The recent defection to the Islamic State (IS) of a special operations colonel in Tajikistan and the group’s infiltration of the Malaysian military are raising new concerns that the Islamist terror group is gaining military expertise, according to U.S. officials and experts.
Col. Gulmurod Khalimov, a commander of the Interior Ministry security unit known as OMON, disappeared in April and late last month surfaced in an IS video calling for jihad against Russia and the United States. Tajikistan is a former Soviet republic that is currently aligned with Russia.
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In Southeast Asia, authorities in Malaysia broke up an Islamic State terrorist plot in March that involved two Royal Malaysian Air Force soldiers. The arrests revealed the terrorist group has infiltrated the military and that around 70 Malaysian army personnel are believed to be supporters or sympathizers with the Islamic State, according to U.S. officials.
A recent State Department security report said the defection of Khalimov could be a "game changer" for Islamic State terrorists in the region. The group is also known Daesh, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
"While several hundred Tajik nationals are estimated to fight for ISIL, Khalimov’s defection has raised concerns about the threat of militants in Tajikistan and the security threat against U.S. citizens," the June 10 report said.
The report said Khalimov’s defection is not expected to translate immediately into "increased capabilities" for IS, or a more open operating environment for the group in the region.
However, the State Department is warning Americans to be cautious in Tajikistan, specifically in three regions near the border with Afghanistan.
The defection is unusual because most of the population in Tajikistan are not receptive to the radical Islam espoused by IS or the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan.
That could change in the future if economic conditions deteriorate, something that would increase "the risk of Khalimov’s extremist message resonating with the poor and disenchanted."
Average monthly wages in Tajikistan are the lowest in the region at $170 a month. By contrast, IS pays fighters $400 a month, "raising the risk that desperate Tajiks may be lured into joining ISIL [another name for the Islamic State] simply for financial purposes."
The threat of terrorist attacks against Americans and U.S. interests is a concern and increased security at government facilities in the area may lead terrorist groups to seek out "soft, civilian targets like residential areas, clubs, restaurants, hotels, and outdoor recreation areas," the report said.
The Department of State currently does not have a travel warning in place for Tajikistan, the report said, despite the fact that the British government has warned its citizens to avoid travel to Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, the region closest to Afghanistan.
A U.S. intelligence official said the Islamic State’s thousands of recruits include some with military and law enforcement training.
"ISIL’s access to thousands of foreign fighters, and the coalition’s engagement in Iraq since 2003, suggest the group has access to some individuals who have prior military or law enforcement training," said the official.
The terrorist group is seeking to recruit and brand itself globally as a major Islamist fighting force, the official said. It uses social media and propaganda to reach a range of audiences in multiple languages.
An earlier State Department security report on ISIL in Southeast Asia quoted a Malaysian deputy defense minister as saying, "if army personnel are found to embrace elements of ISIS, the army and police will cooperate in our efforts to counsel them and restore their faith in accordance with proper teachings."
The Malaysian government is said to be tracking IS infiltration efforts closely and seeking to temper or eradicate Islamist extremism within the military’s ranks.
"One of the principal targets espoused by ISIL leadership and its adherents abroad are ‘apostate regimes,’" the second report said. "Governments of countries in which extremist ideology may have infiltrated the military can ill afford to discount the possibility of insider threat."
The U.S. intelligence official said: "It would not be surprising if those messages [put out by IS] resonate with some extremists in Southeast Asia."
The defection of the Tajik colonel also highlights that Islamist fervor and not poverty and economic privation are a leading cause of terrorism.
Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism expert, said the infiltration of the Islamic State into foreign militaries is a key reason the group successfully eclipsed Osama bin Ladin’s al Qaeda in gaining control of the global jihad movement.
IS has exploited the Syrian civil war and developed a powerful propaganda machine across multiple social media platforms to recruit over 20,000 foreign fighters, said Gorka, the Horner distinguished chair of military theory at Marine Corps University.
"At the same time it has allowed professional military men to join its ranks—especially the Sunni officers of the Iraqi army disenfranchised by [former Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki’s Shia-dominated government," he said.
"These officers, with others from other nations, have turned a ragtag former subunit of the terrorist group al Qaeda into the richest, most successful insurgency of the modern age," Gorka said.
"In this way IS has empowered the ideology of holy war with a military expertise that makes the group a threat to all the countries of the Middle East as well as North Africa."
Clare M. Lopez, a former CIA officer, said IS is not primarily targeting militaries as a recruiting ground. The problem is "so many, including our own [military], already have jihad-and-sharia-sympathetic members in their ranks," she said.
"And so, instead of stewing silently, or venting their anger and frustration someplace, perhaps anonymously online, these essentially fifth columns are being lit up and sometimes recruited by IS’ own online ops," said Lopez, now vice president for research and analyst with the Center for Security Policy.
Sympathizers of the terrorist group already exist in all societies but the Internet and social media have allowed for the widespread propagation of jihadist ideas and deeds, she added.
"On militaries, I think we can take it as a given that IS fields an impressive [counterintelligence] capability, too," Lopez noted.
The spread of IS ideology among military personnel in Central and Southeast Asia comes as President Obama is under fire for stating publicly that the United States lacks a clear strategy for defeating the terror group. The president said he was waiting for the Pentagon to produce a strategy for additional training of Iraqi security forces.
Obama stated in Germany June 8 that "we don’t have a complete strategy," and that details "are not yet worked out" for bolstering Iraqi forces.
Robert Gates, the former secretary of defense criticized the president on Friday for the lack of strategy.
"What it feels like to me is really what the president said last week, which was a lack of a strategy," Gates told Yahoo News.
"Just adding a few hundred troops doing more of the same I think is not likely to make much of a difference," Gates said. "I think that we have to figure out what our strategy is. We should have had a strategy a year ago that took into account differences within the Iraqi government and sectarian differences in the country and so on."
Gates said militarily what is needed in Iraq are U.S. forward air controllers and spotters and U.S. trainers embedded with Iraqi forces at the battalion level.
"We have to be willing, if we think ISIS is truly a threat to the United States and to our interests … to be willing to put Americans at risk," he said. "That’s just a fact of life. That doesn’t mean we reinvade Iraq."
The authoritarian Tajik government in early June issued an international arrest warrant for Khalimov for crimes including treason and illegal participation in military action abroad.
The office of the country’s prosecutor-general stated in a June 3 notice of Khalimov: "Acting for mercenary means, he joined the international terrorist organization calling itself Islamic State," according to a report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The Tajik colonel appeared in the online video wearing a black turban and holding a sniper rifle. He said he had been trained by the U.S. contractor Blackwater.
"Listen, you dogs, the [Tajikistan] president and ministers, you don’t know how many of the guys here, our brothers, are waiting to return to Tajikistan to revive Sharia law," Khalimov said. "We are coming to you with slaughter, inshallah."
Regarding IS plans for the United States, Khalimov stated: "Listen, you American pigs, I’ve been three times to America, and I saw how you train fighters to kill Muslims. God willing, I will come with this weapon to your cities, your homes, and we will kill you."
Gen. John Campbell, the senior military commander in Afghanistan, told the Army Times in January that IS was recruiting militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"The Taliban have their allegiance to Mullah Omar and a different philosophy and ideology than ISIS, but, potentially, there are people who are disgruntled with the Taliban, they haven’t seen [Taliban commander] Mullah Omar in years, or they want to go a different way," Campbell said. "So there are people vulnerable to the Daesh message, and so we’re looking at it very hard."