One of the suspected attackers who raided a Tajik border crossing in a reported Islamic State (IS) attack last week had previously served as a soldier where the deadly assault took place, sources close to the investigation say.
The suspect had firsthand knowledge of the facility and nearby areas, which is why the attackers targeted that particular checkpoint, a Tajik security official told RFE/RL on November 11.
That and other sources identified the suspect by his first name, Anvar, and he is believed to be in his early 30s. Officials who gave the information spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to speak to the media.
The suspected attackers allegedly planned to seize weapons at the remote, unremarkable border post in the Sultonobod area in Tajikistan's southern Rudaki district to potentially stage assaults on more prominent targets elsewhere.
Tajik authorities said 20 armed militants, including three women, raided the post on the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan frontier in the early hours of November 6.
According to official statements released on the day of the incident, 15 attackers and two security officers were killed in the ensuing shoot-out, and five perpetrators were arrested. Other knowledgeable sources put the number of the death toll among government troops at seven.
No further statements or press briefings about the attack have been provided by the government, which strictly controls the media. Officials routinely refuse to respond to media inquiries.
Sources in Dushanbe told RFE/RL that officials have obtained crucial information from the five detainees from the attack, who are being interrogated by authorities.
The militants recruited three women -- identified as Rahbar Boqieva, Malohat Haidarova, and Zulkhumor Jumaeva -- to take part in the raid because they would rouse less suspicion and be used to distract the soldiers before the attack, the sources said.
Shortly before the assault, Boqieva allegedly approached the checkpoint pretending to have lost her way and asked the border guard on duty for directions.
When the unsuspecting watch tower guard came down, Boqieva stabbed him with a knife, the sources said. RFE/RL cannot independently confirm the claim.
The attackers spent several hours before the assault in the nearby villages of Lailikuya and Qizilnishon, before driving to the border posts in four vehicles, the sources said.
The vehicles were allegedly purchased by one of the suspected attackers, a businessman identified by his first name, Iskandar.
Police in the capital, Dushanbe, are questioning officials and merchants in the city's sprawling Korvon bazaar, where Iskandar is said to have owned a children's clothing shop.
Several weeks ago, Iskandar sold his business for some $13,000 and purchased the four vehicles that investigators say were used in the attack.
Shop owners in Korvon say they didn't know much about Iskandar, who they said worked there for four months before abruptly putting a for-sale sign on his store.
Islamic State Link
In initial statements, the Tajik government said the perpetrators -- all of whom are believed to be Tajik nationals -- crossed into Tajikistan from Afghanistan on the orders of an IS affiliate, IS-Khorasan.
But according to information obtained from the detainees, only six of the attackers came from Afghanistan, while others were based in Tajikistan, the sources in Dushanbe said.
IS claimed responsibility for the attack, although the terrorist group's statement has widely been treated with caution and suspicion.
There are no proven links between the suspects and the IS group, which offered no evidence to back its claim.
In Tajikistan, IS also claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four Western cyclists in July 2018 and for two deadly prison riots in November 2018 and May 2019.
"It's very difficult to know right now what exactly it is that we're looking at because there is no clear indication of it being IS-directed, rather than just IS-instigated," says Raffaello Pantucci, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Nematulloh Mirsaidov, a Tajik expert on security issues based in Khujand, says it's premature to speculate that the two purported IS attacks in Tajikistan mark the beginning of some kind of IS campaign in Central Asia.
"IS doesn't have a strong presence even in Afghanistan at the present, because both the Afghan government and the Taliban consider it an alien force and fight against it," Mirsaidov told RFE/RL on November 12.
Authorities in Tajikistan, a predominantly Muslim nation of some 9 million, often warn against threats by religious extremist groups.
In July, a report by the UN Security Council said a 31-year-old Tajik man had emerged as a unit leader of the IS-Khorasan in Afghanistan.
The report said Sayvaly Shafiev leads a group of approximately 200 fighters who hail from Central Asian countries.
Shafiev has been linked by Tajik security services to an alleged thwarted plot to carry out several major terrorist attacks in Dushanbe in 2018.
Dushanbe says some 1,900 Tajik nationals had joined IS in Syria and Iraq before the extremist group was defeated there.
Hundreds of the Tajik fighters and their families were killed in fighting and air strikes.
Some have returned to Tajikistan, taking advantage of an amnesty and have undergone an attempt to be reintegrated into society.
The government repatriated dozens of children from Iraq whose Tajik mothers have been arrested by Iraqi authorities under charges of belonging to IS.
Tajik authorities say they will continue efforts to bring back Tajik women and children from refugee camps in Syria.