Crossroads Asia

Moscow Hypes the Central Asia Jihadist Threat

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Crossroads Asia

Moscow Hypes the Central Asia Jihadist Threat

Wildly overstating the threat Islamic State poses to the region justifies calls for more curbs on civil liberties.

Moscow Hypes the Central Asia Jihadist Threat
Credit: European Commission DG Echo via

There’s a peculiar belief currently coursing through intellectual circles in Moscow. Combining the bubbling traits of nativism and Islamophobia, and playing squarely into the hands of those seeking to amp up the region’s security structures, certain circles have begun pumping up the terror and tenor of the threat posed by the Islamic State.

To be sure, these Russian calls aren’t alone in megaphoning the menace currently swirling northern Iraq. Myriad American and European voices have fallen into lockstep over the purported threat – sometimes existential, sometimes worse – that IS presents. Dozens of nations, including Ukraine, have joined the anti-IS bombing coalition, with chickenhawks aplenty egging on their respective governments.

Still, while Russia has abstained from contributing to the air strikes, rhetoric from certain circles in Moscow has mirrored its Western counterpart. But there’s a different direction to the dread coming from Moscow. Instead of concerns with IS members returning home – or absurdly believing IS will infiltrate the US-Mexican border – these voices are pointing toward Russia’s underbelly, toward its sprawling Central Asian stretch, as the avenue for instability and implosion.

Late last month, in an interview with UZNews, Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Institute for Middle East Studies, gave a tremulous voice to this looming terror. As the interview’s introduction read, “The catastrophic wave of violence at the hands of the Islamic State will repeat itself in Afghanistan and then move on to Central Asia.”

Not can. Not may. Will. An imminent inevitability, as real as the junta running Kyiv, as tangible as the moral rectitude of Moscow’s current path.

According to Satanovsky, as many as 5,000 Central Asian nationals have uprooted for Syria and Iraq, looking for payment and paradise alike. The flow, Satanovsky adds, won’t cease until Central Asian governments enact “absolute control of religious life” – until the local ruling class controls every facet of Islam in public and private lives.

Should the governments fail in this measure, it seems that IS will extend its putative Caliphate not simply through Taliban-held outposts, but all the way to the Kazakh-Russian border – and perhaps beyond. Per Satanovsky, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan present the foremost victims of IS, with the latter likely to lose their massive carbon reserves at the hands of the jihadist fanatics. “[All of] Central Asia is within their reach,” Satanovsky shares, all but writing off the region to the beheading hordes that will smother the helpless locals.

Satanovsky stakes IS’s reign as an inevitability. Unfortunately, even the head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Nikolai Bordyuzha, has fallen prey to such fright, saying that his organization is “seeing [an] attempt to create some sort of underground extremist state” in the region.

But these beliefs stand as thickheaded and malformed as those who believe IS members are currently paddling across the Rio Grande.

First, unless Satanovsky is privy to secretive information available to only those in his immediate circle, his estimates as to the Central Asian nationals currently in IS are wildly off-base. To be sure, Kazakhs have starred in startling recruitment videos, and a Tajik was reportedly named one of IS’s leading administrators in Syria. But while there are Central Asians present among those fighting with IS, the factions, according to all reliable estimates, top out in the low- or mid-hundreds, rather than the thousands Satanovsky believes are swarming Raqaa. Numbers may be even lower than that.

While Islamism and concomitant threats have risen in the region over the past few years, the reasons to believe it stands as some form of ideological scythe – in Kazakhstan, in Turkmenistan – are as fantastical as they are farcical. The notion that IS presents some form of existential swarm has little basis in reality, and makes Satanovsky comes across as some kind of misinformed fear-monger interested in simply curtailing another avenue of basic rights. Rather than anything approaching sound advice, he’s offered local governments an excuse to further cut civil liberties.

Moreover, Satanovsky also distracts from the very real, very cogent issues currently besetting Russia’s southern neighborhood. Moscow’s self-sanctions are not only straining its own economic structures, but are dragging down those Central Asian nations that have tethered themselves closest to Russia’s fiscal health. Kyrgyzstan is currently staring down one of the greatest energy crises it’s ever known – as much due to environmental factors as due to Gazprom’s myopic purchase of Kyrgyzstan’s gas network, which has resulted in nearly six straight months without gas for half the country.

Toss in potential instability from Afghanistan and the lingering threats of war over water resources, and Central Asia juggles a range of issues that are far more real than a potential caliphate on the steppe.

Satanovsky, however, would rather puff up some kind of bogeyman, a group bent on devouring the buffer states surrounding Russia, eyeing Moscow all the while. Rather than residing in reality, Satanovsky, and those of his ilk, would plaster all their fears on a group that hasn’t extended beyond stretches of northern Iraq and Syria – but can somehow make it all the way to Omsk, and beyond.

Central Asia knows a wealth of problems, plenty of which threaten the stability Russia cherishes. Satanovsky, however, would instead conjure a monster out of a distant mob. Central Asia will not fall victim to Islamic State. But they’ve already overrun certain minds in Moscow.