Tajikistan: Islamic Militancy No Phantom Menace

Posted: October 18, 2011 in International, Journalism, Politics, Region, Tajikistan
Tags: , , , , , , ,
By John MacLeod – Central Asia – 14 May 2011
Shortly before al-Qaeda’s leader died in a high-profile raid in Pakistan, security forces in the Central Asian republic scored their own coup against a militant leader dubbed the “Tajik Bin Laden”.

Mullo Abdullo died as he lived, in conflict. His death in a firefight with Tajik security forces on April 16 will force analysts to rethink the threat posed by Islamic militants groups in Tajikistan and elsewhere in Central Asia.

 

Two years ago, the first rumours that Mullah Abdullo had reappeared in Tajikistan and was attempting to drum up support among disaffected former guerrillas from the civil war of the early 1990s were greeted with disbelief. No one had seen him, reports of his movements were sketchy, and there were stories that he was long dead and buried in Afghanistan.

It seemed too bad to be true. In Tajikistan, there were concerns that the spectre of a mullah roaming the hills in search of a new jihad was pure invention, designed to justify a security clampdown in parts of the country where the government’s writ ran thin.

The lack of hard information. and speculation about what was really going on, resulted in widely divergent readings of clashes that took place in 2009 and again in 2010 between government troops and armed locals. Was the military engaged in a counter-insurgent drive against a serious militant threat, or was it victimising local community leaders by branding them terrorists?

The public relations battle peaked after a real and bloody one last September, in which 25 soldiers died when their convoy was hit by what looked like a well-coordinated ambush in a narrow mountain gorge.

As reporting in much of the media highlighted the alleged failings of the security effort, the defence ministry grew increasingly irritated, arguing that its own performance was being slighted while no one realised the security threat it was trying to deal with.

Defence Minister Sherali Khairulloev issued an irate statement slamming what he felt was the gloating tone of some of the reporting. He asked why the independent press chose not to condemn the actions of “ruthless murderers”, and suggested this was tantamount to aiding and abetting terrorism. (See Tajik Government’s Fury Over Conflict Reporting.)

The government’s stand-off with the media did it no credit, with curbs placed on press and internet news outlets, and reporters complaining that the virtual blackout on official information about the violence meant they were unable to establish the facts.

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