Cover photo: Still from ISIS video with Gulmurod Halimov Credit: YouTube
What does the Gulmurod Halimov defection tell us about the threat of ISIS and Tajikistan’s security?
By John Heathershaw
The defection of Gulmurod Halimov from his position at the head of Tajikistan’s Ministry of Interior’s special forces (OMON) to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has sent shock-waves through the Central Asian media and is clearly a huge embarrassment to the regime of Emomoli Rahmon. We know few facts about why he chose to go, other than Halimov’s own testimony with regard to the iniquities of US counterterrorism and Tajik government’s actions against unofficial Islam. But there are some broad conclusions that we may draw from the case, at this early stage, and some we may not. So, what does the Halimov defection tell us about the threat of ISIS and Tajikistan’s security?
1. Very little in general terms (that we didn’t know already)
The Halimov case is fascinating but it is unlikely to be representative of the general state of affairs within the Tajik state or society. There have been strong rumours in the past of relatives of elite families who have been found to support extremist groups (such as the son of the then Rais of the Kulob Hukumat being a member of Hizb-ut Tahrir some ten years ago). But for serving members of the security services to rebel in this way is unusual, and harks back to the early civil war years where the security structure fractured and became indistinguishable from organised criminal and paramilitary units.
However, in other ways this is totally detached from that era. Unlike the case of former commanders who have split from the state at times in the past, Halimov is 40 and has only held his senior position since 2012. Having taken few, if any, comrades with him, it is not clear his defection reflects any pattern at all. We have no reason to expect that it will be replicated by similar figures. It certainly should not be understood as part of a widespread process of societal radicalization – of which there is no evidence in Central Asia, as David Montgomery and I have argued. Tajikistan in the 2010s is not Iran in the 1970s when security and political figures began to seep away to the Islamic opposition to the Shah with some regularity.
We know so little about why individuals choose to join ISIS and should not read too much into their own rationalisations. Moreover, these individuals remain a very small minority. Even Tajikistani official estimates of 200-500 Tajik recruits suggest a small number of the country’s 7 million+ Muslims. Conclusions for Tajikistan’s society as a whole cannot be made from such a small and specific minority (largely of young males), despite recent attempts to do so by reputable organizations.
2. ISIS is a powerful global brand
That said, ISIS has proven itself to be a powerful global brand that has been more effective at recruiting members than the Taliban or even al-Qaeda in its post-9/11 height. Over 20,000 foreign fighters ad personnel are estimated to have found their way to the group’s territory. But figures from King’s College’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalization suggest that, compared to other regions that neighbour the Middle East, Central Asia’s states have haemorrhaged lower proportions of their Muslim population to ISIS than states in other regions. Europe, North Africa and states in the Middle East have both contributed greater proportions. For example, 1 in about 37,000 Tajikistanis and 1 per 54,000 Uzbeks are estimated to have joined ISIS. But a much larger proportion is estimated for the Saudi Arabia (1 per 10,200), Tunisia (1 per 3,400), the UK (1 per 4,900 British Muslims) and Belgium (1 per 1,450 Belgian Muslims). Why ISIS attracts young Muslim men from all over the world is deeply linked to its skillful brand management but it must be recognised that Central Asian Muslims remain either less susceptible to this or less able to answer the call than do Europeans.
3. Central Asian VEOs remain primarily extra-territorial
That Central Asians who do seek to join violent extremist organizations (VEOs) do so thousands of miles away, and not in their own region, confirms a pattern in place since the late-1990s when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and its associates were escorted out of Tajikistan. Central Asia still lacks a significant internal VEO threat and has experienced very few attacks compared with other regions of the world. Halimov may promise to bring jihad to Tajikistan but then so have the IMU and other groups for 15 years and with very little success. The predicted threat of Islamist insurgents in Tajikistan has yet to materialise.
4. Pathways to ISIS are not necessarily those of religious radicalization
We know that the pathway of any individual to a violent extremist organization, including ISIS, is not necessarily that of religious radicalization. For those, largely young and male, who join ISIS it seems that their youth, gender and personal and professional life story matter more than their faith, as Noah Tucker has shown with respect to Uzbek ISIS recruits.
Arkady Dubnov has suggested that there was an internal conflict possibly between Halimov and Rustam Rahmonov, seeking to build his own group of loyal security personnel to sustain his own bid for power after his father passes on the throne. It may be that Halimov’s reasoning was as much economic (he was rewarded) and political (his relationship with the ruling elite in Tajikistan had broken down), than religious. His background within the secularised security establishment in Tajikistan and his leading of the security operation against the so-called Islamist group in Garm in 2010-11 suggests that his recent conversion into a jihadist insurgent is not based on long-standing religious and even political convictions.
5. The campaign against unofficial Islam in Tajikistan and the US Department of Defense’s Counter-Terrorist efforts appear to face some ‘blowback’
The problem here of course is that these two campaigns can be linked, and are explicitly linked by Halimov in his online testimony. It is appearance which is crucial. By providing considerable military training to Tajikistan’s security services during the regime’s crackdown on the Islamic Revival Party and all unofficial public expressions of piety, the US Government has associated its counterterrorism efforts with this campaign. As we have argued elsewhere, such military assistance is likely to be counter-productive and should be stopped.
Despite Halimov’s testimony, it is unlikely that his claimed motivation was the overwhelming cause of his defection. ‘Blowback’ does not refer to this kind of direct process but rather the counter-productive effect of fighting foreign wars via proxies, when an apparent ally turns his guns on his supposed friends. Halimov has now begun the poster child for the folly of US military assistance in Central Asia.
6. The greatest threats to the Tajik state lie within
The significance of the Hakimov case is all about his position within the state. Despite Emomoli Rahmon’s skillful manipulation of Tajik politics for over 20 years there are many tensions within the regime and its security organs. These include those between militant secularists and pious Muslims.
However, it remains unlikely that this will be the primary point of fracture. Violence in Garm in 2010-11 and Khorog in 2012 took place largely between security forces of the state, not by non-state actors against the state. Political position and commercial opportunity was at stake in both cases. It is more likely that the scramble for posts will intensify as Rahmon ages and his son Rustam continues to grow his own powerbase. If he proves a less effective patron and arbiter than his father then defections and even attempts at insurgency remain probable. This is not about religious radicalization or the general condition of state weakness, but a highly informal and clientelistic process of rule. Such instability is not inevitable but rivalry within the state, and even within the family (as in 2008 when Rustam and his sisters apparently fought with their uncle), remains the greatest threat to the regime.