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Deserted Streets, Anxious Parents: The Tajik Town That Spawned The Cyclists Attack

A local bazaar in Norak, Tajikistan
A local bazaar in Norak, Tajikistan

NORAK, Tajikistan -- As dusk falls, when most of the townsfolk are deserting the streets and heading home for dinner, Olimshoh Khudoynazarov is preparing for watch duty.

He slips on a red armband and affixes a badge identifying him as a member of Norak's Volunteer Patrol, a makeshift line of defense against extremism for the south-central Tajik town of just over 50,000.

"Each night, a group of eight men watch Norak's streets to help the police keep law and order," the 52-year-old says of the 250-strong band of state-backed vigilantes.

Many have backgrounds as police or other security bodies, and initially helped authorities maintain the peace until 10 p.m. But their roles and numbers expanded after four foreign cyclists were killed and two others injured when they were mowed down in a vehicular attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group in July.

"Now we stay until midnight and beyond, sometimes till 2 a.m.," Khudoynazarov says. "Many things have changed since summer."

Dim Prospects In The 'City Of Lights'

Norak once enjoyed a reputation as an idyllic Soviet city. Its namesake hydropower plant, constructed in the 1960s on the Vakhsh River, earned it the moniker "City Of Lights" and powered an image of progressiveness that attracted thousands of young workers to build their future.

Neighboring villages dotted with mud-brick homes and dirt roads gave way to a growing multicultural city that at one point was home to residents of more than 40 different ethnic backgrounds. Tourists flocked to the area to see what until just a few years ago was the world's largest dam -- a concrete wonder surrounded by picturesque mountaintops that provides electricity to 70 percent of Tajikistan.

Local school students in Norak.
Local school students in Norak.

But Norak's aging statue of Vladimir Lenin, which still stands in the central square, has seen the town fall on hard times. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Tajikistan's five-year civil war led many residents to leave in the 1990s. Jobs became harder to find. Opportunities vanished.

Official statistics don't support the idea that Norak is worse off than other areas of Tajikistan, suggesting that unemployment is more or less in line with the national average of 2.3 percent.

And like many other Tajik towns and cities, Norak has undergone a facelift in recent years, with authorities renovating main streets and government buildings, repairing highways, and creating new parks and culture centers.

But considering that more than 30 percent of Tajikistan's population lives below the poverty line, and its agriculture-dependent labor force is well-known for migrating to Russia and other countries for seasonal jobs, actual unemployment is widely believed to be much higher than 2.3 percent. And the situation is widely believed to be much worse in Norak.

The local employment agency provides numbers that indicate that more than 45 percent of Norak's potential workforce has no permanent employment, and a recent report indicates the town is situated in one of the poorest areas of the country.

"Our young people don't have the opportunities we had," says Qurbon Qosimov, a former firefighter who moved to Norak some four decades ago from the northern Tajik town of Konibodom.

Retired driver Ismatullo Ashurov, who arrived in 1971 and witnessed the heyday, says simply that the older generation "had it better."

"Everybody would come to Norak to work," the 73-year-old says. "It's different now."

Hometown Connections To A Brutal Attack

The July 29 attack involved ramming a vehicle into a group of foreign cyclists, and multiple attackers then exiting the car and stabbing survivors. Two Americans, one Dutch, and a Swiss cyclist were killed and three others were injured before the assailants fled.

The attack led to the arrest of 15 people, whose trial began in October.

The details of the case do not paint Norak in a good light. In August, five men were arrested in Norak, which was determined to be the hometown of two of those suspected of carrying out the attack. The five are alleged to have been recruited by way of WhatsApp by Asliddin and Jafar Yusupov, two brothers from Norak who were killed in a police operation that immediately followed the killings.

The authorities allege that members of a terrorist cell gathered at a house in Norak to identify potential targets and plot an attack, adding to the town's notoriety for harboring Islamic militants.

Norak was already on Tajik authorities' radar: government officials had previously estimated that at least 30 residents had traveled abroad to join the ranks of the extremist Islamic State group, and another 20 suspected Islamic State militants had been detained in the town itself.

