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Tajik IS Militants Told 'Return And Repent, And You'll Be Forgiven'

Farrukh Sharifov fought alongside Islamic State militants in Syria but later rejected their brutal tactics and returned to Tajikistan.
Farrukh Sharifov fought alongside Islamic State militants in Syria but later rejected their brutal tactics and returned to Tajikistan.

It wasn't so long ago that Farrukh Sharifov had settled into a home in Syria with a group of fellow Islamic State (IS) group recruits, believing he was there to fight the good fight.

Now the 25-year-old is back in his native Tajikistan, helping the government prevent others from following his path to militancy.

Sharifov is among a small number of former IS fighters who've taken Dushanbe up on its offer to grant amnesties to Tajiks who voluntarily leave the radical militant group and who are deemed not to be a threat to society.

Those who pass the vetting process and are amnestied are spared criminal charges upon their return, but the state has put some, like Sharifov, to good use.

Eloquent and fluent in Tajik and Russian, Sharifov tells packed audiences about the horrors he witnessed during his monthlong stint in the IS stronghold of Raqqa earlier this year. He describes seeing people summarily executed without trial, women used as sex slaves, and militants putting severed heads on display as a warning to anyone who dares challenge their strict interpretation of Islam.

A Forgiving Approach

Countries around the world are considering what to do in the event that citizens of theirs who left to join IS decide to come back.

In the case of Tajikistan, some of the hundreds who went to fight in Iraq and and Syria have vowed to return home and wage war against the government in Dushanbe.

But despite the significant threat posed by IS-trained militants, Tajikistan has opted for a forgiving approach for those who had no previous affiliation with terrorist or extremist groups and who repent for joining IS.

"Young people who took part in military conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and other countries but have realized their mistake, regret their action, and voluntarily leave the conflict zone ... will be allowed to return home," the Ministry of Internal Affair announced on May 9, clarifying the conditions of the long-standing amnesty offer.

It's up to those individuals to find their way to Turkey or other states, but once there the government will provide them assistance in getting their documents together and setting them up with transportation home.

It also offers assistance -- for those who leave IS-controlled territories and reach Turkey – in obtaining passports and tickets to come home.

In order to convince prospective returnees that the offer is genuine, the ministry has set up a hotline, called the Trust Line, that fighters considering a return can call.

Six Tajiks Have Returned

Contacted by RFE/RL, an operator said the Trust Line has received "several phone calls" -- including from fighters in Syria and their relatives in Tajikistan -- since it was set up on May 9.

"When a Tajik fighter calls from abroad and asks for help to come home, our officers and psychologists talk to them to identify the fighter and their intentions," the operator said.

At least six Tajiks, including a young woman, have returned from Syria in recent months.

After being questioned by authorities, five of the returnees were granted full amnesties and set free. One is to go on trial in Dushanbe after being charged with taking part in a foreign military conflict.

Officials in Dushanbe's Somoni district court said "the details of the case will be made public in coming days."

The Tajik government, which fought a five-year civil war with its Islamic opposition in the 1990s, is no stranger to the threats posed by home-grown militancy.

The eastern Rasht Valley, a former stronghold of the Islamic opposition, has seen a string of deadly militant attacks, including an ambush in 2010 that left 25 government troops dead.

The same month, Tajikistan suffered its first suicide bombing when a police headquarters in the northern city of Khujand was targeted.

That attack was blamed on an alleged member of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an extremist group the government says has many supporters in Tajikistan, and parts of which have expressed allegiance to IS in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Despite potential security risks by the new breed of IS-trained militants, many Tajiks support the amnesty, with some hailing it as a second chance for "young people who have recognized their mistakes."

"Some of the fighters have, indeed, gone to Syria and Iraq for the so-called jihad, but there are many others who went there just to make money," says Abdulghani Mamadazimov, the head of Tajikistan's Association of Political Scientists.

"Many were migrant laborers who were recruited in Russia and Kazakhstan," Mamadazimov said. "They were promised money."

Tajik Interior Minister Ramazan Rahimzoda
Tajik Interior Minister Ramazan Rahimzoda

Mamadazimov says it is the government's responsibility to help bring home such "deluded young Tajiks" and help them rejoin society.

There is currently no rehabilitation program in place to aid the returnees' reintegration, but the authorities are giving assurances that they will be free to resume their work or education.

'There Is No Religion'

Rizvon Ahmadov, a former IS fighter who has recently returned from Raqqa, told Tajik state TV that there are many Tajiks in Syria willing to leave the IS group.

Ahmadov, 22, said he went to Syria to fight for a religious cause and spent nine months there undergoing militant training.

"But there is no religion," Ahmadov said. "When they occupy a place, they kill local men and marry or sell their wives. They rape women and sell children. They oppress people living there."

Disillusioned and deeply traumatized by IS atrocities, Ahmadov and fellow Tajik Mavjuda Saburova managed to escape to Turkey and sought help from the Tajik Embassy.

Officials say first-hand accounts of IS horrors will help prevent young Tajiks from being swayed by extremist propaganda.

Former militant Sharifov frequently accompanies government officials and religious leaders as they meet with people across the country as part of Dushanbe's antiextremism campaign.

Since his first public appearance at a gathering moderated by Interior Minister Ramazan Rahimzoda on May 7, Rahimov's schedule has been packed with meetings and speeches.

Rahimov even recently gave a speech at the Dushanbe Grand Mosque during a sermon after Friday Prayers, an honor normally reserved only for chief imams.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.