Tajik 'jihadists' go to prison

By Nadin Bahrom

Tajik militants are shown in Syria in a photo published in April. [Odnoklassniki photo obtained by Nadin Bahrom]

Tajik militants are shown in Syria in a photo published in April. [Odnoklassniki photo obtained by Nadin Bahrom]

DUSHANBE -- Tajik authorities are locking up militants who either went to Syria or wanted to go.

Within a year, more than 100 Tajiks trying to reach Syria were extradited from the Turkish-Syrian border. They were seeking to join the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL).

In one case in mid-May, a judge in Dushanbe sentenced three would-be ISIL militants to six to seven years in prison.

Central Asia Online was able to contact the convicts to learn what motivated them to join ISIL.

Their cases turned out to be highly similar: unemployment, migration for work, despair and the delusion that joining ISIL in Syria would "serve Allah".

Umarov's story

One convict, Gafurjan Umarov, 26, of Khujand, Sughd Province, has two college degrees, both acquired abroad. To pay for his studies, Umarov took a part-time job in a cafeteria.

"That's where I met an Algerian man calling himself Sayid," Umarov told Central Asia Online. "He told me about the 'caliphate' and ISIL."

Sayid paid for Umarov to travel to Turkey. He reached Istanbul in March 2015. After several months of working there, he went to Gaziantep, a border town. Turkish police nabbed him as he tried to enter Syria.

Umarov was extradited to Tajikistan December 11.

His mother, Zulfiya Khotamova, told Central Asia Online she had no idea of her son's radicalisation until he was extradited.

"We don't know how and why he became involved in terrorism," she said.

Taking into account the defendant's repentance, judge Khotam Rajabzoda sentenced him to six years in prison.

Dodarbekov's story

Another defendant, Ehsonali Dodarbekov of Qumsangir District, Khatlon Province, was sentenced to six years. His path to extremism began in March 2015, when he travelled abroad for work.

"I was out of work for a long time there," he told Central Asia Online. "I became acquainted with a man called Akhmed, who promised to help me find work ... in Turkey."

He worked in a cafe in Istanbul for a while, where others encouraged him to go to Syria.

"On October 15, 10 of us boarded a mini-bus for Syria, but authorities stopped the bus and arrested us in Gaziantep," he said.

The detainees that day included two other Tajiks, Abdutolib Ikromov of Sughd Province and Farkhad Shamsov of Khatlon Province. All the Tajiks were extradited.

Dodarbekov confessed his guilt.

"After dinner every day, they preached that 'jihad' ... is every Muslim's duty," he said. "They told us that dying in battle would open the gates of heaven."

Dodarbekov never said he was planning to go to Syria, his wife, Farzona Kodirova, who stayed in Tajikistan, told Central Asia Online.

"We expected him to send us money," she said. "We learned he was planning to go fight only after his extradition."

Jalolov's story

The third defendant, Botirali Jalolov, 27, of Jabbor Rasulov District, Khatlon Province, joined ISIL in June 2015 while he was working abroad.

An Uzbek extremist named Abu Mairam snared Jalolov through the Odnoklassniki social media site. Mairam, based in Syria, persuaded Jalolov to join ISIL.

Jalolov flew to Istabul last October, where he stayed a month and absorbed a stream of videos from Mairam showing ISIL's purported battlefield victories.

"I fully admit my guilt," Jalolov told Central Asia Online. "Mairam constantly sent me sermons ... He also spread anti-Shia propaganda ... I [thought] I would be able to send money to my family."

Jalolov's own militant days ended last November 11, when Turkish police arrested him on the border with Syria. He was extradited January 9.

"I told him many times to avoid making friends with radicals," his brother Sherali told Central Asia Online. "I told him to work and think about his family."

Botirali's poor choices might have been influenced by the break-up of his marriage -- which lasted two years -- in 2014, Sherali Jalolov said.

Sherali Jalolov January 10 heard from police that his brother had been arrested in Turkey.

Botirali Jalolov drew the longest sentence of the three defendants, seven years.

Turkey has deported about 200 Tajiks in the past two years, Mukhammadrizo Khalifazoda, spokesman for the Tajik general prosecutor's office, told Central Asia Online.

"We work closely with law enforcement agencies from other countries to ensure the security of our citizens and their timely extradition if they are arrested," he said.

The Dushanbe court found all three defendants guilty under Article 401 of the Tajik criminal code, which prohibits fighting in foreign wars.

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