Among those who left to fight in Iraq and Syria were two infamous IS recruiters: a 26-year-old native of Norak's Tutqavul district. One, Anushervon Azimov, was believed to have recruited some 100 people to join IS before he was killed in Syria in 2016. The other is Abu Usama Noraki, aka Tojiddin Nazarov, who according to Tajik authorities has launched a campaign to brainwash young Tajiks to join IS in Afghanistan.

Embarrassed by the additional and unwanted spotlight being shown on the town in the wake of the attack on the Western bicyclists, Norak authorities and residents alike are left wondering what went wrong.

Opportunity Is Where You Find It

Unemployment and lost opportunities may be factors, but they don't tell the whole story. Just because times are tough doesn't mean every youth turns to militancy.

This summer, 17-year-old Idimoh Sultonzoda received good news: she had earned a space at a university in the capital, Dushanbe, and will earn a teaching degree once she completes five years of distance-learning courses.

It also requires that she travel to the university at least twice a year to attend intensive courses and to take exams.

To make ends meet she sells homemade snacks and drinks at a stall in the shadow of the Lenin monument.

"I started this business to cover expenses, because my parents can't afford to pay" for school, she says, noting that her business does well on hot days when people stop by to purchase samosas or sunflower seeds.

"You can find work if you really want to," she says. "I made [an opportunity] for myself."

Across the road, 27-year-old Firuz Qosimzoda is taking a stroll in the fresh air with his wife and their one-month-old baby daughter.

Qosimzoda works as an engineer at the Roghun hydropower plant, set to take the mantle as Tajikistan's most prestigious power generator, some 125 kilometers away.

Firuz Qosimzoda with his wife and baby daughter.
Firuz Qosimzoda with his wife and baby daughter.

Qosimzoda says his salary is "adequate" to cover expenses for his young family, which shares a home with his parents.

"I still hold a junior position but hope to move up in the career ladder," he says. "Then my salary will increase, too."

Qosimzoda is excited about his own career prospects, but admits that "not all young people have jobs" in his hometown.

No Place To Dream, Nowhere To Turn

At a nearby bazaar, many young men can be seen selling goods, pushing carts, or offering taxi services.

"I do all kinds of odd jobs, whatever I find," says a man in his 20s. "I work in people's houses painting walls, or repairing barns. I also work in farms in the harvest season. What I earn is barely enough for food and other basics."

He declines to give his name, not an uncommon occurrence in Tajikistan, where authorities don't tolerate dissent, and people are reluctant to openly voice criticism.

Norak's old town
Norak's old town

"I am not even 25 yet but I don't see any good future for myself, I'm even afraid of dreaming, because it won't come true anyway," the man says. "I don't know who I should complain to or seek advice."

Many in the Muslim-majority country of 8 million turn to the mosque, but municipal authorities and local religious figures insist that Norak's young people are no more inclined than others in the country toward militant Islam.

Echoing a widespread sentiment among locals, the town's chief imam, Abdulhay Naimov, says "there is no explanation" for its reputation for producing Islamic State recruits.

"We're shocked," Naimov says. "What I know is that young men don't learn extremist ideas in our mosques. In fact, in mosques we always warn them against the dangers of extremism."

The state maintains firm control on religion in Tajikistan, and only allows approved forms of Islam. Naimov plays a big role in the counterterrorism efforts started by the government in Norak following the attack on Western cyclists.

"It's the main topic of every Friday prayer, in community meetings, and even in private funeral services. We use every opportunity to spread the message," Naimov says.

Deputy Mayor Shahlo Hasanzoda says the authorities have spoken to around 4,000 residents as part of the campaign. They have spoken to young people and their parents, and called some 700 young men working in Russia.

"We urge parents to watch their children -- grown-up sons -- to talk to them, to warn them against recruiters," Hasanzoda says. "We asked [parents] to report to authorities if they notice any suspicious changes in their children's behavior.

They also welcomed ideas as to how to combat the spread of extremist ideas, and Hasanzoda drew some conclusions as to where they were originating.

