After two attacks on Friday September 4th that left a reported 22 people dead in the Tajik capital Dushanbe and the nearby town Vahdat, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has now confirmed that former Deputity Defence Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda was involved in the attacks. He has been charged with sabotage, terrorism, treason and the organization of an extremist community. Nazarzoda and “as many as 130” of his supporters fled to the mountainous Ramit Gorge, where a special investigation group of officers of the National Security State Committee (NSSC), the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor General’s office have started an operation to detain them. According to Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon they are “evil terrorists” who are “pursuing the same goals as IS” and want to “undermine his rule”.
Attacks and aftermath
It is still unclear what exactly happened in the early morning of last Friday, as conflicting messages have come out of the country. Initially 35 deaths were reported from the scene, but now Tajik officials claim that 13 militants and 9 policeman have been killed in two separate attacks on the Central Administration of the Ministry of Defense and a police station. Russian RIA news agency based an estimate of 33 killed Interior and Defense Ministry troops and 9 killed militants on a unidentified source. On a photo obtained by EurasiaNet of Vahdat’s police station, where one of the attacks took place, the building can be seen “intact, with not a single window smashed”. Law enforcement officers said they detained 6 people at the scene and authorities initially claimed Nazarzoda brought 130 supporters to the mountains, later stating that there were “only 7 or 8 left to catch”. But on September 7th the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that they had captured another 20 in their operation on Ramit Gorge and said more than 60 militants had been detained in total. Furthermore the militants are reported to have stolen “a large quantity of weapons and ammunition” and in searches of property belonging to Nazarzoda they claimed to have found “stockpiles of weapons and ammunition”.
Immediately after the attacks Nazarzoda was pinpointed as the orchestrator and he was dismissed from his position “in connection with a crime”. According to the State Prosecutor’s Office Nazarzoda and his supporters “betrayed their homeland” and he is a religious extremist as well as a member of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) .Exiled opposition activist Dodojon Atovulloev denied these claims saying “had he been a religious fanatic, Rahmon would have never made him Deputy Defence Minister”, the position he had held since January 2014. But in the 1992 –1997 Tajik civil war Nazarzoda fought alongside the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), an alliance of Islamist and non-Islamist forces, against Rahmon’s regime. After the signing of the UN-brokered peace agreement he was incorporated in Tajikistan’s army and later headed the Defence Ministry’s military security services. According to Atovulloev, Nazarzoda was given instructions by the government to assassinate him in 2012, indicating he used to be close to the authorities. Their narrative on the motive of Nazarzoda to be a secret religious fanatic and to have organized a coup is criticized by many. Tajik political scientist Parviz Mullojonov noted that Nazarzoda was “a loyal military official without much influence or special connections” and “not the kind of figure to organize a state coup”.
Nazarzoda has been hiding from the authorities since Friday, but allegedly sent messages by phone that were afterwards put on Facebook by someone who claims to be his spokesperson. In this statement Nazarzoda claims that he found out through a note on September 3rd that the government would come to arrest him and he decided to take up arms to defend himself and his associates, but that he did not attack the police station. Nazarzoda blames the authorities of plotting several attacks to accuse members of the opposition and former UTO leaders, because he and several others “refused to sign a bill on the liquidation of the IRPT”. It would not have been the first time the Tajik government wanted to eliminate a former UTO general, according to political scientist Sharif Abdullayev, since Yakub Salimov, Mahmadruzi Iskandarov and Ghaffur Murzoyev were jailed in 2004 and 2005 and Mirzo Ziyoyev was killed in 2009.
The allegations of being a religious extremist that are held against Nazarzoda, are used to tarnish his reputation worldwide but especially within Tajikistan. The Tajik government, which estimates that more than 500 Tajiks have joined IS and fears radical Islamic influences from Afghanistan, fights religious extremism, but with it also Islamic signs or organisations. Last month the IRPT was effectively closed down and men wearing beards have been assaulted, leaving one man from Vahdat dead, while headscarves and burqa’s have been banned from some places. The IRPT has denied all accusations that Narzarzoda later became a member in secret, saying that “the Tajik legislation bars officers of power-wielding bodies from being members of political parties” and “do they really not know this in the state bodies?” According to the IRPT Nazarzoda was even one of the people that argued for the party to be shut down. Still Mullojonov “can say with 99% assuredness” that Nazarzoda’s alleged extremism will be used as an excuse for the government to close the IRPT. But he also warnes that it is “naïve to assume that closing IRPT will do away with Islamist-minded opposition” and “a different Islamic opposition will come “which would choose the path of armed resistance”.