DUSHANBE -- When Gulshehra Shodmonova's wayward son used to phone home saying he was in Russia, Kazakhstan, or even Dubai, she worried that the young man who'd turned his back on a promising education was courting trouble. He might land himself in jail, she said, for stealing to feed himself.
She never imagined he would one day be arrested as the alleged cell leader of a terrorist group that carried out the deadliest attack on Western tourists in Central Asian history.
But on those rare occasions when Hussein Abdusamadov told her he was in Dushanbe, she said, consenting only to meetings on the crowded streets of the capital, his mother would beg him for answers about his suspicious and secretive behavior.
"'Hussein, you're my son. I'd like to sit and talk with you over a cup of tea or a meal,'" she recalled pleading. "'You're behaving this way. What am I supposed to do? Tell me where you're staying so I can visit you.'" He always refused, she said.
Authorities meanwhile had their own reasons for trying to track down Abdusamadov, a graduate of an elite Presidential Lyceum boarding school and student-council president at a state university before he walked away from it all more than a decade ago.
Since his purported return from Russia three months ago, neighbors said police had questioned relatives and knocked on doors in Abdusamadov's old Dushanbe neighborhood looking for him.
Although five officers had been tasked with apprehending Abdusamadov, now 33 and a "person of interest" over possible links to extremist groups, a source close to the ongoing investigation into the recent attack told RFE/RL that the search was routinely limited to a previous residence.
Authorities did not regard Abdusamadov as a "particularly dangerous" individual even as recently as a few weeks ago, the same source said, and had no inkling of any terrorist aspirations.
But the lone survivor among five suspects accused of running down a group of American, Dutch, Swiss, and French cyclists near Central Asia's scenic Pamir Highway on July 29, Abdusamadov's battered visage became the public face of terrorism after Tajik police released images of him in custody and the corpses of the other four.
The tragedy sent shock waves well beyond the victims' home countries and a post-Soviet region whose autocratic regimes have long warned of creeping extremism. But it was a particularly painful setback for impoverished Tajikistan, which has been among the biggest per capita sources of jihadist recruits to Middle East conflicts in places like Syria and Iraq.
RFE/RL's Tajik Service interviews with relatives, acquaintances, former neighbors, and a source close to the ongoing investigation paint a picture of a young man falling under the malign influence of a neighborhood cleric before setting out on a path that ultimately led him to kill in the name of the world's most notorious militant group, Islamic State (IS).
IS has claimed responsibility for the attack on the foreigners, and a video shows Abdusamadov and the four other suspects pledging loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
But Tajik officials have publicly dismissed the IS connection as a ruse and blamed the attack on a banned Islamic political party that spent years in awkward cohabitation with the government until an official crackdown three years ago sent many of its leaders into exile or hiding to avoid arrest or persecution.
Road To Radicalization?
Abdusamadov was born Hussein Nakhudov, a surname, meaning "pea" in Tajik, that family members said he later shed out of embarrassment. He spent his early childhood in the village of Selga, in Khatlon Province, near the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic's border with Afghanistan. His father died in 1988 when he was 3 years old.
By the early 1990s, as the newly independent Tajikistan descended into civil war, he and his mother and two brothers had resettled in Dushanbe, which had more than half a million residents.
From the age of 10, Abdusamadov attended what was known as the Presidential Lyceum, a prestigious boarding school with long-standing ties to the government and high education standards. After graduation, in 2002, he enrolled in the international relations program at the Tajik State University of Commerce, where he was elected head of the student council.
According to Shodmonova, around that time she noticed Hussein and another son in the company of a local religious man named Nosirhoja Ubaidov, also known as Qori Nosir. She blamed Qori Nosir -- who authorities would subsequently allege was a recruiter and agent for radical Islamists -- for influencing her son and convincing him to drop out of university in 2004.
"After he finished his third year at the university, my son told me, 'I want to have a gap year or change the focus of my studies. I'll go to Russia for work,'" Shodmonova told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on August 3, in between extended sessions of questioning by Tajik police and security.
But she said it soon became apparent that Abdusamadov was not working in Russia.
"One day he would call me [saying he was calling] from Russia, another time from Dubai, then from Kazakhstan," Shodmonova said.
She told RFE/RL that when she confronted her son about his employment situation, he insisted that he needed to travel. He would stonewall when she asked where she could visit him, even locally during his periodic visits to Dushanbe.
"He would say, 'Well, it's not possible. There are a lot of guys there. I'll just call you and we'll meet up someplace,'" she told RFE/RL. "He'd call me and we would meet up on the city streets. We'd talk. Each time I met him, I warned him that I knew he wasn't working."
Shodmonova said she initially had no idea that her son might be involved with extremists. Instead, she said, she was worried he would turn to crime simply to feed himself; but he reassured her he would never do such a thing.
Then, in April, Shodmonova was summoned to the Interior Ministry and told that authorities were seeking her son in connection with information they had received about his activities abroad, she said.
She saw her son one time after that, she said, and tried to convince him to turn himself in voluntarily. But she said he refused, saying authorities would simply arrest him.
"He left and I never saw him again. But he would call me and ask how I am," Shodmonova said. "He would call from pay phones and from random people's mobile phones."
Heartbroken, she acknowledged being "disappointed" with her son "for being so weak that he fell under such influence and allowed [others] to change his ideas."
