Tajikistan and Foreign Terrorist Fighters


© OSCE / Curtis Budden

In February I was invited to moderate one of two working groups at a Regional Co-operation and Effective Responses to the Phenomenon of Foreign Terrorist Fighters workshop organised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Tajikistan alongside the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (UNCTED) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The meeting was financially supported by the British Embassy in Tajikistan and involved Ambassadors, Counter-Terrorism Officials, Civil Society representatives and others.

I was delighted to do so, especially after my involvement in previous meetings with the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), Hedayah Centre, and International Centre for Counterterrorism — The Hague.

A three-day expert workshop on promoting regional co-operation in Central Asia and effective responses to the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters, concluded today in Dushanbe.

This is the first workshop of its kind in Central Asia, organized by the OSCE Office in Tajikistan and the OSCE Transnational Threats Department, bringing together some 150 government and civil society experts from a wide range of OSCE participating States and Partners for Co-operation.

The initiative comes against a background of increased concern about violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism (VERLT) and an unprecedented number of individuals mobilizing across the wider OSCE area to support and perpetrate acts of terrorism abroad. The OSCE Ministerial Council adopted during its last meeting in December 2014 a declaration committing the OSCE to support the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 2170 and 2178 (2014) in countering the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters.

“The Office in Tajikistan has been supporting the development of a national strategy on VERLT as elaborated in a working group composed of law enforcement, civil society, religious leaders, researchers and other relevant partners,” said Head of the OSCE Office in Tajikistan Ambassador Markus Mueller. “Competence in addressing the phenomenon of radicalization is a shared international responsibility. Workshops like this one aim to develop and establish the regional forum of competence, strengthening the networks of experts and decision makers.”


Vladmimir Prokhorov, Head of New Challenges and Threats, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation. Regional Cooperation and Effective Responses to the Phenomenon of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF), Dushanbe, Tajikistan © Onnik James Krikorian 2015


Svetlana Martynova, United Nations Security Council Counterterrorism Committee Executive Directorate (UNCTED) and Dr. Arturo Laurent Gonzalez, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Regional Cooperation and Effective Responses to the Phenomenon of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF), Dushanbe, Tajikistan © Onnik James Krikorian 2015

The issue is a hugely important one and it’s timely that today The Guardian republished a piece on how many migrant workers from Tajikistan were being radicalised in Moscow. This problem was raised many times at the OSCE workshop.

Gulru Olimova grew up in Tajikistan, near the Afghan border. As a child she dreamt of becoming a doctor or maybe a nurse. But when she was 16, Gulru met a a man called Loik Rajabov, and it wasn’t long before they were married.

The couple went to live on the outskirts of the town, Kulyab, where they had three children. But like many young Tajiks, Rajabov struggled to earn a living for his family and had to make frequent trips to Moscow to work on construction sites.

On his return from one of these trips, his mother-in-law told me, the black flag of Islamic State (Isis) was raised outside the family home.

In autumn 2014, Rajabov took his wife and children with him to Moscow. A few months later he phoned his wife’s mother, Mairambi Olimova, from an unfamiliar number to say the family had moved to Syria. Olimova reported the conversation to the Tajikistan authorities, but says that nothing has been done.

Georgia gets a mention too. Although many have tried to downplay the problem of radicalisation in Pankisi, there are enough reports of foreign fighter recruitment to make it a very real problem indeed. Unfortunately, however, very little has been done, with the Georgian government favouring punitive legislation to punish foreign terrorist fighters on their return.


Mirsad Crnovrsanin, Legal Advisor, State Prosecutor Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Regional Cooperation and Effective Responses to the Phenomenon of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF), Dushanbe, Tajikistan © Onnik James Krikorian 2015


Mehdi Knani, Counterterrorism Network Coordinator, OSCE Secretariat, Transnational Threats Department, Regional Cooperation and Effective Responses to the Phenomenon of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF), Dushanbe, Tajikistan © Onnik James Krikorian 2015


Alberto Anton,Senior Intelligence Analyst, Spanish National Police, Regional Cooperation and Effective Responses to the Phenomenon of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF), Dushanbe, Tajikistan © Onnik James Krikorian 2015

There are virtually no Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs in Georgia. Meanwhile, UNODC says that Azerbaijan is currently attempting to put together a large scale counter-radicalisation strategy and I’ve heard that meetings have taken place between CVE practitioners and Azerbaijani officials in Washington D.C.

