The interior ministry of the Republic of Tajikistan announced on July 31, 2018, that the terrorists who killed four foreign tourists on July 29, 2018, were members of the ISIS movement who underwent terrorist training in Iran.
The four were among seven European and American cyclists who were riding through southern Tajikistan in the Danghara district, between the city of Kulob and the capital, Dushanbe. A car repeatedly rammed the tourists when they were about 70 km away from the capital. After running them down, the attackers got out and stabbed them. Three were killed on the spot, and another one of the casualties died in the local hospital. The fatalities included two Americans, one Dutch, and one Swiss. Three more cyclists were wounded.
The Tajikistan police announced that it managed to kill four of the attackers, who were attempting to flee the country to Afghanistan. Another five suspects involved were arrested.
ISIS has taken responsibility for the attack, but senior Tajik interior ministry officials told the BBC that ISIS was not connected to this incident, but an affiliated Islamic movement, the Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party (TIRP), whose activities were legally banned three years ago, planned and carried out the attack. The notice from the Interior Ministry in Dushanbe claimed the leader was Hussein Abdul Samadov, an active member of the movement. The report added that Abdul Samadov visited Iran four times, where he underwent military and ideological training. The announcement stated that Abdul Samadov and his friends were in training camps in the regions of Qom and Mazandaran in Iran in 2014 and 2015.1 The interior ministry said that its announcement is based upon confessions extracted from one of the arrested suspects. Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda stated that his office had set up a team to take investigate the attack, which is acting under the direct supervision of President Emomali Rachmon.
The Tajik government had declared this year as “the year of tourism and the development of handicrafts.” The terrorist act was clearly aimed at tourists and left Tajik society “shocked,” according to the description given by the BBC reporter. Many citizens and senior government officials in Dushanbe expressed their concern that due to this incident, extremist elements will be encouraged to use more violence to harm the country’s tourist industry. Concern until now had been about the infiltration of terrorists from the poor mountainous areas of Central Asia, where there is a 1300-km border shared with Afghanistan.2
Tajikistan’s 8.5 million population is 85 percent Sunni Muslim, 5 percent Shiite Muslim, and 10 percent “other” religions, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.3
The accusation by the Tajiki Interior Ministry about Iran’s part in the latest terror attack has renewed tensions between Dushanbe and Tehran.
The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which was founded in 1990, has strong ties with Iran. It was first outlawed in Tajikistan in 1993. The party took part in the Tajik civil war (1992-1997), and after a peace agreement was signed with the government in 1997, its activities took place openly between 1998 and 2015, with government permission. In 2015, its activities became official, with two of its representatives elected to the 63-seat Parliament. However, Tajikistan declared again in 2015 that the party was a terror organization. It cancelled its permission for its activities and even arrested dozens of party activists, sentencing them to long prison terms. Yet the ties between the party and Iran strengthened from 2015.
In December 2015, Iran did not only invite Muhiddin Kabiri, chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), to a conference that took place in Tehran, entitled “Islamic Movements around the World.” There was also a meeting between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Leader of the Iranian regime, and Kabiri that aroused the anger of Tajikistan, who summoned the Iranian ambassador to the Foreign Ministry. A senior Tajik religious official connected to the government said that inviting Kabiri to Tehran would “encourage terrorist acts” in Tajikistan by Iran.
Relations between Tehran and Dushanbe continued to deteriorate. In 2016, the Tajik government closed its branch of “The Imam Khomeini Assistance Committee,” which operated in Tajikistan, and also banished the cultural attaché of Iran at the Iranian embassy. Tajikistan suspected that the Iranian “Assistance Committee” and the cultural attaché of Iran had connections with supporters of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) and were providing funds and other means to turn them into their mercenaries.
A short while after extremist supporters of the Iranian regime attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran; President Emomali Rahmon paid a visit to Saudi Arabia. At a meeting with the Saudi king, Rahmon condemned Iran, which Iran interpreted as another step by Tajikistan to continue cooling its relations with Tehran.
