Bottom Line Up Front:
- On May 19, 2019, a prison riot in Vakhdat, Tajikistan, left 29 people dead, including supporters of the so-called Islamic State.
- Allegedly orchestrated by militants, government information about the riot is limited and leaves many questions unanswered.
- Tajikistan has seen an uptick in jihadist-inspired violence over the last few years, signaling a worrisome trend for future instability in the country.
- In Tajikistan, counterterrorism is used as a means of suppressing political opposition and as a tool by external powers seeking to solidify a more robust presence in the country.
On May 19, 2019, a prison riot broke out at a high-security prison in the Tajik town of Vakhdat, leaving 29 people dead, including guards, high-profile individuals within the political opposition, and members and supporters of the so-called Islamic State (IS). The Tajik government quickly claimed that the riot was sparked by militants. The government immediately moved to block internet access in the country. This is the second deadly prison riot in six months in Tajikistan, coming less than a year since the IS-related terrorist attack in the Danghara district that killed four foreign nationals. Although IS has not claimed responsibility for the May 19 riot, the increased violence in Tajikistan presents a worrisome trend for the country. Terrorism could spill over Tajikistan’s borders and coalesce with political violence and instability plaguing the broader region of Central Asia.
The deadly prison riot illustrates the complicated political situation in Tajikistan, which has grown increasingly authoritarian in the past decade. Among the 29 dead are two senior members from the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), a political opposition party outlawed since 2015 and whose members are frequently charged with terrorism; another dead is a prominent Islamic cleric who once called for the overthrow of the government. Bekhruz Khalimov—the son of infamous former special police commander Gulmurod Khalimov who joined IS in 2015—was identified as one of the prisoners blamed for engineering the riot. The official narrative emanating from Dushanbe claims that IS supporters, among them Khalimov, started a fight with IRPT members. This contradicts the conventional government narrative that frequently conflates IS and IRPT as part of a monolithic threat. The Tajik government’s history of cracking down on political opposition in the name of counterterrorism has left experts to question the incident.
The recent spike in violence in prisons and IS-related attacks across Tajikistan presents a worrisome trend. Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet countries in Central Asia and is characterized by a lack of socio-economic opportunities and weak rule of law. Without the opportunity for legitimate political opposition to thrive, and when coupled with increasingly solidified authoritarianism—including stifled political and religious freedoms – the result has been fertile ground for extremist narratives. Analysts have observed an intensification of IS support online from Tajik youths. Moreover, Tajikistan produced hundreds of foreign fighters who traveled to join IS in Iraq and Syria. Tajikistan’s history of an exclusively security-based approach to countering terrorism not only fails at countering extremist narratives but also exacerbates the terrorist threat.
For regional powers that have vested economic and security interests in Tajikistan, such as Russia and China, the increased terrorist threat has led both Moscow and Beijing to ramp up their security presence in the country. Satellite images recently revealed a Chinese military base near Murghab, a desolate area on the border with Afghanistan and China. Officials in Dushanbe confirmed the Chinese military presence and explained it as ‘joint counterterrorism cooperation.’ In July 2018, Russia and Tajikistan held a joint military exercise in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, involving 10,000 soldiers. Moscow has also provided significant military aid to Tajikistan to help protect the border, citing the growing presence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province in Afghanistan. A growing foreign security presence in Tajikistan, under the auspices of counterterrorism cooperation, threatens Tajik sovereignty and, by extension, Central Asian autonomy.