DUSHANBE -- When the Taliban captured a strategically important security checkpoint near Afghanistan's border with Tajikistan last month, it assigned a Tajik militant to raise the Taliban flag on the site.
The militant goes by the alias Mahdi Arsalon and has a group of fighters from Tajikistan under his command, an eyewitness to the flag-raising and other sources told RFE/RL.
The Taliban also put Arsalon and his group in charge of security in five districts the Taliban seized near the Tajik border in recent months, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to personal security concerns.
The districts are Kuf Ab, Khwahan, Maimay, Nusay, and Shekay -- all parts of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province.
In Afghanistan, Arsalon and other Tajik militants are known as the “Tajik Taliban.” But in reality they are members of Jamaat Ansarullah, which is banned in Tajikistan as a terrorist group.
Jamaat Ansarullah -- also known as Ansarullah or Ansorullo -- was founded by a rogue former Tajik opposition commander a decade ago with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the government in Dushanbe.
According to several sources in Tajikistan, Mahdi Arsalon’s real name is Muhammad Sharifov. Sharifov, 25, was born in the village of Sherbegiyon in Tajikistan’s eastern Rasht Valley.
An officer in the Tajik border guard services told RFE/RL that they received information about two years ago that there was a group of Tajik fighters led by Sharifov fighting alongside the Taliban on the other side of the border. Their number is unknown.
The officer confirmed claims that Arsalon is now “in charge” of security in the five Afghan districts bordering Tajikistan currently controlled by the Taliban. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
He also said Arsalon has “introduced” about 200 Tajik militants to the Taliban. They are thought to have taken part in Taliban offensives in Afghanistan's northern Badakhshan Province in recent months where the militant group captured large swaths of territory.
Tajik fighters in Badakhshan caught the Afghan authorities’ attention in November 2020 when footage appeared on social media showing insurgents brutally killing men in Afghan Army uniforms. Some of the militants spoke with a distinct Tajik accent. The video purportedly showed the fall of the Maimay district to the Taliban.
Authorities in Tajikistan identified at least 10 of the insurgents as Tajik citizens. Tajik Interior Ministry officials confirmed that Sharifov was among the group.
Qadir Safa, the head of Afghanistan’s Darwaz district, confirmed to RFE/RL that Ansarullah members are active in the fighting in Afghanistan in support of the Taliban.
“Several of them were killed in fighting in our area and we were able to establish their identities,” Safa said. “They had married local women.”
Safa also claimed that Ansarullah recruits fighters from Tajikistan.
“We had information in the spring that nine Tajik nationals entered Afghanistan through Tajikistan’s Rushon and Shughnon districts. They joined the Taliban,” Safa said. “In the winter and spring, many new fighters came from Tajikistan.”
He added that Tajik diplomats in Kabul have been informed about Ansarullah’s activities in Afghanistan.
Ansarullah was founded in 2010 by Amriddin Tabarov, who had been a field commander for anti-government Islamist forces during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war. Tabarov, also known as Mullah Amriddin, was killed by Afghan government forces in 2015.
Initially, Ansarullah’s members were former Tajik opposition fighters who refused to accept a 1997 peace agreement between the government in Dushanbe and the Islamist-led opposition.
The so-called new generation -- children and relatives of the initial members and supporters -- have since joined the group.
Since its creation, Ansarullah has had links with other militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban.
In 2019, two of Tabarov's sons were detained by U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and extradited to Tajikistan.
In August 2019, they were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after being convicted of organizing a criminal group, seeking to overthrow the government, and illegal weapons possession.
Taliban Refutes Claims
Taliban representatives reject the claims that Tajik nationals have joined the militant group’s ranks in Afghanistan.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told RFE/RL that the Taliban is in favor of good relations with Tajikistan and wouldn’t allow any group in Afghanistan to attack the neighboring Central Asian country.
Mujahid even claimed the Taliban prevented its fighters from firing towards Afghan Army soldiers fleeing to Tajikistan in recent weeks because it didn’t want the bullets to land in Tajikistan.
