ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) claimed responsibility for Russia’s Crocus City Hall massacre, where at least 130 people died and dozens were injured. Russia claims that the four gunmen are citizens of Tajikistan. Moreover, they were registered in three oblasts within Russia, alluding to the fact that they may have been foreign workers. ISIS-K released photos of the gunmen through its Amaq news agency.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to connect the attack to the ongoing war in Ukraine, which is ridiculous. Russia may attempt to frame this as a false flag attack to drum up support for its war in Ukraine and by doing so Russia will ignore an emerging threat to its domestic sphere.

Russia’s track record in Muslim countries has made it an opportune target for the ISIS-K, which is headquartered in Afghanistan. It is a global power with a history of war crimes against Muslim populations and is geographically more accessible. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and then there were the brutal Chechen Wars in the 1990s and later Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War whilst committing war crimes in all three conflict areas.  There also have been reports that Russia has actively recruited Muslim migrants for its fight in Ukraine and many of them were given the option of going to jail or serving in the armed forces for a year. Russia’s tactics in Ukraine have created a meat-grinder situation where attrition is exorbitant, thus adding more fuel to the fire as conscripted foreigners are utilized for these roles.

Russia attempted to find local actors to help facilitate this recruitment objective. In February 2024, Sunatullo Nazriev, the leader of the local Tajik diaspora in the Russian city of Samara, urged Tajiks with Russian passports, and those who want to get Russian passports, to join Russia’s armed forces. The dire socio-economic conditions of Central Asia have meant that there is a significant population of migrants in Russia. Although many fled due to the threat of being coerced into Russia’s armed forces. It was estimated that in the first quarter of 2023, 1.3 million still migrated to Russia, even under the threat of being coerced into the Russian army. Russian wages are still higher than those of Central Asia and provide much incentive for foreign workers. Couple that with the losses on the Ukrainian front, there are more vacancies for foreign workers within Russia’s economy.

The reason for the Tajik ferociousness can be tied to the aggressive anti-Muslim doctrine that the Tajikistan government has enforced on its 98% Muslim population. The Tajik government, for years, has been attempting to crack on Islam in the country. Hundreds of thousands of men have been arrested for wearing beards and the government espoused that those wearing the hijab are prostitutes. ISIS-K has a targeted campaign to recruit ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, including Uighurs and ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. The anti-Islamic situation in Tajikistan has led to a fervent extremist backlash. There are multiple Tajik extremist groups that have risen and aim to overthrow the government, while ISIS-K aims to play the long game.

There are few Tajik insurgent groups in Afghanistan. But Jamaat Ansarullah is a significant Tajik Islamist group, which is also known as the Tajik Taliban or Tehreek-e-Taliban Tajikistan (TTT). It is aligned with the Afghan Taliban and there are reports that the TTT is culpable for crimes in Afghanistan. The UN Sanctions Monitoring June 2023 report stated that one UN member state claimed that the Afghan Taliban have a “campaign of ethnic cleansing by forcefully evicting thousands of Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkmen from their homes, with those remaining being shot or beaten, and their homes burned.”[1] The Afghan Taliban have put the TTT in charge of several districts along Afghanistan’s northern border.

ISIS-K continues to be a threat within Afghanistan, and in January the Taliban’s Defence Minister, Mawlawi Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, stated that Tajik and Pakistani fighters have been involved in attacks within the country. Again, it should be noted that the Taliban have aligned itself with the TTT. If the TTT are enforcing ethnic policy and forcibly reallocating people then where else are migrants going to turn to than ISIS-K?

Russia has kept its eye on the ISIS-K threat in Afghanistan and has stated so through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Anatoly Sidorov, Chief of the Joint Staff of the CTSO, stated, in February 2023, that ISIS-K’s strength reached 6,500 fighters with approximately 4,000 stationed near the Afghan-Tajikistan border. In February 2019, it was estimated that there were 2,500-3,500 on the Afghan-Tajikistan border.[2] The Tajik population in ISIS-K is relatively small, but a large portion of them are more aggressive and successful fighters.

It does seem that there is growing predominance for the use of Tajik fighters to project violence for ISIS-K. The January 2024 twin suicide bombings in Iran’s Kerman city were carried out by ethnic Tajik fighters of ISIS-K.  In September 2022, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for a bomb attack on the Russian embassy in Kabul which stilled eight people, including two embassy staffers. This attack not only aimed to diminish the confidence that the Taliban can provide security but also as a warning to Russian interests in Afghanistan and the Central Asian states.

To limit ISIS-K’s operational projection in the region, there have to be measures to reduce the Tajik threat. That is not a short-term goal, the Tajik government would have to reduce its anti-Islamic stance and embrace it. There would have to be reforms to Russia’s foreign worker policies and perhaps not actively coerce them into the armed forces. Russia’s stance after the Crocus City Hall attack should be redirected towards Central Asia and not Ukraine. In short, the Tajik Islamic extremist threat is not going anywhere and in fact, we should assume that it will expand. ISIS-K now has two recent successful attacks in Iran and Russia. It may have its recruitment boost. If it does, it may redirect some of its attention against the Afghan Taliban, but there is a probability that it will continue to attack foreign targets to elevate its global position and attract more financing and foreign recruits.

ISIS-K will continue and it will be emboldened by its success in Iran, but especially after its Russian attack. Russia’s fixation with Ukraine will mean that it will not be able to carry out any attacks within Afghanistan and yet again, the world is beholden to the Afghan Taliban to curb international terrorism.

Featured Photo: “Emergency Services at Crocus City Hall”, 22 March 2024, WikimediaCommons

By Stewart Webb

The editor of DefenceReport and Senior Analyst, Stewart Webb holds a MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University. A frequent guest on defence issues for CTV National News, and other Canadian media outlets, his specialities include commentary on terrorist/insurgent activity and Canadian defence issues. Stewart can be contacted at: [email protected]