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Tunisia’s Political Polarisation Worsens after First Big Terrorist Attack in Two Years
Tunisia’s Political Polarisation Worsens after First Big Terrorist Attack in Two Years
Tombs in a Muslim cemetery are silhouetted during sunset in the village of Karateren near the Aral Sea, in southwestern Kazakhstan, April 2005. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
Briefing 72 / Europe & Central Asia

Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia

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.

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I. Overview

Growing numbers of Central Asian citizens, male and female, are travelling to the Middle East to fight or otherwise support the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIL orISIS). Prompted in part by political marginalisation and bleak economic prospects that characterise their post-Soviet region, 2,000-4,000 have in the past three years turned their back on their secular states to seek a radical alternative. IS beckons not only to those who seek combat experience, but also to those who envision a more devout, purposeful, fundamentalist religious life. This presents a complex problem to the governments of Central Asia. They are tempted to exploit the phenomenon to crack down on dissent. The more promising solution, however, requires addressing multiple political and administrative failures, revising discriminatory laws and policies, implementing outreach programs for both men and women and creating jobs at home for disadvantaged youths, as well as ensuring better coordination between security services.

Should a significant portion of these radicalised migrants return, they risk challenging security and stability throughout Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan form a brittle region, sandwiched between Russia and Afghanistan, Iran and China. Each suffers from poor governance, corruption and crime. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan resemble authoritarian police states. Kazakhstan has some wealth, but its regions are in disrepair, and its political system is autocratic. All five fail to deliver quality social services, particularly in rural areas. Their security services – underfunded, poorly trained and inclined to resort to harsh methods to compensate for a lack of resources and skills – are unable to deal with a challenge as intricate as radical Islam. Rather than promoting religious freedom while safeguarding secular constitutions and attempting to learn from European or Asian experiences in rehabilitating jihadis, the five fuel further radicalisation by using laws to curb religious growth and the police to conduct crackdowns.

Recruitment to the extremist cause is happening in mosques and namazkhana(prayer rooms) across the region. The internet and social media play a critical but not definitive role. The radicalisation of women is often a response to the lack of social, religious, economic and political opportunities afforded to them in Central Asia. Economic reward is not a motivation for those drawn to IS-controlled territory. For some, it is a personal adventure; for others it is a call to arms. Many find themselves providing support services to more experienced fighters from the Caucasus or Arab states.

Ethnic Uzbeks, including citizens of Uzbekistan, are most numerous among the Central Asians with the Islamic State, but Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Turkmen and Tajiks are also well represented. Some are recruited at home; others are radicalised abroad, often as migrant workers. The problem is acute in southern Kyrgyzstan, where the risks are amplified by the alienation of the Uzbek community since the violence in Osh in 2010.

The appeal of jihadism in the region is also 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 IS supporter, but fatigue with social and political circumstances is an important linking thread. Uzbekistan is particularly exposed. Frustrated and excluded, people who would not have considered fighting with the longer-established Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or the Taliban in Afghanistan perceive the Islamic State as the creator of a novel and ordained political order.

The number of Central Asians receiving combat training and progressing through IS command structures is increasing, as are the jihadi networks of which they are a part. Although most Central Asians find themselves in jamaats (factions) organised loosely along ethnic and linguistic lines, these form larger regional battalions of cooperating fighters from across the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China’s Xinjiang region. The risk is rising that these connections will gather pace and purpose in Central Asia, blindsiding governments ill-prepared to respond to a security threat of this type.

Russia and China are already concerned and have urged the Central Asian states to address the problem of radicalisation in light of the rise of IS. The region’s other international partners, including, the EU and the U.S., should recognise that Central Asia is a growing source of foreign fighters and consider prioritising policing reform, as well as a more tolerant attitude to religion, in their recommendations for combating the problem. Without a concerted effort on the part of the Central Asians, including their security services with respect to intelligence sharing, however, the response outside powers seek will likely flounder.

Bishkek/Brussels, 20 January 2015

A member of the Tunisian security forces stands guard at the site of a suicide attack in the Tunisian capital Tunis on 29 October, 2018. AFP/Fethi Belaid

Tunisia’s Political Polarisation Worsens after First Big Terrorist Attack in Two Years

A 29 October suicide bombing in the heart of Tunis dealt a blow to much-improved security since the last violent jihadist attacks in 2015-16. In this Q&A, our Senior Analyst for Tunisia Michael B. Ayari says it has also hammered a new wedge into Islamist-secularist political divides.

What do we know about what happened, and who was behind the attack?

