On September 22, the Tajik army and law enforcement agencies began a massive security operation in the Rasht valley in the country’s east. The operation reportedly targets former United Tajik Opposition (UTO) rebels and “foreign mercenaries” who were behind the deadly assault on government forces three days earlier. The UTO was a loose alliance of Islamic and democratic activists that opposed the government of President Emomali Rahmon in the country’s 1992-1997 civil war. The Rasht valley with its rough terrain and strong Islamic traditions served as a UTO stronghold during the war.
23 soldiers were killed and many more critically wounded when a group of military vehicles was ambushed in the Kamarob gorge in Rasht valley on September 19. Another five soldiers died in hospital from the wounds they received in what appears to be the deadliest attack against government forces since the end of the civil war.
The Ministry of Defense was quick to blame “Islamic rebels” allied with former UTO field commanders for the brazen assault. The day after the attack, Tajikistan’s television First Channel showed an Islamic Revival Party (IRPT) activist who had been detained earlier confessing that his brother, Alovuddin Davlatov (also known as Ali Bedak), planned and carried out the deadly attack in the Kamarob gorge. Davlatov who had been a prominent Islamic opposition rebel during the civil war was also accused by his brother of forming a “terrorist group” that included about 100 militants from Chechnya, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and setting up a “terrorist camp”.
As Tajik security forces launched the operation in Rasht valley, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) released a statement on September 23, asserting that another two prominent ex-opposition rebels – Mirzokhuja Ahmadov (also known as Belgi) and Abdullo Rahimov (also known as Mullo Abdullo) – were also part of the group that had attacked government forces. Mullo Abdullo has been targeted by Tajik security agencies since early 2009 when a large-scale security campaign was undertaken in Rasht to capture him and his militants who had reportedly infiltrated from Afghanistan.
Ahmadov, on the other hand, was seemingly on good terms with President Rahmon’s administration. Following the peace settlement in 1997, Ahmadov long served as head of the police organized crime division in Rasht before leaving the post under intense pressure after the murder of a special police unit (OMON) commander, reportedly by Ahmadov’s men. Earlier in September, when Tajik security services searched the area for convicts who had escaped prison in Dushanbe, President Rahmon sent a high-level delegation consisting of the defense and interior ministers and the deputy head of the GKNB to assure Ahmadov’s safety and enlist his support in the search operation.
The GKNB statement claimed that Ahmadov long harbored Mullo Abdullo in his house. It also asserted that Ahmadov left behind a massive arsenal of small arms and explosive devices.
Meanwhile, on September 23, the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) sent a message to Tajik media claiming responsibility for the deadly attack that prompted the security operation in Rasht. The IMU suggested that the military convoy was attacked in retaliation for the Tajik government’s continued suppression of Islam, the banning of Islamic headscarves in public offices, and cooperation with the U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.
It is not clear at the moment how the IMU’s statement is related to the government’s blaming of the September 19 assault on former UTO field commanders. Although Tajik security agencies have frequently asserted that Mullo Abdullo was linked with the IMU, Ahmadov and Davlatov stayed clear of such accusations. The IRPT spokesperson Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda suggests that the IMU’s claim of responsibility for the incident in the Kamarob gorge is “self-promotion” prompted by the Tajik government’s inability to investigate the attack properly and its fear of everything Islamic.
The attack on government forces was the latest in a series of security incidents in the country following a high-profile prison escape in Dushanbe on August 22 and the bombings of a police station in Khujand and a nightclub in Dushanbe on September 3 and September 5, respectively. These incidents have put the spotlight on Tajikistan’s degrading security sector, repressive policies against unconventional Islamic groups, and growing frustration with the administration of President Emomali Rahmon.
(By Alexander Sodiqov, 09/29/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)