fighters in Syria and Iraq return home as ISIS loses ground in the Middle East.
Alongside the recent incidents already mentioned, a Tajik native was also arrested in Russia on March 8th after authorities discovered a plan for a suicide attack in Moscow. This incident demonstrates another risk vector for Tajikistan – its large migrant worker population. Over a million Tajiks work in Russia as migrant or seasonal workers, with remittances comprising a major revenue stream for Tajikistan. Poor working conditions, abuse and a sense of hopelessness puts many Tajik workers in Russia at risk of radicalization. The convergence of these risk factors has already led to the radicalization of a substantial number of Tajiks in Russia, with Islamists using Russian social media sites like Odnoklassniki and Vkontakti to recruit followers.
With Tajikistan’s economic growth slowing from 7.4% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2016, combined with an 8.5% annual inflation rate, economic hardship will force more Tajiks to seek work elsewhere, with those who stay not faring much better. Tajikistan’s economic hardship will only continue, especially with the recent cancellation of China’s Line D oil and gas pipeline. The cancellation of Line D means Tajikistan will lose out on millions of dollars in oil and gas transit fees, thus only further weakening the economy.
Stuck in a horrible neighbourhood
While these problems would be more than enough for any country, Tajikistan has the unfortunate luck of being situated in the middle of one of the most volatile regions on Earth. With its entire mountainous southern border facing Afghanistan, which at its narrowest point is also only 40 kilometers from Pakistan’s tribal north, Tajikistan faces serious risks. Add to this Tajikistan’s border with China’s restive Xinjiang province and things look grim. China’s Kashgar prefecture is home to 40,000 ethnic Tajiks, and the local government is hiring an additional 3,000 police to reinforce the border as officials increasingly intercept weapons, drugs and extremist media. Moreover, the Pakistani military’s offensive in Waziristan has pushed Central Asian ISIS supporters into northern Afghanistan, with Tajik radicals resettling in Afghanistan and others returning back home.
Tajikistan’s Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda has estimated that there are between 10,000-15,000 militants along the Afghan-Tajik border, many of whom have cross-border connections. Indeed, Asadullah Omarkhail, governor of Afghanistan’s Kunduz province argues that “around three thousand Taliban fighters are active in Kunduz [and are receiving] Russian and Tajik support.” While claims about state assistance from Russia and Tajikistan to the Taliban are suspect, the group undoubtedly receives support from individuals in both countries, many of them Tajiks.
Tajikistan’s government takes these cross-border links seriously, and has recently ordered mobile phone providers to being re-registering all SIM cards in the country in order to thwart terrorists. First deputy head of the State National Security Committee, Mansurdzhon Umarov explained the move, stating that “we have information that on the border with our country, insurgents with the Taliban movement are actively using Tajik SIM cards.” Tajik SIM cards are popular in the region as they are cheaper, and some cases provide better service than those issued by Afghan service providers.
Tajikistan on the brink of multiple insurgencies
While the Afghan-Tajik border presents the greatest security challenge, the situation in neighbouring Uzbekistan holds important lessons, and warnings for Tajikistan. Like in Tajikistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) emerged out of resistance to a long-time leader and vehement anti-Islamist, in this case Islam Karimov. Likewise the IMU has long had cross-border dealings with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Despite this, the leadership of the IMU pledged loyalty to ISIS, with IMU emir Usman Ghasi aligning the group with Daesh in June 2015. This move caused a split in the IMU, with a splinter group retaining the IMU name, and re-affirming its allegiance to the Taliban. The existence of Jamaat Ansarullah, a Tajik IMU splinter group further connects events in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to Tajikistan.
What happened in Uzbekistan could easily happen in Tajikistan as ISIS supporters return home and continue to push radical Islamist goals. If the government continues its hard-line approach, these radicalized individuals are likely to act against the very government whose actions initially pushed many towards radicalization in the first place. This will create tensions between these returning ISIS expats and established local, anti-government groups. The latter has ties with ethnic Tajiks in the border regions of Afghanistan and China as well as with the Taliban.
