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Were the American cyclists killed in Tajikistan naive for traveling there?

The mountains of Tajikistan attract cyclists from all over the world. (Redspokes Adventure Tours)
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On July 29, five terrorists in Tajikistan rammed a car into a group of seven Western cyclists, then set upon them with knives. Four of the cyclists were killed: two from the United States, one from Switzerland and one from the Netherlands.

The Islamic State asserted responsibility for the attack, although Tajik authorities are pointing the finger at a banned political party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. Whoever is responsible, the attack was the first terrorist assault against Western tourists in Tajikistan.

Discussions about the attack on news and social media websites quickly turned into impassioned debates about whether the American couple was naive for traveling in Tajikistan. A typical comment on a Washington Post article read: “Their deaths are senseless and tragic, but could have been avoided if they had used more judgment in planning their travel itinerary. Prayers for the families.”

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Experts on the region, however, reject the idea that the Americans were naive. “Central Asia generally is fairly safe,” said Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is a region where the countries are very strong security and police states, so we have not seen the same sorts of large-scale terrorist attacks” as in other regions of the world. Tajikistan is one of five neighboring former Soviet republics — the others are Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.

The two Americans killed, Lauren Geoghegan and Jay Austin, both 29, were from the District. Austin appeared on the cover of The Washington Post Magazine in June 2015 as part of a story on tiny houses; his reason for living in one was to have more money available for traveling. The couple had quit their jobs in 2017 to cycle the world and posted frequently on their blog “Simply Cycling.”

In Tajikistan, they met up with other cyclists eager to take on the Pamir Highway, which traverses a stunning mountain range known as “the roof of the world”; a 2017 article in the British newspaper the Telegraph called it “an adventurous traveler’s dream.” The U.S. travel advisory for Tajikistan on July 29, according to a State Department official, was at Level 1, the lowest, which means Americans traveling in the country should “exercise normal precautions.” (On Aug. 3, the advisory was raised to Level 2: “Exercise increased caution.”)

Though he said the country is generally safe for Westerners, Stronski described Tajikistan as “very much a dysfunctional state.” It has a repressive central government, Stronski said, many corrupt border officials and a poor citizenry reliant on money sent home by relatives working elsewhere, usually in Russia, or earned through illicit activities. Furthermore, there is a large terrorist presence just over the border in northern Afghanistan. (U.S. State Department Travel Advisory Level 4: “Do not travel.”)

He and other experts think that the attack was most likely carried out by grass-roots Islamic State sympathizers, and they say that by pointing a finger at the Islamic Renaissance Party, the Tajik government is trying to play down the Islamic State threat and is seizing an opportunity to crack down on opposition groups. None of the experts said they thought the couple should not have been in Tajikistan or that the attack means Americans should now avoid the country.

“I would have no problem telling close friends to go to Central Asia,” Stronski said.

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Scott Stewart, a vice president for tactical analysis with Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm, said that before the attack, his company had ranked Tajikistan as medium for a terrorism threat, “and, quite frankly, the attack hasn’t changed that.”

Stewart noted that a similar attack occurred last year in Manhattan, when a terrorist in a rented truck struck nearly two dozen bicyclists and pedestrians near a bike path. Eight people were killed. “These sort of attacks can happen across the globe,” he said. “There have always been dangers in the world, and you can’t just not go everywhere where you might be attacked, or you wouldn’t go anywhere.”

Still, “that doesn’t mean that you should ignore the threat of terrorism,” Stewart added. “You need to be careful, you need to do your research before you go.” In addition to consulting the State Department’s website, Stewart recommended that tourists cross-reference travel advisories from other nations, such as Britain, Australia and Canada, to see whether assessments mesh and gather more data. Another resource is the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a public-private partnership that monitors terrorism.

Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that travelers interested in researching recent terrorist attacks also might want to consult the Global Terrorism Database, a project of the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. “It’s a good place to look at in terms of recent history of attacks,” he said.

The threat in Tajikistan isn’t zero, he said, “but I would not put it at anywhere near the levels we see” in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Central Asia, including Tajikistan is beautiful,” he said. “If tourists want to go there, or anywhere else in Central Asia, I think it’s worth visiting as long as you’re cautious about where you go . . . and keep a relatively low profile.”

Dermot MacWard, the owner of Britain-based Redspokes Adventure Tours, which has been running bicycle tours along the Pamir Highway since 2008, said the company decided not to suspend its Tajik rides after he consulted with his partners there and with the British Consulate in the country’s capital, Dushanbe.

“As there has been an increase in security checks along the road from Dushanbe to Khorog and the Pamir region is generally considered safe we were reassured that it was safe to continue with the tour,” he wrote in an email. “In our group of 18, two people decided to withdraw following 29 July, the other 16 remained keen to continue with the trip.”

MacWard, whose company also operates in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and other countries, encourages his clients to buy travel and cancellation insurance and to check weather and their governments’ travel alerts. His guidance for cyclists on the road in Central Asia includes dressing appropriately for cultural sensitivities, learning a few words in the local language, carrying photos of home and family members to share with hosts, maintaining respect for the environment, making eye contact and smiling, and not raising their voices. “If someone smiles, say hello in the local language and look for every opportunity to interact with the locals,” he said. “These interactions are what make for a memorable trip and linger long after you’ve returned home.”

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