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Life After Islamic State: Pardoned Tajik Militants Navigate Road To Reintegration

When Furqat Vatanov (right) left Tajikistan to join Islamic State in Syria, his father, Amriddin (left), immediately alerted the authorities in Dushanbe.
When Furqat Vatanov (right) left Tajikistan to join Islamic State in Syria, his father, Amriddin (left), immediately alerted the authorities in Dushanbe.

Clad in a modern two-piece suit and a tie and surrounded by close family and friends, Furqat Vatanov last month celebrated his wedding with a banquet, a ceremony the confessed former Islamic State (IS) recruit from Dushanbe says he thought would never happen.

Just over a year ago, Vatanov, 24, was arrested in Turkey as he prepared to cross the Syrian border to fight alongside the notorious militant group.

Unlike many traditional Tajik weddings involving hundreds of guests -- some invited and some not -- Vatanov's party was a relatively modest affair. Vatanov attributes it to his past "connection" to IS, saying most of his friends have cut ties with him and the rest treat him warily.

It was Vatanov's father who alerted Tajik and Turkish authorities after his son sent a message in mid-2016 asking for his "blessing to take part in the jihad in Syria."

The father, Amriddin Vatanov, rushed to Turkey, where with the help of the Tajik Embassy and Turkish police he located his Syria-bound son.

Within days, Vatanov, who says he had been brainwashed by IS "through the Internet," was taken into custody, extradited to Tajikistan, and charged with being a mercenary for a foreign militant group.

A Second Chance

"When I was arrested in Syria, I thought my life was over, I thought I was going to spend the rest of my days in prison," Vatanov says.

But he was given a second chance, for which Vatanov says he is grateful to the Tajik authorities.

Tajikistan amended its criminal laws in 2015, allowing authorities to pardon Tajik fighters who voluntarily return home and repent joining foreign militant groups. The government insists that it's not a blanket amnesty and applies only to those who have not taken part in violence.

Some 100 Tajik nationals have since returned from Syria and Iraq, according to the Tajik Interior Ministry, which says a total of 1,141 of its nationals have gone to Syria and Iraq. Nearly 300 of them have been killed in conflicts there, the ministry says.

A photo of Tajik militants who reportedly took up arms in parts of Syria and Iraq. (file photo)
A photo of Tajik militants who reportedly took up arms in parts of Syria and Iraq. (file photo)

More than half of those who returned home in the past two years have been pardoned, officials say, while others were convicted of being mercenaries.

Those pardoned remain on a government watch list but are not legally prevented from applying normally for jobs, enrolling in universities, or traveling abroad.

Many of the former fighters are enlisted to appear in government-sponsored campaigns to counter extremism, giving speeches and TV interviews on IS atrocities they say they've witnessed in Iraq and Syria.

Their accounts are virtually impossible to corroborate. However, extensive RFE/RL Tajik Service interviews with the returnees -- frequently in the presence of government minders associated with official deradicalization efforts -- and with family and friends suggest that, while the former IS sympathizers acknowledge having succumbed to radicalism, they now reject the group's ideology and its violent jihadist methods.

However, Tajik society remains deeply suspicious of the returnees and their intentions, according to one man who acknowledged spending eight months in Syria and was "forced to fight" alongside the militants in 2015.

'No One Wants To Marry Me'

Echoing the stories of many of the returnees, Bobojon Qaraboev, a 30-year-old former taxi driver from the southern town of Vahdat, says he realized his "grave mistake" when he witnessed IS's brutalities.

Since his voluntary return early in 2016, and after several months of arrest and interrogation, Qaraboev was cleared of criminal charges and set free to rebuild his life.

He has since found a job at a local factory and renovated his family home in the hope of opening a new chapter in his life as a family man. But no one wants to marry me, Qaraboev laments.

Qaraboev says he has had several marriage proposals turned down because, as he puts it, "families don't want their daughters to marry a guy who has been to Syria."

Twenty-four-year-old Alisher Qodirqulov returned with his wife and two small children to their home in the northern Tajik district of Asht in February.

After a year and a half in IS-controlled territories in Iraq and deeply traumatized by the experience, according to his account, Qodirqulov says he now appreciates living in security, away from war and killings.

Alisher Qodirqulov, a Tajik who went to live in territory controlled by Islamic State
Alisher Qodirqulov, a Tajik who went to live in territory controlled by Islamic State

Qodirqulov says he went to the Middle East in search of the better life promised by a "Chechen man" he met while working as a migrant laborer in Russia.

Tajik officials say they expect more former militants to return home as IS loses ground in Iraq and Syria. And while the returnees themselves and their families welcome the government's amnesty policy, others express concern.

They argue that there is a difference between someone who voluntarily escaped IS in the past and someone who returns home because they and their fellow militants have been driven out of Iraq and Syria.

"IS is being defeated in the Middle East and the fighters have no choice but to escape," says Faridun Hodizoda, a Dushanbe-based analyst in religious affairs.

Hodizoda warns against potential threats posed by the return of indoctrinated fighters with combat experience.

Reconciliation And Rehabilitation

Tajikistan has considerable experience rehabilitating former fighters, Hodizoda says, citing efforts that followed the nascent post-Soviet state's five-year civil war between the government and an Islamic opposition in the 1990s.

That reconciliation effort has been praised for disarming thousands of former fighters from both sides of the conflict and returning them to civilian life.

Tajik authorities insist they don't offer amnesty to former IS fighters who willingly took up arms.

A Tajik court recently sentenced former IS fighter Mahmad Mahmadiev to 13 years in prison, a sentence his family says they will not appeal.

The 26-year-old former nurse reportedly confessed to working in an IS hospital in Syria before his arrest by Turkish forces in northern Syria and extradition to Tajikistan in December 2016.

Meanwhile in Dushanbe, the family of former IS recruit Vatanov is "happy with the way things have turned out for their son."

"My son has changed completely," his father says. They describe Vatanov as a "kind, normal" young man now -- a far cry from his former self, someone who they say "called others infidels and apostates."

"But it took a lot of effort, a lot of counseling, talking, and patience," the father adds.

The family now hopes Vatanov will concentrate on life as a newlywed and move on, putting his militant Islamist past behind him.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondents Mumin Ahmadi and Masum Muhammadrajab contributed to this report.
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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.

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