She told RFE/RL that one month before the attack on the cyclists, she had agreed with law enforcement officers to try and persuade him to give her his address, which she would pass along to police to aid in his arrest.
'Ordered And Approved'
Although Tajik authorities identified Abdusamadov as the alleged cell leader behind the July 29 killings of the Westerners, the source close to the investigation told RFE/RL that evidence suggested the 45-year-old Qori Nosir had instructed Abdusamadov to carry out a terrorist attack.
Then, apparently by chance, Abdusamadov and the other attackers drove by the cyclists in their remote region of southern Tajikistan -- a potential "soft target" of the kind that the men were hoping for -- according to the source.
Qori Nosir approved the plan to attack the foreigners when Abdusamadov contacted him about the idea on July 28 via the WhatsApp messaging application, the Tajik source alleged.
Qori Nosir reportedly said the attack would guarantee attention from international media.
The group stalked the cyclists for a day before ramming a car into them and attacking them with knives and an ax, the investigative source said. Four of the tourists -- two Americans, a Swiss, and a Dutchman -- were killed and three others were injured.
Of the five men named as attackers, only Abdusamadov is still alive. He was reportedly arrested early on July 30. Officials said the other four were killed when police or security forces tried to apprehend them.
An image released by the Interior Ministry showing Abdusamadov with apparent facial injuries has fueled questions about his treatment in custody.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other watchdogs have long complained of cases of "torture and ill treatment in pretrial custody and prisons" in Tajikistan.
Some of the most acute criticism of extrajudicial and other abuse has involved the prosecution and alleged treatment of members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which fought alongside nationalist and other groups against communist-led government forces during the country's 1992-97 civil war but won government posts under a June 1997 peace accord.
It remained Central Asia's lone Islamic political party until its dwindling parliamentary presence finally petered out in Tajikistan's 2015 elections, due in part to official pressure on IRPT candidates and supporters. The IRPT was subsequently blamed for extremism and its activities in Tajikistan were outlawed, although its leaders have consistently denied wrongdoing or ties to radical elements, and the prosecution and harassment of its members continues.
IS Links Downplayed
Government officials have blamed IRPT elements for the July 29 killings, ignoring or downplaying possible IS links.
Tajik authorities have cited a confession by Abdusamadov in which he purportedly acknowledged receiving "ideological and military-sabotage training" in 2014-15 in Iran, where he "joined the IRPT extremist group" and met with Qori Nosir, the local cleric whose association with Abdusamadov was also cited by Abdusamadov's mother.
The party's leadership, the IRPT Supreme Council, denied what it said were "baseless and irrational allegations" that it was involved, calling the accusations "shameless and illogical slander."
"Unfortunately, the Tajik authorities, as always, have tried to use this human and national tragedy for political purpose and against...peaceful opponents," it said.
Qori Nosir's whereabouts are unknown.
Tajikistan's government has described him as "a member of the IRPT since 1992" who has been on the country's wanted list since 2015.
But Tajik authorities have presented no specific evidence of Qori Nosir's purported travels, or links, to Iran; neither have they offered firm proof of his membership in IRPT.
The IRPT has issued a statement saying Qori Nosir was never a member.
Qori Nosir's nephew, Ahliddin Ubaidov, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service in early August that his uncle left Dushanbe for Moscow in 2010, after he was contacted by authorities for questioning about his religious studies in an Iranian madrasah.
"He used to call us from Russia until 2013, then he disappeared," the nephew said. "In 2014, authorities in the Farkhor District summoned us and said they had information that he had gone to the Middle East wars. He never contacted us."
"In 2017, authorities told us Qori Nosir had probably been killed," Ubaidov added. "But after the [July 29] attack on the foreign tourists, they summoned us to Dushanbe and said he is alive and was behind the attack."
The Other Suspects
Two of the four dead suspects, Asomiddin Majidov and Zafarjon Safarov, were 19-year-old relatives of Abdusamadov from the village of Selga.
The source close to the investigation said both traveled to Russia in late February after failing university entrance exams in 2017.
According to Tajik authorities, they had returned to Tajikistan two days before the attack on the cyclists.
Safarov's father, Juma Safarov, confirmed to RFE/RL's Tajik Service on August 2 that his son was among the five men claiming allegiance to IS in the video posted online by the militant group.
He said he was unaware that his son had returned from Russia until hearing the news that he had been killed by police and named as one of the attackers. Both of the teenagers had avoided their village and contact with their relatives, Safarov said.
Instead, the investigative source said, the younger Safarov and Majidov traveled to the town of Norak to meet with Abdusamadov and the two other alleged attackers, brothers Jafariddin Yusupov, 26, and Asliddin Yusupov, 21.
Like Abdusamadov, the Yusupov brothers were raised by a single mother. Their paternal uncle told RFE/RL that their father left the family in 1996, remarried, and moved to another district.
The investigative source told RFE/RL that authorities believed Jafariddin Yusupov, a graduate of Vahdat Technical College, had been radicalized by Abdusamadov in Russia and had convinced his younger brother to join the plot to kill the cyclists.
Asliddin Yusupov previously served as a soldier in the Tajik Army at a post in the district of Isfara, in the Ferghana Valley. He was married and had two children.