"What I gather is that almost all of those who joined IS from Norak were recruited during labor migrations in Russia," she says. "Being far from home, low-paid heavy physical work, loneliness, etc., it makes them vulnerable to being led astray."

As for those in Tajikistan, she says, "possibly some young people learn radical teachings from different sites on the Internet."

From One Friend To Another

According to government figures, at least 30 of the some 1,100 Tajiks believed to have joined the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq came from Norak.

Addressing the town's high representation in such statistics, Washington-based Eurasia specialist Edward Lemon cites research from other areas of Central Asia that revealed a link was found between recruitment and local relationships.

A memorial honoring the victims of the July terrorist attack in Danghara, Tajikistan.
A memorial honoring the victims of the July terrorist attack in Danghara, Tajikistan.

"A major factor which helps explain why some districts are overrepresented in extremist recruitment figures is the role of connections," the DMGS-Kenna Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School told RFE/RL.

Recruitment "often takes place through a member of the family, as in the case of the Yusupovs, or a classmate or colleague."

He notes that a World Bank report estimated that 67 percent of the population in Norak's home district lived in poverty, "making it one of the poorest areas of the country." And while he says he doesn't believe poverty causes radicalization on its own, it does drive many to migrate to Russia.

There, he says, many Central Asian migrants "find work, live with, and socialize with people from their hometown. So if one falls under the influence of extremists, they are likely to persuade others."

It's a pattern, Lemon concludes, that "may well explain why Norak has produced a disproportionate number of terrorists."

Tajik authorities also appeared to be aware of the possibility of such links, and early in the Tajik investigation into the attack ordered 20 Tajik migrant workers to return home from Russia for questioning.

'Those Few Extremists Don't Represent Us'

Temperatures still hover at a comfortable 20 degrees Celsius on a mid-October evening, but the streets of Norak are already empty.

"We used to hang around with friends till late, but parents have become much stricter now," says 23-year-old Rustam Roziqov.

"My parents tell me not to leave home after sunset, they ask who I spend time with, what me and my friends talk about, what we do."

Since the attack on Western cyclists, parents across Norak have been instructed by authorities to watch their children -- including "children" in their late 20s.

The office of the Norak mayor conducts regular meetings with officials, community leaders, and religious figures on security and counter-extremism issues.

Fotima Sharipova, a 55-year-old housewife, has attended several of the meetings.

Sharipova has three sons and a daughter, all grown up and married with children, but she says she is keeping a watchful eye on them "to make sure they don't mix with bad people."

"The other day my youngest son went to a wedding and I joined him, too. He begged me, 'Mom, please, don't come, you're embarrassing me,'" she says. "I went with him anyway, because I'm worried and I take this seriously."

Fotima Sharipova says the attack ruined Norak's name.
Fotima Sharipova says the attack ruined Norak's name.

Sharipova says the July attack "ruined" Norak's name, and that she and her husband were treated with suspicion when they visited the Khoja Obi Garm sanatorium in August.

"When we said we're from Norak, people kind of avoided us," Sharipova says. "We need to reclaim our good name."

It's a sentiment that is shared by nearly every Norak resident you speak to, young and old, and the Tajik people's request for forgiveness is stated in plain English on a large billboard at the site of the highway attack.

"We express our sincere condolences on behalf of all Tajik people and Tajikistan to families and relatives of the [slain] tourists," reads the sign, erected in front of a symbolic "ghost bike" and adorned with flowers and photographs. "We ask [that you] accept our condolences!"

"Those few extremists don't represent us," says Norak resident Zainiddin Vohidov, 23. "There are maybe some bad individuals among us, but most of our people are peaceful."

The retired driver Ashurov concurs. "The attack on innocent people was so wrong, he says. "It's so beyond wrong."

Khudoynazarov and his fellow volunteers are keenly aware that there are others out there who feel differently, however. Like many locals, they are keeping a special eye out for the enemy within.

Written and reported from Norak by Farangis Najibullah, with additional reporting by Mumin Ahmadi
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.


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    Mumin Ahmadi

    Mumin Ahmadi is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Tajik Service.