Two Washington residents who quit their office jobs last year to bike around the world were killed Sunday during an attack on bicyclists in Tajikistan that the Islamic State claimed to have carried out.
Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan were among four people killed during the assault, which would have been the Islamic State’s first deadly attack in former Soviet Central Asia.
Authorities in Tajikistan did not accept the claim, instead blaming a banned political party for the attack.
The assault occurred in the countryside south of the capital, Dushanbe, when assailants rammed a car into the cyclists before pouncing on them with knives. Rene Wokke from the Netherlands and Markus Hummel from Switzerland were also killed, Tajik authorities said.
Austin and Geoghegan, both 29, were a couple who described themselves on their blog, “Simply Cycling,” as “two Americans biking around the world.” Geoghegan, who had not spent much time on a bicycle before 2013, and Austin, who traveled little growing up, said they decided to travel the world on wheels “because life is short and the world is big and we want to make the most out of our youth and good health before they’re gone.”
The cyclists were making their way through a popular and scenic route in the country’s Danghara region, about 60 miles south of the capital. With its rugged views and tantalizing closeness to the Afghan border, the region has long attracted foreign tourists seeking adventure.
Days before he was killed in the attack, Austin described Tajikistan as “a tough place to cycle.”
“It is cold and windy and mountainous and, most of all, very, very high,” he wrote. “Lauren’s been having a bit of difficulty with the altitude.”
Austin was born in New York and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware and a master’s degree from Georgetown University. After graduation, he accepted a job with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he worked for seven years, according to his mother, Jeanne Santovasco.
“He was just a gentle soul who cared about the world and not leaving any footprint and leaving it a better place,” she said in an interview Tuesday.
In 2012, he built a 143-square-foot “tiny home” in the District that was featured in The Washington Post, and that Austin said allowed him to have the freedom to travel.
“We’d both been working in offices for most of our twenties and living a nine-to-five existence that had been pleasant but not necessarily as challenging or rewarding as biking around the world could be,” he and Geoghegan wrote.
He regularly updated his blog, which his mother said showcased his passion for travel, posting entries from Cape Town to Istanbul.
Rebecca Delaney, a friend of Austin who went to school with him at Georgetown and worked with him at HUD, said he was a revolutionary thinker who knew how to channel abstract thoughts into tangible ideas.
“He was really imaginative, he had the most expansive creative streak of anyone I’ve ever met,” Delaney said, citing both his tiny home and decision to quit work to travel the world. “He had this incredible ability to take that imagination and see it through.”
Geoghegan graduated in 2010 from Georgetown, where she majored in government and minored in Spanish and Arabic. She worked in Georgetown’s admissions office after graduation, until she and Austin began their trip.
Her parents, Robert and Elvira Geoghegan, said in a statement that her trip “was typical of her enthusiastic embrace of life’s opportunities, her openness to new people and places, and her quest for a better understanding of the world.” In their statement, they asked for “complete privacy” and requested “the space and time to process our profound loss.”
Reggie Greer, who met Geoghegan when she was a sophomore at Georgetown and he was a junior, described her as one of the most “thoughtful” people he knew.
“She would ask us questions like, ‘What does this mean? How do you feel? What are you thinking about right now?’ ” he remembered. “She really made us slow down. That made her unique.”
A spokesman for the State Department condemned the “senseless attack on civilian cyclists,” adding that Washington was ready to assist with an international investigation into the attack.
In a near-three-minute video released by the Islamic State’s news agency, five young men sit perched on a hilltop under the ISIS flag, where they pledge their loyalty, in Russian, to the leader of the caliphate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They talk of their promise to slaughter disbelievers but make no specific reference to the attack on the cyclists.
Russia, which views the five predominantly Muslim Central Asian states as within its sphere of influence, has long expressed fears that Islamist terrorism can fester and destabilize the entire region. In recent years, the Islamic State ramped up its Russian-language propaganda. Moscow maintains several military bases in the region and regularly holds drills aimed at preventing terrorism.
It is not clear whether the men in the video had trained abroad, in Syria or Iraq, where 1,300 Tajik fighters have reportedly joined the Islamic State, making the country one of the largest foreign contributors to its fighting force.
The Interior Ministry in Tajikistan, a country whose border with Afghanistan is extremely porous, said it had killed four men suspected of being involved in the attack. Tajik officials said the attack’s mastermind was the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, a peaceful opposition party whose leaders fled the country since the ruling government banned their party three years ago. But, according to photos released by the Tajik Interior Ministry, the men in the Islamic State video are those killed by Tajik security forces.
Analysts and experts saw that version of events as somewhat counterintuitive.
“There is strong evidence that was an ISIS-inspired attack — the first such attack on foreigners by ISIS in the region, and it is therefore crucially important that Tajik authorities credibly, carefully and professionally conduct their investigation,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The government’s narrative blaming the IRPT for the attack simply doesn’t add up. It’s just simply shooting itself in the foot.”
Austin and Geoghegan had planned to continue traveling — though they did not have a set schedule for where they wanted to go next. Earlier this summer, they wrote that they intended to keep cycling for “maybe another year or two or three. But only if we’re enjoying it.”
Starting to choke up with emotion, Santovasco, Austin’s mother, said her son and his girlfriend were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“For them to be in this one place where they decided to kill people is unfathomable to us,” she said.