Given the existing Taliban-ISIS rivalry, Tajikistan could well see the development of a proxy-war among rival Islamist groups, with ISIS and Taliban-backed groups attacking each other as well as the government. This would in turn transform Tajikistan from an exporter to an importer of radicals, as international supporters of both ISIS and the Taliban heed each side’s respective call for support.
This article was originally published on Global Risk Insights on 19 March, 2017.
Under the Radar series of Global Risk Insights uncovers political risk events around the world overlooked by mainstream media. By detecting hidden risks, we keep you ahead of the pack and ready for new opportunities.
Under the Radar is written by Senior Analyst Jeremy Luedi.
Two questions have been particularly prominent in the aftermath of the attack on Westminster. First, why was the attacker – named by police as Khalid Masood – not apprehended, given that he appears to have been already known to police and intelligence services. Second, what does this attack mean for security in London and elsewhere.
The UK’s counter-terrorism architecture involves a five-tiered warning system organised around five levels of threat: low, moderate, substantial, severe and critical. It is similar, in this sense, to the colour-coded warnings of the US Homeland Security Advisory System – a system which was replaced in 2011 by the National Terrorism Advisory System. The current level remains at severe in the wake of the Westminster attack.
Under the UK’s system, the country can never be entirely free from the threat of terrorism: at best an attack is seen to be unlikely. The simplicity of this system also implies that threats such as terrorism can be accurately, or even objectively, measured – and their increase or decrease calculated and compared.
Questions of probability
Assumptions such as these are misleading, because terrorism threat assessments, like assessment of any type of threat, involve an inescapable element of judgement and interpretation. Prospective dangers have to be translated into calculations of likelihood and potential consequences in order to become threats. Decisions then have to be made about the relative importance of probability and impact in calculating the severity of any such dangers.
In the case of terrorism, we are dealing with the actions of people whose intentions and behaviour may be unpredictable and are almost certainly deliberately concealed. They are also likely to adapt to changes in the environment around them, including the actions of counter-terrorism professionals.
Despite these difficulties, the desire to measure the threat of terrorism is an understandable one. Politicians, police forces, intelligence services and others have a responsibility to maintain national security. They also all play an important symbolic role which involves reassuring the public by being seen to be aware of, and responsive to, current and future dangers.
The problem, in the case of counter-terrorism, is that future events, which cannot be definitively known, get translated into concrete representations of threat based upon the interpretation and judgement of security professionals. In the process, uncertainties become converted into hyper-cautious or even hyperbolic worst-case scenarios in which we are never, entirely, free from the threat of terrorism.
Part of the reason for this process is political. Those tasked with national security have to make difficult and perhaps even unwanted choices and trade-offs. As Charles Clarke, who was British home secretary at the time of the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005, reflected to me an interview in 2015:
Tony Blair always used to say, quite rightly, that whatever concerns people had about civil liberties … if, at the end of a day, a bomb had gone off and we hadn’t prepared for it, people were killed even in small numbers, but far worse if it was a weapon of mass destruction or something, then people simply would not remotely accept the argument that we were worried about civil liberties. Now, I think that’s true, and I certainly felt in my particular role as home secretary that it was my principal responsibility to do whatever I could to ensure that the people of the country were safe.
The temptation toward creating precautionary threat assessments is also, in part, psychological, and a product of the human tendency to be more fearful of “exotic” or unusual threats such as shark attacks – or terrorism – than their more mundane equivalents which kill far more people around the world.
The problem, however, is that precautionary and hyperbolic approaches to threat measurement probably don’t lead to very effective counter-terrorism policy. As a consequence, policy tends to be rushed, excessive and often ineffective. This, in turn, can have repercussions for public feelings and experiences of security, especially among communities who might feel directly and deliberately targeted or “suspect”.
So, when discussion turns to “what next” in the aftermath of events such as those London has witnessed – the best advice is to proceed with patience and caution: to let the police investigation run its course before jumping to conclusions about actors and intentions. And, in the process to avoid the temptation to see unusual events such as these as anything other than that: unusual.
The fourth edition of the Global Terrorism Index has been released this week. It provides a comprehensive summary of the key global trends and patterns in terrorism over the last 16 years. Despite a 10 percent reduction in the number of deaths from terrorism in 2015, the Index records a 6 percent increase in the impact of terrorism worldwide.
