3 Reasons This Obscure Country Is a Top ISIS Recruiting Ground

In the past year, jihadists from Tajikistan have been involved in an unusually high number of terrorist attacks or foiled plots linked to the Islamic State.

The suspects in the storming of a concert hall near Moscow last month were Tajiks. Before that, Tajiks staged bloody assaults in Iran and Turkey, while several schemes in Europe said to involve Tajiks were thwarted.

Hundreds of men from Tajikistan — a small, impoverished country in Central Asia controlled by an authoritarian president — have joined an affiliate of the Islamic State in Afghanistan known as the Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, analysts say.

They point to three main reasons Tajiks are vulnerable to recruitment.

Poverty Fuels Discontent

Tajikistan ranks among the world’s poorest countries, which drives millions of workers to seek better lives elsewhere. In a country of 10 million people, a majority of working men, estimated at more than two million, toil abroad at any given time.

Most migrants end up in Russia, where rampant discrimination, low wages, poor prospects and isolation makes some susceptible to jihadist recruiters. The mothers of the suspects in the concert hall attack, for example, said their sons faced problems in Russia such as earning salaries too low to pay rent or to afford the myriad permits needed to drive a taxi.

A Dictator’s Iron Rule

The country was embroiled in a brutal civil war from 1992 to 1997. President Emomali Rahmon, 71, has ruled Tajikistan since 1994 and extended his term for life.

The civil war ended with an agreement to allow some representation for opposition groups, including the moderate Islamic Renaissance Party. But that group was declared an extremist organization in 2015, and opposition leaders were killed, jailed or driven into exile.

As Tajikistan has become an increasingly authoritarian state, the government has exerted ever tighter control over how Islam is practiced, also pushing some Tajiks to extremist views.

No Religious Freedom

Curbs on religious freedom include waging a rigorous campaign against public signs of piety. Beards are sometimes forcibly shaved in public or hijabs torn off. A powerful Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations and Ceremonies oversees every facet of worship, including building mosques and printing books. Men under 18 and women are banned from praying in mosques, while group religious instruction at home is also forbidden.

The combination of poverty, authoritarian rule and lack of religious freedom has created a fertile environment for a calculated online recruitment campaign targeting Tajik men. That effort glorifies the exploits of those killed fighting for ISIS-K, which has adopted the ambitions of the Islamic State to battle the West.

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