ISIS in Central Asia: A Growing Threat?


ISIS in Central Asia: A Growing Threat?

28 Jan 2015

ISIS has recruited many fighters from Central Asia, using religious rhetoric to attract a disaffected populace. This requires a coordinated response, according to a report from the International Crisis Group.

On January 13 2015, ISIS released a Russian-dubbed video in which a ten-year old Kazakh child soldier executed two "Russian spies", accused by the group of conspiring against their 'caliphate' stretching across Iraq and Syria.

News such as this comes amidst new data from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), showing a surge of jihadi fighters from Central Asia joining the war in Syria, despite only a relative trickle joining their neighbouring conflict in Afghanistan.

It is thought that up to 4,000 Central Asians have travelled to the Middle East to fight for or otherwise support ISIS in the past three years, prompted in part by the political marginalisation and bleak economic prospects that increasingly characterises the region.

A new report from the International Crisis Group ( ICG), 'Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia', attempts to explain this emerging phenomenon in the five countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

There is increasingly no single profile of a typical ISIS supporter.

Deirdre Tynan, ICG's Central Asia Project Director, argues that the appeal of ISIS in the region "is rooted in an unfulfilled desire for political and social change." However, in a trend seen in foreign fighters across the world there is increasingly no single profile of a typical ISIS supporter, who can be "rich or poor, educated or not, young or mature, male or female."

However, despite these diverse profiles a common thread to this growing jihadi narrative is rooted in an unfulfilled desire for political change, a sense of social frustration and exclusion, and a fatigue with the Central Asian countries' post-Soviet economic contexts.

Although socio-economic factors play a role, the report identifies the ideological commitment to jihad, the idea of holy struggle to advance Islam, as the main reason Central Asians are drawn to Syria. A key to the success of ISIS in attracting foreign fighters is their claim to represent a universal ' caliphate' for all Muslims, in contrast to the more local and neighbouring Afghan conflict.

Key Findings
  • The growth of jihadism in the region has largely arisen from the inability of Central Asian governments to deal with the resurgence of religious practice after the death of official Communist atheism that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. 
  • In all five Central Asian states, religion and religious organisations represent one of the only outlets for civil society, filling a void created by a lack of credible governance and social insecurity. Religion is one of the only forms of politicised expression in Central Asia that is not perceived as a compromise of moral values. It is in this context that ISIS recruitment operates. 
  • Domestic recruitment to the extremist cause is predominantly occurring in mosques and namazkhana (prayer rooms) across the region. The internet and social media play a critical but not definitive role, with word of mouth one of the most powerful tools of recruitment. Many follow friends and family members to ISIS-controlled territory. 

Preventative responses by Central Asian governments have so far been ineffective.

  • Ethnic Uzbeks, including citizens of Uzbekistan, are most numerous among the Central Asians with ISIS, but Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Turkmen and Tajiks (who have the largest proportional Muslim population in the region) are also well represented.
  • Some are recruited at home but others are radicalised abroad, often as migrant workers in Russia, falling in with Caucasian networks, mostly Dagestani or Chechen, that blur the lines between religion and organised crime. 
  • Preventative responses by Central Asian governments have so far been ineffective, with governments generally equating Islamisation with violent extremism, whilst further alienating vulnerable groups by labelling all unfamiliar interpretations of Islam as extremist. 
  • Meanwhile, Central Asian governments lack the resources and the political will to implement rehabilitation programmes for those who have already been radicalised. Outreach to women has not been prioritised, seen by many experts as essential to strategies for preventing radicalisation.

International partners should emphasise a policy focus on religious freedom.

The report focuses on the complex problems this phenomenon presents to the governments of Central Asia, including the risk to the countries' stability posed by returning foreign fighters. It emphasises the real urgency of developing a credible, coordinated plan, including improved security measures alongside substantial social, political and economic reforms. 

  • Central Asian governments are attempting to prevent radicalisation by using laws to curb religious growth, whilst encouraging police crackdowns. Instead, all five countries should be promoting religious freedom and safeguarding secular constitutions to avoid fuelling further radicalisation. 
  • National governments should do more to apply policies locally. However, there is also not much regional cooperation, despite this shared threat; the Russian-led bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation ( CSTO) of which three of the five Central Asian countries are members, has formally identified ISIS as a major threat, but has not yet acted on this practically. 
  • The region's international partners, including neighbours Russia and China but also the EU and the US, should recognise the pressing issue Central Asian foreign fighters represents, and prioritise emphasising reform as well as a more tolerant attitude to religion in their recommendations for combatting the problem.

The ICG report may be read in full here.

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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