Tajikistan has deployed additional troops along its southern border with Afghanistan after Afghan authorities claimed a group of militants from Tajikistan played a major role in the Taliban's capture of an Afghan district last month.
Afghan officials said the majority of the militants who overran the Maymay district in the northeastern Badakhshan Province in November were foreign fighters, including militants from Tajikistan.
They said the fighters belong to Jamaat Ansarullah, a militant group founded in Afghanistan by Tajik national Amriddin Tabarov in 2010.
In early December, a 10-minute video appeared on social media purportedly showing Tajik insurgents fighting against Afghan government forces in Maymay, which borders Tajikistan.
While RFE/RL cannot verify the authenticity of the footage, some of the fighters can be heard speaking a distinct Persian dialect spoken in Tajikistan.
Footage depicts them killing men in Afghan Army uniforms and civilian clothes and setting fire to a building. At the end, the militants show off weapons and vehicles they purportedly seized from the Afghan troops.
Afghan authorities confirmed the killings and the destruction in Maymay. Media quoted local residents who said militants, "particularly the Tajiks," killed and beheaded Afghan soldiers.
List Of Names
Afghan lawmaker Latif Pedram, a native of the area, published a list of names that he described as militants from Tajikistan who took part in the Maymay attack.
In Tajikistan, the security service has since identified at least 15 Tajik nationals whose faces or names appeared on videos and statements shared by Afghan officials in connection with the fall of Maymay.
It has raised alarms in Dushanbe, the sources said, because they are ordinary individuals with no apparent connections to any political, religious, or opposition groups. The sources -- familiar with the situation -- spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The presence of Tajik militants in Afghanistan and the volatile tribal areas of Pakistan has been known for many years. But the difference in previous cases is that the majority of them were taken to Afghanistan as children by their parents during the civil war of the 1990s or in the immediate postwar years. Many were born there to Tajik families.
In the latest cases, however, the Tajik militants are people who left the country between 2010 and 2017 -- men mainly aged between 20 and 40 years, with some having brought their wives and children with them to Afghanistan.
A 'Real Threat'
Tajik authorities haven't commented publicly about the border reinforcements. They insist that it is business as usual when it comes to any threats posed by Afghan-based militants.
"It is a real threat. Today they're fighting for the Taliban, but we can't predict what they're going to do in the future," sources in Dushanbe told RFE/RL's Tajik Service.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said an elite unit had been deployed near the areas where Tajik fighters are thought to be concentrated on the Afghan side of the frontier.
Badakhshan Deputy Governor Akhtar Muhammad Khairzada told the Pajhwok news agency that the militants are mainly based in the province's Warduj and Jurm districts. He added that there were also Uzbek, Chechen, and Chinese Uyghur militants based in the area.
Afghan officials estimate the number of Tajik militants in the country at around 200, but the exact figure is impossible to confirm. In 2019, the number of Jamaat Ansarullah members was estimated at around 30.
Ahmad Aziz Barez, a former Afghan consul in Tajikistan, says only the Taliban "who hosts the foreign militants" can provide a more accurate number of how many Tajiks and other foreigners are fighting alongside them.
Citing intelligence gathered both by Afghan and Tajik officials, the sources in Dushanbe believe Jamaat Ansarullah militants operate separately from Tajik nationals who have joined an affiliate of the extremist Islamic State (IS) group in Afghanistan in recent years.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that Jamaat Ansarullah -- along with the Taliban -- had even been engaged in some fighting against IS followers in Afghanistan, the sources said.
But some think it is possible that the militant groups might join forces in the future.
Tabarov, the Jamaat Ansarullah founder, was killed by Afghan forces in July 2015 and his two sons were extradited to Tajikistan. In 2019, the sons were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for seeking to overthrow the government, among other charges.
In 2015-16, Tajikistan arrested dozens of suspected followers of the banned group. The extent of current support for Jamaat Ansarullah in Tajikistan is unknown.
If the claims by Badakhshan officials are reliable, the number of Tajik militants in the Afghan province has been on the rise recently.
Barez, the former diplomat who is from Badakhshan, says the potential security threats by the militants shouldn't be underestimated.
"The militants have access to financial sources to fund themselves -- such as by controlling lucrative drug-trafficking routes," he told RFE/RL on December 16. "Also, the area is rich in natural resources like rubies, lapis lazuli, and gold."
Families Under Fire
An anti-extremism campaign is in full swing in Tajikistan once again, with parents, siblings, and other close relatives of the militants appearing in video messages released by state-run channels. Parents are shown pleading with their children to come home and turn themselves in.
"People are telling me your son is shown on a video killing people. I wish I was dead rather than hearing this," Zumratbi Rajabmatova tells her son, Daler Elmurodov.
"Please, come back home. Or if you don't want to return then please live quietly and stop killing!" the tearful mother says in the video released by the government.
One father begs his son "not to fire a single shot toward Tajikistan."
"We're taking the blame for your crimes. If you attack and kill Tajik border guards, don't you think that their loved ones would take your revenge on us?" another parent says in the video.
The families say their militant sons have left them to pay the price for their actions -- they must endure shame and guilt in their communities and face interrogations and pressure from authorities.
"I've faced questioning [about my son] for the past six years. I'm fed up with being the mother of that son and have had enough of these interrogations," one parent told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on condition of anonymity.
The Tajik government has long been criticized for its clampdown on freedom of religion and tight controls on how people practice their faith in the predominantly Muslim country of some 9.5 million.
Women are banned from wearing the hijab, an Islamic head scarf, in public places. Young men are not allowed to grow long beards or wear certain clothes that are deemed to be in a Salafi style.
Mosques operate under strict state control, while imams are vetted and appointed by the government. Their sermons are also monitored.
Independent media has been stifled, and opposition parties face constant government pressure. People have also been deprived of an outlet to express their opinions or discontent.
Critics say this general lack of freedom in Tajikistan coupled with widespread poverty, skyrocketing unemployment, and corruption have pushed many young people to join Islamic extremist groups.
Thousands of Tajiks -- many with their families -- also went to Syria and Iraq to join IS forces.