ENGRUS

Tajikistan's Islamic State Contingent Reportedly Suffers Grave Blows

Media outlets have in recent days reported on the death of senior Islamic State group militants from Tajikistan — including US-trained former riot police commander Gulmurod Khalimov — in what appears to amount to a devastating blow to the radical organization’s Central Asian contingent.

The Times of London cited military sources in Iraq as saying that Khalimov was killed by a missile strike on the city of Mosul, much of which has been recaptured by government troops after years under Islamic State control.

Khalimov has been described informally as the Islamic State group’s minister for war, so his death could prove meaningful. The Times cites its sources as saying he was believed to be behind the defense of Mosul and the organizer of a car bombing campaign against coalition forces.

Khalimov, 41, has been declared dead before, however, so the authorities in Tajikistan are holding their counsel so far. 

Last year, the US, which has been sorely embarrassed by defection of a man it once trained to a terrorist group, placed a $3 million bounty on Khalimov.

As The Bug Pit has noted, the US State Department had approved five training courses for Khalimov — three of them in the US itself. At least one session appears to have been conducted under the auspices of US security firm Blackwater. 

Pressed by reporters over the Khalimov defection in September 2015, then-US Ambassador to Tajikistan, Susan M. Elliott, responded that the “motivation for why Khalimov decided to go fight for [Islamic State] is unclear.” The explanation offered by Khalimov in a promotional Islamic State video was that he was protesting growing restrictions on religious freedom in Tajikistan.

It is ultimately not known for certain whether Khalimov genuinely held an important organizational role within the Islamic State group or if his purpose was primarily to serve as a recruiting magnet for Central Asian citizens.

Subsequent to reports of Khalimov’s death, on April 17, it was reported by RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi, that his 18-year old son, Behruz, was arrested in his native village of Darai Foni, in the Varzob district, several days ago. It is not clear what charges the son — who would have been around 15 years old when Khalimov left Tajikistan — is facing.

Equally as intriguing as Khalimov’s reported death is the fate of a supposed high-ranking Tajik commander in the ranks of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan.

Authorities in Dushanbe are reportedly claiming that one Shermahmad Safarov was killed after US forces deployed their $16 million massive ordinance air blast bomb against a suspected Islamic State base in the Nangarhar province.

An unnamed source has told Radio Ozodi that they believe Safarov was the head of the Tajik contingent of Islamic State in Afghanistan, nicknamed the Lion of Yazgul. Safarov is also reputed to be the brother of Nazarmuhammad Safarov, a former top Tajik Defense Ministry official accused by the government of involvement in what the government says was an attempted coup in September 2015.

The leader of the purported coup, former deputy defense minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda, was killed in a special operation, but Nazarmuhammad Safarov was taken into custody. 

It is not known precisely where it is that Tajik officials got the information about Shermahmad Safarov, but what is out of the norm is that they should have revealed it in the first place, since any information to do with security matters is as a rule jealously guarded.

One possibility is that since the government has sought to pin the alleged coup on the now-banned Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT, the sudden tenuous Islamic State connection serves its interests. IRPT have also denied, however, that they were in any involved with any attempted power grab or that they were allied with Nazarzoda and his associates.

According to Radio Ozodi, up until 2015, Shermahmad Safarov, 48, lived in Dushanbe and worked as a security guard. 

During the civil war of the 1990s, however, he fought in the ranks of the United Tajik Opposition. After a peace deal in 1997 brought an end to fighting, he was granted officer status in the army, reaching the rank of major.

According to the account now being spun through Radio Ozodi, in October 2015, Safarov moved to Afghanistan and decided to throw in his lot with the Taliban. In 2016, he is said to have fallen out with the Taliban and decided instead to join the Islamic State group.

And officials in Dushanbe are reportedly saying another 11 Tajik militants were also killed in the same bombing.

It is a compelling tale. The question is: how much of it is true?