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Thousands from Central Asia joining ‘Islamic State’
Thousands from Central Asia joining ‘Islamic State’
Mosque in Astana, Kazakhstan, 2 February 2013. FLICKR/ Erman Akdogan

Thousands from Central Asia joining ‘Islamic State’

Originally published in Deutsche Welle

In this interview, Crisis Group’s Central Asia Project Director, Deirdre Tynan, speaks about the main findings of Crisis Group’s report, Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia, and explains that the Islamic State is fostering new links among radicals within the region.

At least 2,000 Central Asians are believed to have joined the Islamic State. Marked by poverty and radicalization, the region has become a growing source of foreign fighters.

Deutsche Welle: Where do these “Islamic State” supporters come from?

Deirdre Tynan: Official Central Asian governments’ estimates of several hundred fighters are conservative. Western officials suggest the number is 2,000, and it may be as many as 4,000.

The largest single group is reportedly Uzbek, both citizens of Uzbekistan and ethnic Uzbeks from the Ferghana Valley, including Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s southern city. The number of the former in Syria is not the estimated 500 or so cited by Tashkent and may exceed 2,500.

Perhaps 1,000 men and women, including 500 ethnic Kyrgyz and others from Osh, have left the Ferghana Valley to fight for or provide humanitarian assistance to IS.

How would you describe a typical “IS” supporter from this region?

There is no single profile of an “IS” supporter. Central Asian governments often fail to recognise that “IS” appeals to a cross-section of citizens. There are seventeen-year-old hairdressers, established businessmen, women abandoned by their husbands, families who believe their children will have better prospects in a caliphate, young men, school dropouts and university students.

All are inspired by the belief that an Islamic state is a meaningful alternative to post-Soviet life. It is easier for “IS” to gain recruits in Central Asia than in nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What are their reasons for leaving their countries behind and supporting “IS?”

They are prompted in part by marginalization and bleak economic prospects. “IS” appeals not only to those who seek combat experience, but also to those who envision a more devout, purposeful, fundamentalist religious life.

The radicalization 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.

“IS” sympathizers in Central Asia are motivated by an extremist religious ideology. The growth of radical tendencies is exacerbated by poor religious education and grievances against the region’s secular governments. Even though socio-economic factors play a role, ideological commitment to jihad – the idea of holy struggle to advance Islam – is for many the main reason Central Asians are drawn to “IS.”

How are these supporters being recruited?

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.
Some are recruited at home; others are radicalized abroad, often as migrant workers. Recruitment happens mainly in Central Asia, Russia and Turkey, but also from among young men who travel to religious schools in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Bangladesh.

In Russia, migrants who are marginalized – often doing illegal and badly paid jobs – seek solace, a sense of identity and community in religion. They may fall in with Caucasian networks, Dagestani or Chechen, that blur the lines between religion and organized crime, while offering a degree of protection against other criminal groups and difficulties.

Word of mouth is one of the most powerful tools of recruitment in Central Asia; one family member or friend leaves for “IS”-controlled territory, then several more follow. Social media maintains communication between those in Syria and those at home thinking about joining. Recruitment cells in Central Asia are small, secretive and sometimes extensions of prayer groups.

In which ways do these recruits support “IS?”

Some fight, others provide support services to more experienced fighters from the Caucasus or Arab states. “IS” says it wants teachers, nurses and engineers, not just fighters – this appeals to educated men and women.

What problems does this pose to Central Asian governments and the region as a whole?

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) organized 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, and governments are ill-prepared to respond to a security threat of this type.

What are Central Asian governments doing about this?

Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have introduced laws criminalizing fighting abroad, the former coming into effect in July 2014, the latter on January 2015. Uzbekistan banned terrorism training without reference to location in January 2014, but the law was widely interpreted as directed against foreign-trained fighters.

The Kyrgyz parliament approved criminal code amendments suggesting sentences of 8 to 15 years for taking part in conflicts, military operations or terrorist- or extremist training in a foreign state in September 2014, but these have yet to be signed into law.

Rehabilitation programs could have potential, but Central Asian governments lack the resources and apparently the political will to implement them. The governments, though, aware of the dangers fighters could pose upon return from Syria, have done little to address the reasons why such a diverse cross-section of their citizens seek to participate in IS.

Prevention of extremism and rehabilitation of jihadis are not yet high on the agenda, and female radicalization is largely ignored by religious leaders, while the lack of economic and political opportunities for young people compounds radicalism. Poorly educated imams struggle to compete with the Islamic State’s glamorization of jihad.

This interview with Crisis Group’s Central Asia Program Director, Deirdre Tynan, was republished with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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