Despite Gaza’s great distance from Central Asia, the Israel-Hamas war has had an impact on the religious and security landscape in the region. While al-Qaida-affiliated Central Asian Sunni extremist groups in Syria and Afghanistan limited their engagement to expressing support for Palestinian Muslims through ideologically strong statements, the Tajik militants of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) orchestrated a sophisticated and spectacular suicide attack in Kerman, Iran under the banner of liberating Bait al-Maqdis (Jerusalem) and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
Tajik Militants Obedient to Islamic State’s Global Call for Blood
Building upon my recent analysis in The Diplomat of the impact of the Israel-Hamas war on the escalating anti-Shia and anti-Iran hostile sentiments within Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups, it’s noteworthy that ISKP’s Tajik wing has once again distinguished itself by its ferocity in the framework of implementing the Islamic State’s bloody campaign, ominously entitled “And Kill Them Wherever You Find Them” (taken from Quran 2:191).
On January 4, 2024, Al-Furqan, the media outlet of the central Islamic State (IS), released an audio message from the group’s spokesman, Abu Ḥudhayfah al-Ansari. In the 35-minute message, he announced a new global campaign urging IS members and supporters to carry out attacks against “Jews and their Crusader allies in America, Europe, and the Rafidahs” (rejectionists, a derogatory term used by Sunni jihadists to describe Shias) in support of Muslims in Palestine.
In his address, al-Ansari focused extensively on the Israel-Hamas conflict, aiming to galvanize IS militants toward sectarian animosity against Iran and its Shia proxy militant groups engaged in the Gaza crisis. Notably, the IS spokesman rebuked the alliance between Hamas, along with other Palestinian factions, and the Shia regime in Iran, denouncing it as a departure from Sunnah principles. He further deemed the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran as an “apostate” revolution, emphasizing that aligning with Iran and its “Axis of Resistance” has allowed the Iranian regime to establish itself globally as the advocate for the Palestinian cause.
The IS spokesman also denounced Lebanese Hezbollah and Ansarullah (also known as the Houthis), a Shia Islamist military organization in Yemen, accusing them of furthering Tehran’s agenda and engaging in a proxy war on behalf of Iran.
At the end of his speech, al-Ansari urged Sunni Muslims to steadfastly oppose the clandestine agenda of their Shia adversaries. Leveraging the heightened attention on the Gaza conflict, a focal point in jihadi media discourse over the past three months, he openly incited IS members against Iran, urging them to carry out attacks while emphasizing the historical “crimes committed against Sunnah by the Shias.” He urged IS supporters in the U.S. and Europe to carry out lone-wolf attacks against Jews and Christians, and to target churches and synagogues in support of Muslims in Gaza.
Thus, seizing the opportune moment presented by the resonant Gaza war, IS launched its new global campaign. The objective was to strike three adversaries with one stone: Jews, Christians, and Shiites. Indeed, al-Ansari’s speech featured emotionally charged and highly provocative ideological arguments and religious claims against Iran.
The Tajik wing of ISKP was among the first of the Islamic State’s offshoots to respond to the call, as its issuance coincide with a dramatic attack in Iran. On January 3, two Tajik ISKP members executed a suicide attack in the heart of the Iranian city of Kerman during a commemorative ceremony for Qassem Soleimani, a lieutenant general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020.
On January 4, IS claimed responsibility for the lethal suicide attack, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 100 people and left more than 300 wounded. The claim was made through its Amaq News Agency, which released a video featuring two unnamed fighters pledging allegiance to the IS Caliph, Sheikh Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, prior to the operation.
Subsequently, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence disclosed that the primary suspect behind the planned bombings was a Tajik national identified by the alias Abdollah Tajiki. He entered Iran in mid-December by crossing the southeast border, and left the country two days before the attack, the ministry said. On January 13, the ISKP’s Uzbek language media center “Xuroson Ovozi” (Voice of Khurasan) revealed the names of two Tajik suicide bombers: Umar al-Muvahhid and Sayfullah al-Mujahid.
Why Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” Ignites Sectarian Animosity
The Gaza war has opened an unprecedented chapter in the bitter Shia-Sunni sectarian struggle for the designation as the “strong defenders of Palestine.” On one side is the Sunni jihadi movement, including al-Qaida, the Islamic State, and their Central Asian affiliates; on the other is Iran with its proxy Shia militant groups. In contrast to Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, Yemen’s Houthis, and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, Sunni Salafi-Jihadi organizations find themselves unable to actively shape the trajectory of the conflict in Gaza. They strive to avoid direct confrontations with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the U.S.-led Red Sea coalition, known as Operation Prosperity Guardian.