But residents of Tajik villages near the border tell a different story.
Amirjon Emomalizoda, a resident of the Panji Poyon area, told RFE/RL on June 24 that stray bullets were flying overhead from the other side of the border.
Hundreds of Afghan soldiers have fled to Tajikistan in the past two months. Several were treated for their wounds and hundreds were later flown back by Tajikistan to Kabul.
The Taliban spokesman was equivocal about reports indicating the Taliban has deployed armed Tajik citizens in areas near the Tajik border.
“It needs to be investigated. We’ll look into this,” Mujahid said. “We’ve only recently got these areas under our control. We won’t allow foreign nationals to use our name. If we find them, we’ll expel them from our country.”
Skepticism In Dushanbe
But Tajik authorities don’t believe the Taliban’s promises.
President Emomali Rahmon ordered the deployment of 20,000 additional troops on the border with Afghanistan. Tajikistan also conducted a nationwide military drill involving some 230,000 troops.
Dushanbe also sought assistance from its ally, Russia, in defending its southern borders.
“Indeed, there weren't any hostile acts from the Taliban toward Tajikistan so far. The Taliban has said it won’t harm Tajikistan,” a Tajik government official said on condition of anonymity.
“But we know from our experiences that Ansarullah -- which currently is serving the Taliban -- has many times changed its stance and objectives. No one can guarantee that in the future Ansarullah won’t turn its back to the Taliban and attack Tajikistan,” the official said.
WATCH: Tajikistan Tense As Fighting In Afghanistan Approaches Border
According to sources in Tajikistan, Sharifov -- aka Arsalon -- joined Ansarullah about seven years ago.
His father, Mirkhoja, was said to be an associate of Ansarullah founder Tabarov, who also hails from the Nurobod district in the Rasht Valley.
Officials say Mirkhoja and his eldest son were killed by Tajik security forces during a 2011 raid against local militants in Rasht.
That operation targeted and killed local militant leader Abdullo Rahimov, also known as Mullo Abdullo.
Sharifov went on to follow his father and elder brother’s path. One official source described Sharifov as “dangerous and ruthless.”
“According to information we obtained, he can make homemade bombs, can use many types of weapons, and he leads armed groups during operations. He’s taken part in several Taliban offensive in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan [Province],” the source told RFE/RL.
In the village of Sherbegiyon in Nurobod, many people remember Sharifov’s family.
The director of the local school -- who only gave his first name, Aminjon -- told RFE/RL that Mirkhoja didn’t allow his six children to go to school. Instead, they received a religious education, he said.
Mirkhoja's children only went to regular schools after he died.
According to Aminjon, Sharifov was accepted into the seventh grade because of his age, even though he had not ever attended state schools before.
After graduating in 2015, he disappeared from the village and no one in Nurobod ever saw him again.
Sharifov’s mother, Zulqada Yunusova, told RFE/RL that her son went to Russia as a migrant worker in 2015.
Six months later, Sharifov told his mother by phone that he was getting a job in a forest where there is no mobile phone reception.
"He told me that I shouldn’t worry if he doesn’t call for some time," Yunusova said. "Nearly seven months passed and I wasn’t worried, thinking that he’ll call me when he finishes his work in the forest.
“Then, [Tajik] officials came to my house and told me that my son had lied to me and that he had gone to Afghanistan,” she told RFE/RL.
Yunusova said she last spoke to her son on July 20. She said he is based in Afghanistan, near the Tajik border.
RFE/RL also spoke with a former friend of Sharifov who claims Sharifov tried to convince him to join the “jihad” in Afghanistan. The Tajik man spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
The man said he first met Sharifov when they worked in Russia and they stayed in contact on WhatsApp until about two months ago.
“In the beginning, I used to listen to him. He would tell me that there is jihad going on in Afghanistan and that I should join the jihad,” he said.
"I told him that [Tajik militants] were wrong and that they were wasting their lives for other people’s interests," the man added. "We argued and he then blocked me on WhatsApp."