In late April, the chief of an elite police unit in Tajikistan disappeared. Relatives said Col. Gulmurod Khalimov, who commanded the Tajik Interior Ministry's special forces, had gone on a business trip. Other rumors suggested he had vanished after falling out with colleagues at a high-level meeting.
Now, there appears to be more clarity: Khalimov is in Syria and has defected to the Islamic State.
That's according to a recent video that emerged online showing Khalimov clad in black and espousing the cause of the jihadist organization. It's hard to tell where the footage was shot, but in the video, Khalimov claims to have joined the Islamic State, making him one of the most high-profile central Asians to travel to Syria and enter the extremists' ranks. He also made clear he's not alone.
"Listen, you dogs, the president and ministers," Khalimov says in the video, "if only you knew how many boys, our brothers are here, waiting and yearning to return to reestablish sharia law there."
He was addressing Tajikistan's long-ruling President Emamoli Rahmon, a former Soviet apparatchik turned autocrat who survived a violent civil war with Islamists in the 1990s and has taken a hard line against certain Islamic practices, including a crackdown on children going to pray at mosques and men growing beards, as well as restrictions on the wearing of the hijab in certain public places.
Khalimov received training from elite instructors in Russia as well as in the United States, according to a U.S. official. He had choice words for foreign governments.
"Listen, you American pigs, I’ve been three times to America, and I saw how you train fighters to kill Muslims," he said. "God willing, I will come with this weapon to your cities, your homes, and we will kill you."
The vast majority of the population of Tajikistan, one of the poorest countries in central Asia, is Muslim. Many Tajiks are forced to make a living abroad, particularly in Russia, where they are sometimes subject to discrimination and racial abuse. In the video, Khalimov urges his compatriots to "stop serving infidels."
There are believed to be an estimated 200 to 500 Tajik nationals fighting for the Islamic State, while Central Asian militants also remain a considerable wing of the Taliban's forces in Afghanistan.