ISKP militants become more active in Central Asia
Militants of the Islamic State carried out a suicide bombing that killed 91 people and wounded more than a hundred people in the Iranian city of Kerman.
U.S. officials then stated that there was “clear cut and indisputable” evidence that Islamic State - Khurasan Province, or ISKP, carried out the attack.
Shortly after the bombing, Iran's Intelligence Ministry revealed that one of the attackers was a Tajik national while the other is yet to be identified. In turn, the Taliban-affiliated media outlet Almirsad stated that it had information allegedly confirming the Tajik origins of the second attacker. On its X account, Almirsad reported arrests of Tajik citizens planning attacks inside the country but said that their enlistment and training with ISKP all took place outside of Afghanistan.
Almirsad earlier accused Tajikistan of becoming “a new hub for [ISKP] production,” adding that this “poses a significant threat to the security and stability of the region and the world” and “many of its citizens have been involved in attacks in Afghanistan, Iran, and [elsewhere].”
The fact that another Tajik militant was involved in ISKP’s latest major attack is indicative of the branch’s increasingly ambitious geographical vision and success in attracting fighters from Afghanistan’s northern neighbours.
Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, the Taliban’s appointed defense minister, confirmed this during a press conference in Kabul on New Year’s Eve, announcing that security forces had killed dozens of Tajik and Pakistani militants over the course of 2023. The Taliban and Almirsad have been aggressive in blaming Dushanbe and Islamabad for Afghanistan’s domestic security problems.
Since the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, ISKP has expanded its messaging and operational scope under an interlinked strategy of regionalization and internationalization. Central Asia remains a key focus for the group.
The management of the group has developed its own in-house propaganda apparatus under Al-Azaim Foundation for Media Production, which now produces materials in Tajik and Uzbek languages to appeal to Central Asians and grow its support base, recruit, and fundraise, as well as threaten and incite attacks in the region and beyond.
The Kerman attack is not the first time ISKP tapped its Central Asian jihadist contingent to commit acts of violence outside of its local Afghanistan-Pakistan zone of operations or even against Iran itself. ISKP has targeted the Islamic Republic and sites of significance to Shia Muslims in the past.
Two attacks, less than a year apart, took aim at the Shah Cheragh shrine in Shiraz.
ISKP’s external networks have been active in Central Asia recently as well.
Kyrgyzstan’s security services arrested two alleged ISKP members who were planning to detonate improvised explosive devices in the central square in Jalal-Abad and launch an armed attack on a church in the city during New Year celebrations. Kyrgyz authorities said the suspects were recruited on the internet and investigators discovered records of communication with ISKP’s emissaries directing the plot, attack plans, bomb-making instructions, and home-made videos pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.
In 2022, ISKP fired rockets from Afghanistan toward Uzbekistan in April and Tajikistan in May, while a group of 20 IS militants crossed from Afghanistan into Tajikistan engaged in a firefight with security personnel near the Uzbek border.
The recent foiled plot in Kyrgyzstan seems to be the first externally directed ISKP terrorist operation in Central Asia.
Elsewhere in the region, Central Asian ISKP members have been active as well.
In July 2022, Turkish police arrested Shamil Hukumatov, a Tajik national, in the country using a fake passport made in Kyrgyzstan, and high ranking ISKP operative involved in fundraising, recruitment and, according to authorities, planning attacks against Tajikistan’s government.
In July 2023, Turkish security forces took down an alleged ISKP-linked network led by a Tajik plotting violence against churches and the Swedish and Dutch consulates.
In August 2022, Russian authorities alleged that a Kyrgyz national and an Uzbek were involved in a bombing plot targeting India.
There is clear evidence that ISKP is expanding its networks into Europe.
Nine people were arrested in Germany and The Netherlands in July 2023 after founding a domestic terrorist group. Six of the men are citizens of Tajikistan, while the others came from Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Prior to this, in 2020, four Tajik nationals, reported to be in contact with Islamic State officials in Afghanistan and Syria, were arrested for an alleged plot to attack U.S. and NATO military bases in Germany.
In Poland, one alleged Tajik member of the Islamic State who entered the country from Belarus was among a group of people it deported in June.
Thus, ISKP has proven adept at appealing to radicalized people from Central Asia and mobilizing them into action against its perceived enemies, both inside Afghanistan and abroad. The Kerman attack and recently foiled plots in Europe and Kyrgyzstan highlights this growing trend. ISKP recognizes this and will continue increasing efforts to build support within Central Asia and will keep pushing to direct or incite extremist elements in the region and in diaspora communities in the West and beyond.