In April 2017, Muhammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, visiting central Asia, did not go to Tajikistan, despite meetings held earlier in the hope of improving relations.4 At this time, Tajikistan again accused Iran of supporting the IRPT and even held an official protest in Iran.
Tajikistan even canceled the memorandum of understandings that it signed with Iran to provide entry visas to Iranian tourists on their arrival at the country’s airports. At the same time, Dushanbe signed a cooperation agreement in the fields of security with Saudi Arabia, which Iran interpreted as a step toward Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, further distancing Tajikistan from Iran.
In April 2017, it was announced the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) rejected a request from Iran to join it as a result of Tajik opposition to this application. Iran’s application is still under consideration.
At the same time, the Iranian foreign minister visited Dushanbe in November 2017 to dedicate a new building for the Iranian embassy. While he was there, he met with his counterpart and the president of Tajikistan. Another meeting was held in April 2018 between Zarif and President Rahmon when Zarif attended a conference of the foreign ministers of countries participating in the ECHO organization.5
Ali-Asghar Sherdost, former Iranian ambassador to Tajikistan, who had strong ties with the senior leaders of the Islamic movement of Tajikistan during his period of service in Dushanbe, criticized the Iran’s Rouhani government for its lack of action when relations with both countries cooled. According to him, Iran took no real steps to show Tajikistan that Tehran does not support terror and does not train the cells connected with the Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party. Sherdost emphasized that the interests of Iran have harmed Tajikistan severely. According to him, “Dushanbe will continue to vote against Iran in the international arena, and at the same time, the number of weekly flights between the countries have been reduced, and the number of Iranian students learning in Tajikistan has gone down to zero.”6
According to Dushanbe, most of the operational connections between Iran and the Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party were established through Abdelhalim Nazarzoda, or Haj Halim, former Tajiki deputy minister of defense, who in the 1990s was one of the commanders of the activist cells of the movement. Government forces killed Nazarzoda in September 2015 in a campaign that took place in the Dushanbe suburbs against what the government termed “an attempted revolution”7 carried out by the outlawed movement.
Despite soothing messages from Iran, the upper executive body in the province of Khatlon in Tajikistan accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in the spring of 2017 of training TIRP militias. The announcement stated that members of the movement underwent training in camps in Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
Similarly, the official news agency of Tajikistan published an article in the spring of 2017 that emphasized that Iran is gathering the militias of the Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party that fought on the fronts of the Syrian war on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. According to the news agency, the movement’s militias, with the forces of Ansarallah (of Tajikistan), are located in training camps along these borders with the purpose of carrying out further attacks in the area. But Iran emphasizes that Tajikistan is falsely accusing it and is a captive of the propaganda of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.8
Tajikistan-Iran Feud Continues
In August 2017, Tajikistan again blamed Iran for the murder of many of its citizens, including Zafar Ali Kanji, a former Parliamentary speaker. The Tajik interior ministry accused Iran of financing terrorist acts carried out by the elements of the Islamic movement trained in Iran.
Through an announcement from its embassy in Dushanbe, Iran denied any involvement in murder or revolution, stressing that ties should be strengthened due to cooperation and interdependence between both countries in the field of energy.
Iran denies Tajikistan’s newest allegations. But at the same time, media sources associated with the conservative camp in Iran are expressing concern over the life of Muhiddin Kabiri, believed to be living in Germany since 2016. According to Iran’s conservative media, terror cells were dispatched in May 2018 by the Tajik government to Germany to eliminate Kabiri.9
The activities of the Tajik Islamic Renaissance Party in Europe, particularly in the suburbs of Warsaw, capital of Poland, have received a lot of media coverage in Iran in the last two years. One reporter praised the movement for “bringing itself back to life.”10 The Iranian media which is primarily identified with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard interviews Kabiri often. In an interview with the Tasnim agency in June 2018, Kabiri refers to “the natural right” of his party as an Islamic party, to have strong ties to Iran “as every Islamic organization or movement needs to have connections with Iran, which is an Islamic country with an Islamic leadership.” According to him, his movement also maintains “strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.”11
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