Is the ISIS Threat in Kyrgyzstan Real?


On the evening of a scorching hot mid-July day in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, one of the streets in the city center was looking like a scene from a war movie. Alpha, the special forces of the Kyrgyz State National Security Services (KSNSS), together with police had surrounded a mansion, formerly a privately owned hotel. Inside were armed men, and they were putting up a fierce resistance.

Reportedly, the special forces had earlier that day also eliminated two militants in the suburbs of Bishkek. The evening operation was unfolding in front of dozens of onlookers, unfazed by the heavy smoke billowing from the houses and the rising intensity of the gunfire. Ultimately, the gunfight ended with four militants killed and several reportedly captured, and with four special forces members wounded. Among the dead militants were both Kazakh and Kyrgyz nationals. No civilian casualties were reported, but five houses in the neighborhood were destroyed or damaged.

These are the basic facts of the July 16 incident, widely reported in the media. What is missing are details about the motives of the group, and we are unlikely to learn more about that until KSNSS completes its investigation. In the meantime, however, a KSNSS spokesperson claimed the gunmen were members of ISIS. That would normally attract international media attention, although apart from Russia and Kyrgyzstan, the revelation remained curiously unremarked.

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Additional reports said that the militants were planning a July 17 terrorist attack on the main square, where thousands of Muslims would gather for the end of Ramadan prayers. They also planned to attack the Ministry of Defense and the Russian airbase in Kant. Some news sources were meanwhile saying that the militants were members of a criminal gang convicted in 2014 for using fraudulent documents, escaping from prison last month. One had earlier killed himself with a grenade on July 1 when special forces attempted to detain them.

Given the lack of official information, speculation on social media has been rife. Some have said that militants were planning a revenge attack aimed at forcing the authorities to release their leader Ravshan, an “ISIS representative for Central Asia” who is being held in prison in southern Kyrgyzstan. Others see the whole thing as a government-fabricated incident to draw attention from the latest corruption scandal involving senior politicians.

And then there are those who argue that it is all a conspiracy by the West. Supporters of this view claim that there were “many foreigners” who were interviewing witnesses at the scene of the incident after the operation was over. They add that the U.S embassy recently received a diplomatic pouch, the contents of which it has refused to disclose. Some local activists who protested in front of the embassy claim that the embassy had received weapons “intended for provocations.” “They want another Ukraine here,” they claim. As absurd as the theory sounds, it resonates with many ordinary citizens, unfamiliar with diplomatic procedures and increasingly anti-Western in orientation.

So, was the July 16 incident in Bishkek linked to terrorism? Terrorist attacks have an ultimate aim, an aspect of this incident that thus far appears to be missing. It is not clear what the militants wanted to achieve, other than to escape imprisonment. Indeed, at this point, the firefight looks like an operation to capture criminals on the run. If the extremists did have terrorist plans, as claimed, then to what ends? There are no obvious divisions among Kyrgyzstan’s Muslim population, which is almost entirely Sunni. Yes, increasingly there are radicalized groups and ISIS sympathizers. More and more youth, including women, are travelling to Syria to join the extremist group. There could certainly be militants or terrorists in Kyrgyzstan fighting for the ISIS cause on foreign soil. Still, the claim that ISIS was planning a spectacular terrorist attack at a mass gathering in Bishkek doesn’t make much sense. What would they gain? It is not clear what the ultimate goal of such an attack would be. Did they perhaps plan to overthrow the secular government in the hope that the population would support the establishment of a caliphate? Even with Kyrgyzstan’s growing religiosity, that sounds like a fantasy. Or did they perhaps want to undermine the secular government and its ability to handle a security crisis? As it is, the public has little faith in the ability of the government to handle a crisis. Yet in the wake of the successful July 16 operation, people are applauding the security forces for foiling a “terrorist” attack.

Perhaps KSNSS was simply keen to flex its muscles after being mocked for its failure to capture the two escapees just a few weeks earlier? Or was it perhaps a well-staged incident to spread anti-Western sentiment among the population and demonstrate that the Eurasian Economic Union, Russian President Vladmir Putin’s project for the revival of the USSR, was the way to go?

Until the KSNSS reveals the outcome of its investigation, this incident looks more like an operation to capture heavily armed members of a criminal gang who also happen to be religious extremists. As noted, some of the militants were convicted last year and escaped from prison last month. The possibility that they might have been radicalized religious extremists who recruited local members to fight on foreign soil can’t be ruled out, but thus far there doesn’t seem to be sufficient grounds to believe that religious extremists are planning attacks in Kyrgyzstan.

On the other hand, speculation about the “third parties” (read: the West) being involved in preparing provocations may encourage further anti-Western sentiment, which can be observed even at the highest levels of government in Kyrgyzstan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently summoned the acting U.S ambassador over the U.S State Department’s “Human Rights Activist” award to the Uzbek activist Azimjon Askarov, who remains in jail after the inter-ethnic clashes in the southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010.

In the aftermath of the July 16 incident, the Kyrgyz government began actively condemning religious radicalization. Prime Minister Temir Sariyev spoke against wearing Islamic dress, reminding the public that it was not traditional Kyrgyz clothing. Previously, the government had avoided using such rhetoric, fearing a backlash from the more religious segments of the population. Thus, the gunfight appears to have given the government a pretext to tighten control over religious institutions.

That would suit the Kremlin, which appears determined to reverse Islamization and radicalization in its sphere of influence. One way to do that is by demonstrating terrorism threats to the public. The Bishkek incident thus seems fortuitous, serving multiple goals: demonstrating a terrorism threat, tightening control over religious institutions, reversing Islamization/radicalization in the EEU, boosting public confidence in security forces, justifying increased funding for the Army, and giving the Kyrgyz  government cover to remove political opponents prior to the October parliamentary elections.

Aidai Masylkanova advises on elections and democracy, and holds a master’s degree from the School of International and Public Affairs of the Columbia University.

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