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Moscow Terror Attack Spotlights Russia-Tajikistan Ties

The suspected shooters in the Crocus City attack were Tajiks, which has caused a backlash against labor migrants in Russia. Relations between Tajikistan and Russia, however, are unlikely to be impacted.

Published on March 28, 2024

Responsibility for the March 22 terrorist attack at the Crocus City concert hall near Moscow has been claimed by the Afghanistan-based Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), and most of the suspects in the attack are from Tajikistan.

Radicalization among some Muslims in Central Asia has been ongoing for many years, and organizations like ISIS-K—which had been largely forgotten in Russia until last week’s deadly attack—have learnt to take full advantage.

This process is particularly acute in the region’s poorest country, Tajikistan. At the beginning of March, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon said that in the last three years, twenty-four Tajiks have committed or planned terrorist attacks in ten countries. The country’s entire population is just 10 million.

The reasons for this radicalization are no secret. Tajikistan is the only country in Central Asia to have lived through a relatively recent civil war (1992–1997). Some estimates put the brutal war’s death toll at up to 100,000. The social and economic situation in Tajikistan is also one of the worst in Central Asia, with the country ranking 162 in the world by GDP per capita—alongside Haiti. About 70 percent of Tajiks live in rural areas, where child brides, polygamy, and female unemployment are common.

In the era of digitization and universal transparency, poverty and inequality exacerbate a sense of injustice, and Tajikistan is a corrupt, authoritarian regime where Rahmon and his family own almost everything of value and are not afraid to flaunt their wealth. Over three decades in power, they have destroyed all opposition. That means there are no longer any legal ways to fight injustice. There is only one path for those opposed to the regime: radicalization.

International terrorist groups have long looked on Tajikistan as a fertile recruiting ground. Media outlets affiliated with ISIS-K produce content in the Tajik language. They publish religious material and political tracts criticizing Rahmon for being too close to Russia, for his authoritarianism, and for not being religious enough. ISIS-K also runs Tajik-language Telegram channels and TikTok accounts.

All this activity has yielded results, and ISIS has organized several terrorist attacks in Tajikistan itself. In 2019, dozens of fighters crossed deep into Tajikistan from Afghanistan and attacked a border post on the border with Uzbekistan. The year before, ISIS claimed responsibility for killing a group of Western cyclists in the Tajik mountains. ISIS has also been behind two prison riots in Tajikistan that resulted in the deaths of dozens of prisoners and guards.

There has also been a growing number of terrorist attacks abroad carried out by Tajiks. At the beginning of 2024, two Tajik suicide bombers killed almost 100 people in Iran when they blew themselves up at a memorial service in a cemetery. Terrorist attacks by Tajiks have also taken place in Afghanistan, and there have been failed attempts in Germany and Turkey.

Even Tajik security officers have joined ISIS. Most famously, Tajik riot police commander Gulmurod Khalimov swore loyalty to ISIS in 2015. Not only was Khalimov familiar with the Tajik security apparatus, he’d also been trained in the United States and Russia. He was likely killed in 2020 in Syria.

The Tajik authorities are well aware that they can’t tackle this problem on their own, so they partner with an array of other countries when it comes to security issues. Cooperation with Russia is both bilateral (Tajikistan hosts Russia’s biggest foreign military base) and via the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. China is helping Tajikistan build police bases on the border with Afghanistan; the United States assists with border security; India rents an aerodrome; and Iran is opening a drone assembly line.

These measures do little to stop the radicalization of Tajik society, however. Dushanbe has not been able to come up with anything other than harsh repression, which only drives the problem underground and often exacerbates it.

Despite the high number of casualties, the attack on the Crocus City concert hall is unlikely to change how Moscow or Dushanbe tackle groups like ISIS. It’s far easier for Moscow to imitate frantic activity by targeting Central Asian migrants, who already face extreme discrimination, corruption, and systemic humiliation. Russia does nothing to help its young, male, first-generation migrants, which means they live in closed, ghettoized communities and are vulnerable to radicalization.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has only worsened the situation. Xenophobia has become the norm among “patriots,” war bloggers, and others who have come to the fore since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago. The Russian security establishment is particularly anti-migrant, and has pushed to tighten immigration legislation in the last two years.

Generally speaking, Russian society approves of harsher measures. According to surveys by the independent pollster Levada Center, the percentage of Russians who support restrictions on migration rose from 57 percent in 2017 to 68 percent in 2021. Twenty-six percent would not allow migrants from Central Asia into Russia at all. The situation is exacerbated by the security agencies, which tend to give disproportionate publicity to crimes committed by migrants.

Central Asian labor migrants in Russia have already faced a backlash after the reports about Tajik involvement in the concert hall attack. In the days after the killings, labor migrants have faced long checks at the border, and there have been cases of Russians refusing to get into taxis driven by Tajiks, as well as shopping mall owners demanding lists of Central Asian employees.

Leaked videos of Russian security officers torturing the Tajiks arrested in connection with the attack—and the extent of the men’s injuries when they were brought to court—will legitimize more generalized cruelty toward those from Central Asia. The Tajik Embassy in Russia has taken the step of telling its nationals to stay at home, while the Kyrgyz Embassy currently advises its nationals against travel to Russia.

At the same time, the terrorist attack is unlikely to alter the close relationship between Moscow and Dushanbe. Russia is already facing an acute labor shortage, and can hardly afford to jeopardize a remaining source of inexpensive labor. In his post-attack address, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to reports that the suspects were Tajiks by stating that terrorists “do not have a nationality.” So far, he has been more keen to focus on his unsubstantiated claim of Ukrainian involvement in the attack.

Rahmon has also spoken to Putin and disowned the Tajiks allegedly responsible. The two presidents also pledged to deepen security ties—though it’s hard to imagine how they could get much deeper. The effectiveness of those ties, though, is a different question. Are both of these aging, authoritarian regimes really able to prevent terrorist attacks? Or are they more interested in imaginary threats and cementing their grip on power?

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.