by Kateryna Mishchenko

On April 8, Italian police arrested a citizen of Tajikistan at Fiumicino Airport, a suburb of Rome, home to Italy’s largest international airport. He arrived in the Italian capital from Eindhoven in the Netherlands. The Tajikistan native was detained on an international warrant. He is known as an active member of the Islamic State.

According to the Associated Press, the international arrest warrant alleges that the detainee traveled to Syria in 2014 to fight alongside ISIS. Later, he evaded capture for a long time, using different names, birth dates, and forged citizenship documents from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and even Ukraine.

The operation to apprehend the suspected terrorist took place as part of increased security measures implemented by Italy in the wake of the conflict in the Gaza Strip and the ISIS-orchestrated shooting in the Moscow suburbs. Following a recent terrorist attack near Moscow, the focus in the West has been on the continued threat of attacks from the ISIS terrorist group.

Earlier, on April 1, two individuals, a Tajikistani citizen and a Kyrgyzstani citizen, were detained in Turkey on suspicion of planning an attack on behalf of the same group. After a series of interrogations, the court decided to arrest the man, while the woman was deported. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi described the arrest of the Tajikistani citizen as “a very important result of painstaking police work.” He did not draw any parallels with the recent terrorist attack in the Moscow concert hall. Four Tajikistani citizens have been arrested on suspicion of committing this crime, and six more are suspected of aiding the arrested individuals. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for this attack.

The names of Tajikistani citizens have been also mentioned in relation to the last three terrorist attacks in Iran. In early March of this year, during a meeting with religious representatives, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon acknowledged that over the past three years, 24 citizens of the country have either committed terrorist acts or been suspected of preparing them in ten countries. Why is ISIS fighting the Taliban, and why are more and more Central Asian citizens joining it?

Since ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – an Islamist militant movement) claimed responsibility for the attack at the “Krokus” near Moscow, the world’s attention has once again been focused on it. Currently, the group also includes a number of Central Asian militants who have their own grievances against Moscow. ISIS is a Sunni Islamic organization that advocates Salafi jihadism. Salafism is a very specific direction that calls for the literal imitation of practices used by communities during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s an Islamic radical reform.

The goal of ISIS is to establish its ideals globally by creating a Global Caliphate or at least by restoring the Righteous Caliphate of the 7th-8th centuries. The organization’s origins, which later evolved into ISIS, date back to 1999. The Islamic State of Iraq declared itself as ISIS in 2006, and in 2014 it transformed (by merging with several other organizations) into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and declared itself a global caliphate.

ISIS’s enemy is anything that is not ISIS. Historically, other Muslims have suffered the most from ISIS’s actions, both during the existence of the ISIS quasi-state in Syria and Iraq (2014-2019) and before and after. And for ISIS-K, the main enemy is “non-conforming” Muslims.

ISIS-K, or as they call themselves, ISIS – Khorasan Province is actually a part of ISIS that operates in the territory of the historical region (suddenly) Khorasan. Khorasan is one of the three regions of Central Asia, which includes the territories of modern Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, parts of Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. ISIS-K does not operate throughout the entire territory of historical Khorasan but considers it as its target area. Accordingly, recruitment of people takes place in Central Asia, and the political aspect is local.

Currently, the main enemy of ISIS-K is the Taliban. ISIS accuses the Taliban of not being sufficiently Muslim. Literally: now they criticize the Taliban for not enforcing Sharia laws harshly enough and being too liberal. In second place, of course, is Shiite Iran. So, for ISIS, Shiites are even more evil than, say, Christians, because they consider Shiites heretics and apostates.

According to the report of the Soufan Center for 2017, which studies violent extremism, more foreign fighters joined ISIS from the former Soviet republics than from any other region. In 2015, militants in Russian regions and republics pledged allegiance to the group and formed the so-called ISIS-K Caucasus province.

The ISIS-K actively operates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, as well as targeting Europe and beyond, writes the New York Times. Since the organization was ousted from Syria, it has transformed into a traditional terrorist group – an underground network of cells from West Africa to Southeast Asia, engaging in guerrilla attacks, bombings, and targeted killings.

None of the group’s branches has been as ruthless as the ISIS-K journalists write, adding that in recent years the scale of ISIS-K attacks has increased – they have become transnational, and the number of plots in Europe has grown, most of which have been thwarted. This has led Western intelligence agencies to suggest that the group may have reached the limits of its deadly capabilities.

“So far, the ISIS-K relies mainly on inexperienced operatives in Europe, trying to organize attacks in its name,” said Christine Abizaid, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, in November. However, there are alarming signs that ISIS-K is learning from its mistakes. According to counterterrorism services, attacks in Moscow and Iran have demonstrated greater sophistication, indicating a higher level of planning and the ability to recruit local extremist networks.

WSJ journalists note that since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, it has become easier for Islamists to recruit migrants from Central Asia into their ranks, as there is an increasing number of them in Russia due to a shortage of labor amid mobilization and losses on the front lines. Migrants often speak Russian poorly, are poorly treated, and are targeted by police raids and sent to the front lines.

Another reason why Central Asian countries have become fertile ground for ISIS propaganda is also related to criticism of the post-communist authorities of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan by ISIS which allegedly restrict religious freedom. They recruit young Tajiks into ISIS ranks and then tell them that the best way to practice religion is to go to Afghanistan in the name of faith, where there is room for action.

ISIS propaganda adapts messages to the residents of a particular country. They criticize their governments” policies in their own languages. This provides personalized appeal. Everything is also based on stories of martyrs with similar national backgrounds. Counterterrorism experts believe that the terrorist attacks in Moscow and Iran could push the ISIS-K to redouble its efforts in strikes in Europe, especially in France, Belgium, the UK, and other countries that have been targeted over the past decade.

Western intelligence agencies cite three main factors for the attack by ISIS-K militants: the existence of sleeper cells in Europe, the war in Gaza, and support from Russian-speaking people living in Europe. One major event this summer is causing many counterterrorism experts to be on alert. “I am concerned about the Olympic Games in Paris… They will become the main target of terrorists,” said a former senior UN official on counterterrorism.

On the cover photo, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant flag waving on white background ©railway fx/