The alleged involvement of four Tajiks in a deadly attack in Moscow has shaken Tajik society, highlighting the risks posed by Central Asia's jihadist legacy.

The region's five former Soviet republics, led by Tajikistan, have had thousands of their citizens going to Syria and Iraq in the 2010s to fight for the Islamic State group (IS).

Friday's attack in Moscow, which killed 139 people and was claimed by the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) in Afghanistan, Tajikistan’s neighbour that regularly supplies fighters to IS.

"This is a great tragedy for our country," artist Daniel Rustamov told AFP in the capital Dushanbe.

Rustamov fears that "a few criminals will harm the entire Tajik people" and that "Tajiks will be persecuted in Russia," where millions of them work to feed their families back home, against a backdrop of rising anti-migrant rhetoric.

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Tajikistan, home to 9.7 million people, made the fight against terrorism a priority after it was bruised by a civil war between 1992 and 1997 involving Islamist fighters.

Cross-border clashes from Afghanistan involving jihadist groups continue to plague the mountainous country, which has also suffered several attacks claimed by IS.

Since the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan in 2021, Tajikistan has been one of the regime's main critics, concerned about the potential spread of its ideology.

Several million ethnic Tajiks live in Afghanistan.

Dushanbe has regularly highlighted the upsurge in jihadist activity along its 1,375-kilometre (850-mile) border with Afghanistan and has organised anti-terror exercises with the Russian and Chinese armies.

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Last year, Tajik authorities announced that they had shot dead five members of the Jamaat Ansarullah jihadist group on the Afghan border.

- 'Tajiks are in mourning' -

For businessman Bakhtior Akhmedov, 32, "a terrorist has no nation or religion".

"All the people of Tajikistan are in mourning," he told AFP.

President Emomali Rahmon echoed this in an official message broadcast by media in Tajikistan, where information is tightly controlled.

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Tajiks support their "brotherly Russian people... terrorists have no nationality" said the leader, who has been in power since 1992 and whose giant portraits are displayed across the country.

This is a mantra often repeated by the regime when Tajiks are involved in attacks, including an early January attack in Iran that killed more than 90 people and was also claimed by IS-K.

A June 2023 UN report described the IS-K branch as the greatest terrorist threat in Afghanistan and Central Asia and estimated it comprised of between 4,000 and 6,000 jihadists, including their families.

Tajikistan has taken radical measures to crack down on religious fundamentalism, such as banning women from wearing the hijab.

According to Rahmon, 2,300 Tajiks have joined IS since 2015, including the high-profile case of a former Tajik police commander who defected to IS.

"Over the past three years, 24 of our citizens have committed terrorist acts in 10 countries," the Tajik leader said in early March.

"The number of young people who have joined terrorist organisations, including IS, has increased."

Rahmon pointed to "extremist propaganda" that strikes "when these young people work abroad".

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Around one million Tajiks travel to Russia every year, and the number is growing.

Vulnerable migrants are also used by the Russian army, with many reports of Central Asians being recruited to fight against Ukraine.

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