When Tajik police announced on July 31 that the banned Islamic Renaissance of Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) was behind the deadly July 29 attack on a group of foreign cyclists, it was hardly surprising. Nor was it shocking that Tajik authorities mentioned an Iranian link in the attack.
The announcements fly in the face of a claim of responsibility by the Islamic State (IS) militant group on July 30 and the emergence, less than a day later, of a video purportedly showing five young men pledging allegiance to IS.
But IS has been in retreat in nearly all areas where it operates, so some might regard its claim as a desperate and grisly effort at advertising to attract new recruits.
Tajik authorities initially appeared to be ignoring the IS claim, and identified 33-year-old Hussein Abdusamadov, whom they described as an "active member of the IRPT," as the leader of the group that killed four of the foreign cyclists and injured three more. They said he had undergone "training" in Iran.
The investigation continues, and many details of the incident -- which happened on a mountain highway in the Danghara district of Khatlon, about 150 kilometers south of the capital -- remain unclear.
But the speed with which Tajik authorities managed to implicate a group the government has long been trying to eliminate and a country with which Dushanbe is now at odds could raise questions about impartiality in pursuit of the perpetrators and any possible co-conspirators.
Officials have waged an increasingly harsh campaign against the IRPT since the party lost its foothold in parliament in 2015 elections, banning it later the same year before jailing a number of its leaders (others fled into exile) and designating it a terrorist organization.
As for Iran, a rift emerged between Dushanbe and Tehran when Iran hosted an Islamic conference in December 2015 and invited representatives from Tajikistan – exiled IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri among them, to the surprise of many Tajik officials. Since then, Dushanbe has accused Tehran of interfering in Tajik affairs, even harking back to the civil-war era, claiming Iran was behind the killings of key Tajik political figures during that time.
After this week's attack, Tajik police said that after his detention Abdusamadov "confirmed he was in Iran in 2014-2015, where he received ideological and military-sabotage training." The police further said, "[In Iran] he met with Nosirhoja Ubaydov, alias Qori-Nosir, and joined the IRPT extremist group." The authorities identified Ubaydov as the attack's alleged mastermind and a "member of the IRPT since 1992 and since 2015...on the wanted list" in Tajikistan.
The IRPT fought Tajik government forces during the newly independent country's 1992-97 civil war. When a peace accord was signed in June 1997, it included provisions giving wartime foes places in government.
That uneasy cohabitation essentially ended with the 2015 ban, when the IRPT still had 40,000 registered members (and many more, unofficially), making it the second-largest political party in the country after longtime President Emomali Rahmon's People's Democratic Party.
It has been a rocky road for IRPT ever since, and international rights groups (including Human Rights Watch) and other observers have issued warnings about the Tajik government's crackdown on former members.
A Tajik court ordered the IRPT to cease its activities in late August 2015, just before Tajik security forces in early September 2015 claimed to have preempted an attempt by a deputy defense minister, General Abdulhalim Nazarov, to overthrow the government. Nazarov appeared to have tenuous ties at best to the IRPT, as he was a member of the opposition during the fighting but had spent most of the war outside Tajikistan.
In any case, it was the Tajik government that promoted Nazarov to his high rank, and no IRPT members appeared to join forces with him during any alleged coup.
But the IRPT was quickly declared an extremist group.
Many of its leaders still in the country were detained, with some of them -- like deputy IRPT leader Mahmadali Hayit, who was sentenced to life in prison -- destined for prison. Tajik authorities never publicly explained why those leaders chose to remain in the country, weeks after allegedly trying to overthrow the government. The IRPT's most senior leader, Kabiri, was already outside the country. So were many others.
Islamists In The Crosshairs
When it was a registered political party, the IRPT leadership spoke out against fundamentalist radicals including the Taliban in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State group, once it emerged in the Middle East.
This week, the IRPT's leadership-in-exile was quick to condemn the Danghara attack on the foreign cyclists and offered condolences to the victims and their families.
"The IRPT"s Supreme Council denies certainly the baseless and irrational allegations of the Tajik Interior Ministry on the involvement of the IRPT in the incident and condemns it strongly," the party said.
"We consider it a shameless and illogical slander. Unfortunately, the Tajik authorities, as always, have tried to use this human and national tragedy for political purpose and against the peaceful opponents." The IRPT also denied any involvement and called for an international investigation.
Many IRPT leaders and members now live in exile, and they have repeatedly urged Western governments to pressure the Tajik government to overturn the ban and allow the IRPT to resume political activities in Tajikistan. Moreover, a number of them live in Europe, where they continue to fend off requests from Dushanbe for extradition to Tajikistan.
It is difficult to see how ordering an attack on foreigners -- two Americans, two Swiss, two Dutch, and one French national -- might help their causes or that of the IRPT.
Particularly since the Danghara attack bears at least some similarity to attacks by IS sympathizers in the West, it might seem strange that Tajik authorities were so swift to dismiss the IS claim of responsibility.
After all, one of IS's most notable international recruits was Gulmurod Halimov, a former commander of Tajik Interior Ministry special forces with no obvious connection to the IRPT but -- much to Dushanbe's embarrassment -- extensive ties to the government.