The annual Global Terrorism Index (GTI) by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) analyses the direct and indirect impact of terrorism on 163 countries covering over 99 percent of the world’s population. It uses data from the Global Terrorism Database that is collected and collated by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism and other sources.
“Four terrorist groups—ISIL, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and Taleban—were responsible for 74 percent of all deaths from terrorism by known groups in 2015. Although this represents a two per cent decline in the number of people killed by these groups, their percentage share of all deaths has increased from 66 per cent in 2013. In 2015 these four groups were responsible for the death of 17,741 people.”
The 2016 GTI finds that the total number of deaths resulting from terrorism in 2015 fell by 10 percent, marking the first decline since 2010. This decrease can be attributed to military interventions against ISIL and Boko Haram in their central areas of Nigeria and Iraq, resulting in a 32 percent reduction in deaths in these two countries when compared to 2014.
Conversely, expanded activities by both of these groups in other areas previously less affected by terrorism poses new threats. Boko Haram has expanded into Niger, Cameroon and Chad, increasing the number of people they have killed through terrorism in these three countries by 157 per cent. Similarly, ISIL and its affiliates were active in 15 new countries in 2015. This growing spread is largely why a number of countries recorded their highest levels of terrorism in any year in the past 16 years, making 2015 the second deadliest year on record.
“The ten countries suffering the biggest economic impacts of terrorism are all conflict-affected states in the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia regions. Iraq is the country most affected by the economic impact of terrorism, amounting to 17 per cent of its national GDP.”
The research by IEP found that the number of countries with greater than 25 deaths in 2015 rose to 34, an increase of seven from the previous year, to the highest number ever recorded. At least six countries saw very significant deteriorations in their GTI scores in 2015 leading to large rank changes from the previous year. These countries include France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Tunisia and Burundi. This accounted for the overall deterioration in the global GTI score of 6 percent as these falls outweighed the substantial gains in Nigeria and Iraq and some further gains in countries including India and Pakistan.
“Globally, higher levels of political terror, lower respect for human rights, the existence of policies targeting religious freedoms, group grievances, political instability and lower respect for the UN or the EU all correlate with higher levels of terrorism.”
In 2015, there was a surge in deaths from terrorism in OECD countries. This increase has been driven principally by ISIL’s transnational tactics in combination with lone actor attacks inspired by the group. This sharp spike in deaths saw a 650 percent increase from the previous year, with 21 of the 34 OECD countries experiencing at least one attack.
The research found that not only was there a significant increase in deaths from terrorism in OECD member countries, but in the overall number of attacks across a wider range of countries, with the majority of deaths occurring in Turkey and France. The sheer volume of attacks suggests that terrorism is a much greater threat to political stability in OECD countries.
Importantly, this year’s findings reaffirm that terrorist activity, while spreading, still remains highly concentrated, with 57 percent of all deaths since 2000 occurring in four countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. Iraq retains the position as the most affected country and accounts for 30 per cent of the deaths over the 16-year period.
“50 percent of all terrorist attacks occurred in countries in the midst of an internal conflict. A further 41 percent occurred in countries whose governments were militarily involved in an internationalised conflict.”
IEP’s researchers conduct a wide range of statistical tests to identify the most statistically significant factors associated with terrorist activity. Results of this analysis have found that there is a strong correlation between terrorism and a nation’s levels of political terror and ongoing conflict. Only 0.5 percent of terrorist attacks occurred in countries that did not suffer from armed conflict or have high levels of state sponsored terror. Terrorist activity within OECD countries shows that other factors associated with terrorism are socioeconomic indicators such as youth unemployment, levels of criminality, access to weapons and distrust in the electoral process. Whereas, in developing countries, levels of corruption and group-based inequalities are most significantly correlated to terrorist activity.
The findings of this year’s GTI show that while overall numbers of deaths have gone down, the impact and fear of terrorism continues to grow—most significantly in OECD member countries. This highlights the need for the international community to deepen its understanding of the properties and drivers of terrorism in order to establish policies for both countering violent extremism and terrorist activities.
To access interactive maps on the Global Terrorism Index and to view the full report click here.
This article was first posted on the website of Australian Institute of International Affairs. It has been published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.