Updated to include latest casualty figures from the Tajik defense ministry.
Twenty-five Tajik soldiers were killed today in an ambush by suspected Islamist fighters allied with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The soldiers were part of a 75-man convoy moving through the Rasht Valley in Tajikistan, an area known as a haven for Islamists fighters. Five Tajik officers are reported to have been among the 25 soldiers killed. Initial reports indicated 40 soldiers were killed but the Tajik defense ministry denied this. No enemy fighters were reported killed.
The soldiers were ambushed while searching for members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan who escaped from a prison in Dushanbe on Aug. 25. One guard was killed during the jailbreak, and four more guards were killed at a nearby detention facility.
The Islamist fighters are believed to have been led by a commander known as Mullo Abdullo (or Mullah Abdullah). Abdullo is said to be a commander in the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and has been based out of Afghanistan in the past. Abdullo led Islamist forces during the Tajik civil war, and in the aftermath of the war in the late 1990s, he fled the country after refusing to reconcile with the government. He sheltered in Afghanistan with the Taliban, along with an estimated 100 followers.
Abdullo is reported to have returned to Tajikistan in May 2009. In July 2009, he led 300 fighters in an attack on a police station near the eastern town of Tavil-Dara in Tajikistan. He is now said to lead more than 300 fighters and is based in the Rasht Valley, where today’s ambush occurred.
Today’s ambush in Tajikistan is the latest attack by Islamist fighters in the country this year. In addition to the Aug. jailbreak in Dushanbe, on Sept. 3 a suicide bomber attacked a police headquarters in Khujand, the second largest city in Tajikistan. Two policemen were killed and 30 more were wounded.
Within a week of the Khujand attack, Tajik border guards killed 20 Taliban and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fighters as they attempted to cross the border from Afghanistan. The Taliban and IMU fighters are thought to have been fleeing an ISAF and Afghan operation in Kunduz.
Tajikistan has seen an uptick in attacks from Islamist terror groups since the summer of 2009. In late spring of that year, NATO opened a supply line from Tajikistan into northern Afghanistan after the Taliban and allied groups heavily targeted the main NATO route from Pakistan.
In recent weeks, the US has been hunting Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan commanders in the northern Afghan provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan, and Takhar, where the terror group has integrated its operations with the Taliban. Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan commanders have taken senior roles in the Taliban’s commander structure. On Sept. 2, the US killed an IMU leader who also served as Takhar’s deputy shadow governor.
• Islamic militants escape from Tajikistan prison, The Telegraph
• Large Armed Group Attacks Tajik Police Post, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
• Suicide bomber strikes police station in Tajikistan, The Long War Journal
• Coalition continues pursuit of IMU commanders in the Afghan north, The Long War Journal
• Uzbek terror commander serving as Taliban shadow governor killed by US special forces, The Long War Journal