The Boomerang Effect: Why Would Tajikistan’s Special Forces Chief Join ISIS?

"Tajikistan in its region" by TUBS

“Tajikistan in its region” by TUBS

Dushanbe, Tajikistan (GVO) – In ex-Soviet Tajikistan, where the threat of religious extremism and terrorism has helped justify an excessive crackdown on practicing Muslims, people have been shocked to learn the head of the notorious special forces branch of the police — trained to fight the terrorists — has apparently joined the ISIS radical group.

Government officials claim close to 400 Tajik nationals are fighting with ISIS, an Al Qaeda offshoot which has come to control large parts of Iraq and Syria using openly brutal, oppressive and violent tactics.

In the 12-minute video released late on May 27, Gulmurod Halimov, 40, said he had defected to the group in protest against the policies of the Tajik Interior Ministry, which “does not permit people to pray and wear Islamic hijabs” in the predominantly Muslim Central Asian country.

In addition to calling the country’s president and interior minister dogs and promising to “come for [the government] with slaughter”, Halimov claims he trained in both Russia and the U.S., which he portrayed as infidel countries in his tirade.

Promoted to the rank of commander for outstanding service around three years ago, some now fear his viral appearance, capped off by him dramatically shooting a tomato with a sniper rifle, may make him an icon for future Tajik ISIS fighters.

The Tajik government is expected to release a full statement on Halimov’s defection soon and blocked social media where the video has been shared on May 28, as well as Asia Plus, the Tajik news agency that first covered the story. Edward Lemon, a researcher from the University of Exeter tracking Tajik fighters in Syria and Iraq tweeted:

Screenshot of the Tweet mentioned by GVO

Screenshot of the Tweet mentioned by GVO

‘Ministers will be delivering messages from ISIS territory’

In Tajikistan, readers condemned the commander.

Aziz wrote underneath an article of the local Asia Plus news agency:

He is a fool. We have quite a few such fools, of course, but the problem is that the Ministry of Internal Affairs appointed one of them to such a high position – the commander of the OMON [special police branch].

Most of them blamed the policies of the government as a root cause of ISIS’ appeal to some Tajiks.

An Asia-Plus commenter, called FG, replied to those who condemned Halimov:

Dear commenters, do not be hypocrites. He [referring to Halimov] told the reasons for his behaviour …[The government] has been fighting against the 1000-years-old history of the country, telling people how to dress, where to go, what to eat, what to do, who to worship, and so on. So, naturally, everybody wants to get out of this prison in any way possible. The reason is simple: the anti-constitutional acts of the government.

Izzat Amon, a Tajik migrants’ rights activist, also argued that Halimov’s alleged joining of ISIS is the product of the policies of the Tajik regime.

He wrote on his Facebook page:

I do not justify the actions of the OMON commander, but I understand him. When corruption, regionalism, and nepotism is rampant in the country and everybody lies, then there is not another choice. This is the result of the politics of the ruling group for the last 25 years. If it continues this way, then even ministers will deliver video-messages from ISIS territory. Dear officials, continue your fight against the hijab, the beard, Azan [call to prayers] and other Islamic attributes. But it will certainly come back to you like a boomerang.

Rahmatillo Zoirov, the leader of Social-Democratic Party of Tajikistan, one of the country’s few critical opposition parties, told Asia Plus that clan politics surrounding government appointments may have been one reason Halimov left his job, wife and eight children to join ISIS.

Zoirov noted:

Clan cadre politics, especially in the field of law enforcement and the judicial system, is a powerful factor in alienating employees not belonging to the clan, who then have to draw appropriate conclusions… In general, many simply resign not seeing opportunities for growth and career advancement.

Tajikistan has blocked online resources in connection to ISIS before, notably when several citizens posted a video of themselves burning their Tajik passports and pledging allegiance to the group on YouTube. Like efforts to control religion through forced beard shaving and hijab bans, however, the blocks have not resulted in any obvious successes so far.

Written by Farrukh Umari for Global Voices Online.