Former Tajik IS member recalls ill-advised journey to Afghanistan

By Negmatullo Mirsaidov

Nodira Usmonova poses with her three children and father-in-law in Isfizor village, Bobojon Ghafurov District, Sughd Province, June 18. [Negmatullo Mirsaidov]

Nodira Usmonova poses with her three children and father-in-law in Isfizor village, Bobojon Ghafurov District, Sughd Province, June 18. [Negmatullo Mirsaidov]

[Part 1 of this feature, published June 27, begins the story of Nodira Usmonova, a Tajik woman who joined a terrorist movement with her husband and ended up in an Afghan prison.]

SUGHD PROVINCE, Tajikistan -- The last time Farkhod Usmonov went to Moscow for work was in April 2017.

After some time, according to his wife, Nodira, Usmonov called home, allegedly from Baku, Azerbaijan, where he said he had found a highly paid job.

In reality, he might have been calling from either Iran or Afghanistan.

Usmonov, like hundreds of other migrants from Tajikistan, fell for phony promises of good earnings and perhaps even the false ideology of "Islamic State" (IS).

After becoming an IS soldier, he went to Turkey and then travelled to Afghanistan via Iran.

Many before him went to Syria, but as IS's territory in Syria shrank to nothing, IS made Afghanistan its new priority.

IS's move to Afghanistan "is a declaration of war on all the countries of Central Asia, including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which all border unstable Afghanistan," said Kasym Bekmukhammedov, a Dushanbe-based Afghan affairs scholar.

Afghanistan, however, does not welcome IS. Both the Afghan government and Taliban despise IS and wage war against it.

The path to false beliefs

One day in February 2018, Usmonova received a call from her husband, who asked her to come with their children to Azerbaijan.

She bought tickets to Moscow, and from there she and the children proceeded to Baku. There, an Uzbek-speaking stranger introduced himself as her husband's friend.

"His name was Mahmadali," she said. "He placed me and my two children in a hotel and paid for it."

Usmonova stayed at the hotel in Baku for two weeks, and then, with the help of an Azerbaijani woman named Guzler, she and her children flew to Iran.

In Tehran, another woman, Shaido, met them. She transported the trio to Herat, Afghanistan.

Usmonova and her children journeyed to Sardara village (then controlled by IS) in Jawzjan Province, where Usmonov was waiting. The whole trip took 18 days.

Life among strangers

In Sardara, the family lived in a mud house.

Usmonov was earning 6,000 AFN (800 TJS or $74) monthly guarding an IS prison, which held Afghan National Directorate of Security personnel, Afghan National Army troops and officers, and civilian supporters of the government.

Usmonov was one of two Tajik prisoners who spoke on Afghan TV recently. Another IS member, Nematullo, stated his disillusionment with IS. Usmonov expressed no regret, at least in the part that appeared on TV.

"The jihad proclaimed by IS does not exist at all," Nematullo told 1TV NEWS. "Its ideologists openly deceive others and, to achieve their goals, abuse people's trust and exploit their low level of literacy."

Prison No. 501 in Kabul presently holds 400 IS members, including more than 130 foreigners from countries like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia, according to 1TV NEWS.

Education, outreach against extremism

Aware of extremists' ceaseless recruiting efforts, Tajik law enforcement and security forces, working with local authorities, clerics and NGOs, regularly conduct outreach work with the public.

The focus is on young people, labour migrants and the unemployed.

"We know that the ideologists of terrorism and extremism seek mainly ... to influence someone's views," said Khujand journalist Alisher Tolibov.

"Youth with unformed world views may fall under the influence of their propaganda, as well as individuals with little secular, religious and legal literacy, and those facing financial problems," he said.

"While protecting them from ... a hostile extremist ideology, we must not lose the political vigilance needed to counter modern challenges and threats," he said.

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This is the result of low mindset, greed, illiteracy, and ignorance. Unfortunately, the majority of the population in Tajikistan is under the influence of Islamic extremists. They believe in God and religion blindly. In fact, the Koziyot of Tajikistan does nothing to raise awareness among illiterate people and explain God and religion. The Koziyot and its employees benefit from this ignorance, especially that of the youth. The clergy has since time immemorial been interested in the common people having a vague understanding of Islamic religion and philosophy. Nowadays, thousands of illiterate and naive people fall prey to local clergymen.