Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia
20 Jan 2015
The Islamic State (IS) is attracting Central Asians to Syria and fostering new links among radicals within the region. Unless the five Central Asian governments develop a credible, coordinated counter-action plan, including improved security measures but also social, political and economic reforms, growing radicalism will eventually pose a serious threat to their stability.
“Its appeal in the region is rooted in an unfulfilled desire for political and social change. Rich or poor, educated or not, young or mature, male or female – there is no single profile of an Islamic State supporter”.
Deirdre Tynan, Crisis Group’s Central Asia Project Director
The fallout from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq is a major security concern for Central Asian governments. Between 2,000 and 4,000 of their citizens have left for IS-held territory to fight or otherwise support the Islamic State cause. The five – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – crippled by corruption, poor governance and policing, have done little to address a threat as intricate as radical Islam. Instead, they are fuelling further radicalisation by curtailing civil liberties and initiating security crackdowns. The latest International Crisis Group briefing, Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia, analyses the socio-political context behind growing radicalism in the region and argues that a comprehensive solution requires the states to improve coordination between security services, but as importantly to liberalise religious laws and provide greater outreach and economic opportunity to and for young people, including women.
The briefing’s major findings and recommendations are:
- While fatigue with social, economic and political circumstances is an important linking thread, ideological commitment to jihad is for many the main reason Central Asians are drawn to IS. The growth of radical Islam is exacerbated by poor religious education and multiple grievances against the region’s secular governments.
- Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) members have been active recruiters for IS in the Ferghana Valley and have taken advantage of what in Central Asia is seen as a glamorous association to reinvigorate their own group. The IMU also appears to have acted as a bridge for a wider variety of Central Asian fighters, including Uighurs from western China.
- A program in which European and Asian police share with security services in Central Asia their experience in rehabilitating former radicals, male and female, would be highly desirable. However, the capacities of Central Asian police forces to absorb and implement lessons learned are undermined by weak state structures and distrust of the police.
- Central Asian officials, Russian and Western diplomats and regional experts all expect the Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan security services to take a zero-tolerance approach to returning fighters. Islamic State supporters seeking to return to Central Asia and avoid a tough homecoming would likely choose to go to Kyrgyzstan, thus putting it at greater risk.
“It is easier for IS to gain recruits in Central Asia than in nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan”, says Deirdre Tynan, Central Asia Project Director. “Its appeal in the region is rooted in an unfulfilled desire for political and social change. Rich or poor, educated or not, young or mature, male or female – there is no single profile of an Islamic State supporter”.
“Central Asia is fortunate that Syria is relatively distant, no major attacks have yet occurred, and the risks are still in infancy”, says Paul Quinn-Judge, Europe and Central Asia Program Director. “But governments should assess accurately the long-term danger jihadism poses to the region and take proper preventive action now, not brush the danger aside or exaggerate it in a way that will only make the problem worse”.