On 29 October, a suicide bomber set off an improvised explosive device in her backpack on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis – the city's best-known thoroughfare, a few hundred metres from the ministry of interior and the French embassy. The explosion killed her and wounded twenty bystanders, including fifteen policemen who appear to have been the intended target. For now, no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing. The 30-year-old woman – an unemployed graduate with an English degree from a small village near Mahdia, on the Mediterranean, who occasionally worked as a shepherdess – left no indication as to her motive. Security sources have suggested she may have had contact with members of the Islamic State (ISIS), possibly relatives.

How significant is this attack?

This is the first major terrorist attack to take place in Tunis since 2015, a year when multiple major attacks in the capital and other locations shook the country, targeting parliament, members of the security forces, and foreign tourists. Then, the concern was about ISIS and other jihadist groups that had made clear their intention to destabilise Tunisia's fledging democratic experiment. There were thousands of Tunisians who had joined the ranks of ISIS in Libya and Syria, as well as al-Qaeda affiliated groups operating on the border with Algeria. Tunisia is much more secure today than it was then. Since the last major ISIS attack in Tunisia in March 2016 – when Tunisian members of the group in Libya tried to seize control of Ben Guerdane, a trading town on the Libyan border – security forces have greatly enhanced their capacity to go after jihadist groups, in part with international backing. The security vacuum that existed in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising no longer prevails, ISIS has suffered major defeats in Libya, Syria and Iraq, and while attacks against military and police occur regularly on the mountainous border with Algeria, security has vastly improved in the rest of the country.

The attack comes as Tunisian politics appears increasingly taken hostage by a dispute between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed

What impact has the attack had in Tunisia so far?

Beyond the dead and wounded, the most important impact may be political. The attack comes as Tunisian politics appears increasingly taken hostage by a dispute between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, and the Islamist/anti-Islamist polarisation that had peaked in 2013 is making a comeback. It was striking to see some Tunisian media immediately seek to place blame for the attack on An-Nahda, the Islamist party that has been a key partner in the governing coalition in place since early 2015. Essebsi's first statement on the bombing was also telling: "There is a rotten political climate," he said. "We are too fixated on positions and rivalries and forget the essential: the security of citizens". That statement was widely seen by his rivals as seeking to score points against his opponents – and indeed a blame game of sorts is taking place.

What is the nature of the dispute between Essebsi and Chahed?

Essebsi has sought for over a year to dismiss Chahed, but has been unable to muster enough support from both his own party, Nida Tounes, and his main coalition partner An-Nahda to do so. An-Nahda, which had initially backed Essebsi, has switched sides and since this summer backs Chahed – or at least does not want him to step down for the moment. The backdrop to this are looming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019 (in which both men could run), deep divisions in Nida Tounes between Essebsi's and Chahed's partisans, and the future of the consensus between Islamists and non-Islamists that Essebsi and Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi were key in brokering in 2014. As a result, on 24 September, after months of simmering tensions, Essebsi declared that the consensus with Nahda was over. The return of sharp polarisation swiftly followed, including explosive accusations by the far-left Popular Front party that Nahda has a secret military wing and had a hand in political assassinations carried out by jihadist groups in 2013.

Tunisia cannot really afford to lack an effective government or to botch preparations for what will only be the second democratic elections in its history.

What is the risk from here on?

The political crisis is paralysing Tunisia. The country seems unable to make the tough decisions to tackle a lingering economic crisis. It is late in nominating the members of the electoral commission that will oversee the 2019 elections. It has also not yet nominated the members of the constitutional court, a crucial institution under the 2014 constitution, widely hailed as the most liberal in the Arab world. The rising political polarisation is making it increasingly difficult for parliament to go through with these crucial steps and is discrediting the political class among ordinary Tunisians, particularly as they suffer from rising costs of living. Tunisia cannot really afford to lack an effective government or to botch preparations for what will only be the second democratic elections in its history.

Will this attack worsen the mood?

It very likely will. The end of the consensus announced by Essebsi appears to have removed political safeguards against excessive polarisation. Among ordinary people I spoke to, it was striking to see that many viewed yesterday's attack as expected, almost an outgrowth of the political crisis. Nahda's detractors interpreted it as a warning shot from the Islamist party. Nahda’s supporters viewed it as a false flag operation perpetrated by security forces and the radical secularist camp to justify a new crackdown on Islamists. Finally, members of the security forces and their backers are seizing on the attack as an opportunity to revive a draft "law for the protection of armed forces" that, in its latest draft at least, appears to grant vast powers and impunity to the police and has been roundly condemned by civil society groups. The attack is encouraging the authoritarian drift that has been increasingly in the air for the past year, and indeed may incentivise jihadist groups, which had every reason to be demoralised after the setbacks they suffered in recent years, to carry out further attacks to exploit political divisions.

The casualty toll in this article was updated on 31 October, up from nine wounded as originally reported on 30 October.