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The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action
The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action
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

Commentary / Africa

The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action

Rural insurgencies across the Sahel are destabilising the region and undermining local security and governance. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue support for the Alliance for the Sahel and promote local dialogue to buttress law and order.

This commentary on promoting political and military action in the Sahel region is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

The Sahel region faces particularly acute challenges. Rural insurgencies across parts of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are expanding. Jihadi groups exploit local conflicts to secure safe havens and win new recruits. Other militias are being formed, whether to defend communities, conduct criminal activities or both. Sahelian states, supported by Western powers, rely ever more heavily on force. The new G5 Sahel joint force (FC-G5S), encompassing army units from five Sahelian states, must avoid angering local communities and stoking local conflicts. It should be accompanied by local mediation and peacebuilding initiatives, outreach to communities and, where possible, efforts to engage militant leaders.

Mali’s stalemated peace process

In Mali, the epicentre of the Sahel crisis, implementation of the June 2015 Bamako peace agreement that aimed to turn the page on the country’s 2012-2013 crisis, has stalled. Having acted as chief broker of the agreement, Algiers appears to have lost interest in leading the process. No African or other actor has stepped in.

Jihadist groups capitalise on local disputes in rural areas.

Malian leaders’ attention has shifted to the July 2018 presidential election. In parts of the country, particularly central and northern Mali, a credible vote appears a remote prospect, due to insecurity and state weakness. But any attempt to postpone the vote would likely spark street protests: President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has struggled both to restore security and stimulate development, and is increasingly unpopular even in his core constituencies of Bamako and other southern cities.

Nor have state authorities, ousted from much of the north during the 2012-2013 crisis, returned. Security continues to deteriorate in central Mali (Mopti region) and further south (Segou region), fuelling tension among communities. Jihadist groups capitalise on local disputes in rural areas, recruiting new fighters and launching attacks against national and international forces. Their reach is extending into neighbouring countries.

An expanding crisis

Northern Burkina Faso is suffering its own insurgency: notwithstanding spillover from Mali, violence there largely obeys its own logic and feeds off local dynamics. The emergence of Ansarul Islam, a Burkinabe jihadist group that has perpetrated a string of attacks against security forces and state institutions, reflects widespread discontent with the prevailing social order in the country’s north. Ouagadougou and most of its foreign partners recognise that a military campaign alone will not end the conflict, but their response needs to better factor in the deep social roots of the crisis, which means greater efforts to stimulate or facilitate communal dialogue. Ultimately, as militants operate between Mali and Burkina Faso, the crisis also requires that Mali secure its borders and both states deepen their police and judicial cooperation.

In Niger, the October 2017 killing of U.S. Special Forces and Nigerien soldiers near the border between Mali and Niger brought international attention to a long-neglected region that has become the Sahel’s latest jihadist front line. An armed group claiming links to the Islamic State has repeatedly targeted Nigerien security forces. In response, Nigerien authorities briefly backed Malian armed groups as proxy counter-terror forces along the border. Such action can prove counterproductive, adding to the already vast quantities of weaponry in the region and fuelling intercommunal conflict. The large number of armed young men in the border area between Mali and Niger – frequently now with combat experience, including fighting both against and alongside jihadist groups – are a key source of instability. Their demobilisation and reintegration into society is a critical component of any effort to end violence.

Chad is vulnerable to instability in southern Libya, where Chadian rebels have found refuge, and in the Lake Chad basin, where the Boko Haram crisis has spread. President Idriss Deby has positioned his military as a bastion against jihadism. This stance has brought financial and political support from Western powers and largely spared him their criticism, notwithstanding the country’s fragility, growing political and social discontent, and deep economic recession. Many businesses have gone bankrupt. Unemployment, especially among youth, is high. The International Monetary Fund suspended budget support in November 2017 after Chad failed to reach an agreement to restructure loans granted by a mining and oil company. Mounting political and socio-economic challenges pose a grave long-term threat to Chad; left to fester, these problems would till fertile ground for violent actors of all stripes, including jihadists.

Going beyond military solutions

After considerable delays, the G5 Sahel joint force has started to deploy at the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso border. But it is struggling with funding shortfalls and to define its role, particularly in relation to other forces in the Sahel, from UN peacekeepers to French and U.S. counter-terrorism forces. To secure the support of local populations, the joint force should respect the rights of those living in its operations zones. Efforts to de-escalate local conflicts and, where possible, open or exploit existing lines of communication with militant leaders should accompany military action.

Sahelian states remain worryingly dependent on security assistance. Indeed, foreign donor priorities, to some degree, drive the Sahelian states’ security policies: the focus on curbing human trafficking and migrant smuggling in the region in good part reflects European worries about migration and terrorism. Yet overly strict security measures can upset fragile local economies and balances of power between central state and nomadic communities or between local authorities and ethnic or religious groups.

In this light, the Alliance for the Sahel, launched in July 2017 by France, Germany and the EU, and designed to address both security and development challenges in the Sahel region, could be a step in the right direction, if European short-term concerns over migration and terrorism do not trump efforts to reform local governance, especially in neglected rural areas. The EU and its member states should also support government initiatives to strengthen local law and order – again critical in rural areas – through its EU Capacity Building Missions (EUCAP) Sahel Mali and EUCAP Sahel Niger.

In particular, the EU, including its special representative for the Sahel, should warn governments against relying on militias as proxy counter-terrorism forces. It should instead encourage regional leaders to promote bottom-up reconciliation through local dialogues, especially in Mali. In Chad, the EU and its member states should not only pursue short-term security objectives but also seek to check, as best possible, the government’s authoritarian impulses so that political space does not shrink further.