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Tajikistan's 'Jihadist' Village On The Defensive

Yosinkhon Eshonov's son, Yoqub, went to Syria in May, leaving behind his wife and two children.
Yosinkhon Eshonov's son, Yoqub, went to Syria in May, leaving behind his wife and two children.

CHORQISHLOQ, Tajkistan -- Small-town hospitality has given way to guardedness in this northern Tajik village.

Residents appear wary of people asking questions, passersby turn away when they spot a person they don't know, and homeowners speak to unknown visitors over the fence rather than open the gate.

That's how it's been in Chorqishloq ever since the village gained the unwanted reputation of being a jihadist hotbed.

The village of some 3,000 -- a leafy suburb of Isfara, dotted with one-story, mud-brick homes -- has come under intense scrutiny following allegations that a number of inhabitants left to wage holy war in Syria and Iraq.

After Tajik authorities estimated in September that 200 Tajiks had joined the fight, reports emerged that at least 20 were from Chorqishloq.

Relatives, neighbors, religious figures, and even government officials in Chorqishloq are reluctant to talk about the village's jihadist link.

But the story is well-known. In the past year, numerous village men in their 20s and early 30s left for Syria and Iraq. In at least two cases, they took their wives and children along.

Chorqishloq has gained the unwanted reputation of being a jihadist hotbed.
Chorqishloq has gained the unwanted reputation of being a jihadist hotbed.

The secret was exposed when, just days before Tajik President Emomali Rahmon publicly sounded the jihadist alarm bell in a September speech, a Chorqishloq woman was detained while allegedly trying to travel to Syria.

The idea that the village is a breeding ground for Islamist militants rankles locals.

High-ranking local official Mubashira Mirzokhujaeva notes that the woman's husband was "recruited" to fight in Syria while working as a migrant laborer in Russia.

Sadriddin Sodiqov, the soft-spoken imam of Chorqishloq's only mosque, distances the community from the alleged jihadists.

"Most of them wouldn't even come to mosque prayers and were not particularly religiously devout people," Sodiqov says. "They don't even know what 'jihad' really means."

WATCH: Tajik imam Sadriddin Sodiqov says most Tajik jihadis were recruited in Russia:

Imam Says Most Tajik Jihadis Were Recruited In Russia
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0:00 0:00:36 0:00

And Mehri Ibrohimova, the head of Shahrak, an administrative district that is comprised of several small villages including Chorqishloq, takes a defensive position.

"None of these 20 people has gone to Syria directly from Tajikistan," she says, adding that "their parents had no idea what was going on."

The sudden appearance of journalists and officials seeking to investigate the situation in Chorqishloq has made many locals uncomfortable -- particularly those with family ties to suspected militants.

Yosinkhon Eshonov's son, Yoqub, went to Syria in May, leaving behind his wife and two children.

Eshonov says Yoqub was "brainwashed" while in Russia and recruited to fight in Syria.

In an effort to "put things right," Eshovov says, Yoqub's wife went to Syria to get him.

"My daughter-in-law has managed to convince him to return home," Eshonov says. "They both are in Turkey now, trying to go to Dushanbe or Moscow."

Eshonov insists his son was brainwashed, while others consider other reasons Chorqishloq's sons and daughters may have been lured to jihad.

WATCH: Yosinkhon Eshonov, the father of a suspected Tajik jihadist, tells how he begged his son not to travel to Syria:

'We Begged Him Not To Go,' Says Father Of Tajik Jihadist
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0:00 0:00:25 0:00

The father of a man killed in Syria proudly says his son lost his life in a "holy war." He declines to give his name, saying his wife still doesn't know.

His neighbors suggest that deep poverty leaves locals vulnerable to recruitment abroad.

"Our sons go to Russia because we don't have any job opportunities here," says Nizomiddin Yormatov, a 70-year-old local resident.

Chorqishloq officials say authorities are working to bring back the 20 suspected jihadists from Syria and Iraq.

"We are talking to the parents. We are telling them to plead with their children to return home," says district head Ibrohimova. "Some of them make phone calls to their parents, and that is our only channel of communication."

But she admits their main focus now is on preventing more people from entering the ranks of foreign jihadists.

Officials and religious leaders have been holding public meetings at schools, mosques, and teahouses in order to get their message out.

The local imam, Sodiqov, says he is telling young men during mosque sermons that the conflict in Syria and Iraq is not the holy war they might think it is.

"According to Islam, fighting against Muslims and other monotheistic people is not jihad," Sodiqov concludes.

Written by Farangis Najibullah, based on reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Masum Muhammadrajab

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