The U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has also now included counter-radicalisation projects in its annual Conflict Pool fund in the South Caucasus. Some of the issues raised in the two working groups that Humera Khan and I moderated, therefore, will probably be of use in terms of community-based initiatives as well as alternative and counter narratives.

Humera moderated the first working group mentioned and I moderated the second before we both summarised the outcome together in a separate, but combined session.

The main vectors and contexts of VERLT in Central Asia were identified as recruitment activities of designated extremist and terrorist groups; the spread of extremism through the Internet and social media; the promotion of extremist ideas by some religious clerics; attendance of religious schools abroad; incarceration; and labor migration.

Panelists called for a strategic campaign against VERLT, allying state authorities, civil society, as well as traditional and new media, to achieve a multiplier effect and chain reaction to raise awareness down to the grassroots level. A speaker emphasized the need to support “traditional beliefs” and to promote a democratic and tolerant political culture in Central Asian countries. Another speaker stressed that governments should address the socio-economic and political issues that make it easier for terrorists to recruit − including corruption and human rights violations − and ensure equal opportunities and social justice.

A strong emphasis was put on the need to challenge the exploitation of religion in terrorist and extremist narratives. Increasing access to religious education for men and women, older and younger people, was deemed of paramount importance. A speaker informed about ongoing efforts in his country to train religious clerics through public-private partnerships to raise their level of education, credibility and understanding of extremist arguments. The need to uphold freedom of beliefs was underscored in relation to state interventions in religious matters. A speaker explained that police officers are being trained in his country to distinguish religious piety from extremism so that believers are not victimized.

A speaker also observed that the mass media in Central Asia were often unwittingly promoting terrorist groups and spreading their ideas at face value through sensationalistic coverage and by failing to contextualize information. There is a need to train journalists on how to report about terrorism and religious issues; a few initiatives to this effect are underway in some Central Asian countries and they should be scaled up.

The first break-out group on community-based approaches against FTF radicalization and recruitment called for strengthening the central role of families in pushing back VERLT. Participants discussed the need to actively involve women and youth in both the design and delivery of initiatives to counter VERLT at the grassroots level. Collaboration between law enforcement agencies and civil society organizations was considered indispensable and some participants called for more regular and inclusive government outreach. This was deemed especially important as building resilience to violent extremism would require governments to also engage communities and civil society organizations on other matters to address grievances underlying VERLT. Most participants agreed that VERLT in Central Asia is not driven by poverty, citing a growing number of people from the educated middle-class falling prey to recruitment. Some participants also pointed to fundamental questions regarding the place of religion and religious education in a secular society, and the linkages between the state’s approach to religious matters and freedom of beliefs on the one hand, and the effectiveness of CVE efforts on the other. It was recommended to improve the religious education of the clergy and social workers engaged in CVE efforts. There was also a discussion on female terrorist radicalization in Central Asia and several participants noted that, although not new, the phenomenon is not well understood and should be better researched.

The second break-out group on counter-narratives to violent extremism found that relevant efforts in Central Asia are emerging and need further development. Governments need to move from an overly punitive approach to put much more emphasis on prevention. There was a discussion of which actors are credible voices, with the recommendation that governments, and especially security bodies, should let civil society stakeholders take the lead in formulating and advocating counter-narratives. Counter-narrative efforts should be inclusive and address a broad range of audiences, yet carefully tailored in terms of medium and content to effectively reach and impact different groups. The potential of cartoons to convey counter-narratives addressing youth was especially highlighted. The involvement of youth was considered especially lacking; there is a need for more youth-led, peer-to-peer counter-narrative efforts. Education in general should be a priority, starting from a very early age, and not only religious education. Much of the discussions also focused on the role and responsibilities of the media: some participants pointed to the importance of effectively regulating the media and the Internet, to prevent the spread of VERLT; others insisted that governments should seek to work with, rather than against the media, as the free flow of information and pluralism are essential to overwhelm extremism. There was agreement on the need for more media self-regulation and training to improve reporting on terrorism.

Hopefully, the lessons learned elsewhere will be applied in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Institutions such as the Hedayah Centre could also play an important role in sharing expertise.


4 Comments Add Yours

  1. Michelle

    Wow! How interesting. In the USA we don’t hear much about the efforts of other countries, especially countries in Asia to combat Islamic radicalization. I’m glad to hear this and was very interested in the various approaches. It gives me hope. I wish news stories like this one got into USA news.


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