Global Sunni jihadi groups maintain no alliance with Hamas, the influential Palestinian Sunni political and military organization that has waged a resistance war against the Israeli occupation for over 35 years. Conversely, relations between Hamas and al-Qaida have been strained due to Hamas’ reluctance to adopt the principles of global jihad and its confined, nationalist ideology focused on Gaza. The Islamic State has rejected Hamas for its collaboration with Shia entities, particularly Iran and Hezbollah, branding it a “Shiite puppet.”
IS rejects Hamas’ narrowly nationalistic ideology, which is focused on establishing a Palestinian state, not waging global jihad. According to IS, the war in Gaza is a religious holy war against the Crusader-Jewish allies, the result of which should be the creation of a global caliphate with Shariah rule under the leadership of the current IS Caliph Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.
In its editorial “Practical Steps to Fight the Jews” in Issue 31 of Voice of Khurasan magazine, ISKP condemned Hamas’ “nationalist platform” for joining a broader Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance,” which is supposedly used by the idolatrous rafidahs as a Shia expansionist project and directed against the Islamic State’s plan to create a global caliphate. Thus, the endeavor to establish recognition as the steadfast defenders of the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most significant shrine for the Islamic Ummah, has once again intensified the Sunni-Shia sectarian confrontation among Islamist extremist movements.
The suicide attack in Kerman underscores the Tajik ISKP militants’ high organizational capabilities in this brutal sectarian confrontation, showcasing their proficiency in executing sophisticated operations both within Iran and Afghanistan. The Gaza war has presented new opportunities for them to recruit members into the Islamic State from the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia, and the Uzbek and Tajik ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Exploiting shared ethnic, cultural, and Persian-language commonalities, Central Asian Sunni Tajik ISKP operatives adeptly navigate the illicit crossing of the Iranian border, infiltrate local Iranian communities, and orchestrate high-profile lone-wolf attacks capable of capturing international attention.
Unable to directly engage in the conflict in Gaza, the Tajik wing of ISKP prioritizes sectarianism, directing its ire on the Shia in Iran. Following a successful suicide attack on Iran, pro-ISKP Tajik and Uzbek telegram channels have sought to position themselves as the “true warriors of Allah,” combating not only mutual “American-Zionist enemies” but also the rafidahs. In effect, ISKP’s Al-Azaim Foundation for Media Production and its Tajik and Uzbek language “Voice of Khurasan” radio have garnered widespread sympathy against Iran and its proxy groups as part of their jihadi agenda.
Tajik ISKP Fighters: A Persistent Threat to Iran
After the withdrawal of the U.S. forces and the Taliban’s resurgence in August 2021, the Tajik wing of ISKP strategically broadened its external operations, particularly targeting Shia communities. In the past, Tajik ISKP militants executed two terror attacks in Iran. In August 2023, an ISKP member identified as Rahmatollah Nowruzov from Tajikistan attacked the Shah Cheragh shrine in Shiraz city, killing two people and injuring seven others. In late October 2022, a Tajik ISKP militant named Sobhan Kamrouni from Tajikistan had opened fire at the same shrine, resulting in at least 15 fatalities and more than 30 injuries.
On each occasion, Tajik ISKP terrorists meticulously chose targets with religious significance for Shiite Muslims. As demonstrated by all three attacks in Iran, Central Asian ISKP operatives diligently planned and executed these external attacks, successfully avoiding Iranian law enforcement.
The recent attack in Kerman during Soleimani’s commemorative ceremony dealt a significant blow to the Iranian regime and its pride of the IRGC. It also led to a sharp escalation in the conflict between Pakistan and Iran. In a fit of anger, Iran launched missile attacks on Pakistan’s Balochistan, prompting a retaliatory missile strike from Pakistan. In keeping with tradition, the Iranian regime baselessly blamed Israel and the United States for the attack.
Certainly, after a series of internationally resonant attacks on Iran, ISKP’s Tajik and Uzbek wings appear to have expanded their influence in the region within the jihadi landscape. ISKP’s multilingual Al-Azaim Foundation for Media Production has stepped up its propaganda activities, specifically targeting the post-Soviet Central Asian region where they aspire to extend their violent and terror activities. Recently, Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security apprehended two alleged ISKP members who were planning to detonate a bomb in the central square of the southern city of Jalal-Abad and launch an armed attack on a church on New Year’s Eve.
In conclusion, it is crucial to emphasize that the destructive Israel-Hamas war has already led to heightened militant activities and propaganda efforts of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups affiliated with the Islamic State and al-Qaida. Iran’s destabilizing initiatives within the “Axis of Resistance” framework and its support for proxy Shia terror groups in the Middle East may have far-reaching consequences for the security of the entire Central Asian region, potentially triggering a surge in sectarian violence more broadly.