Crossroads Asia

ISIS Looks for Foothold in Central Asia

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Crossroads Asia

ISIS Looks for Foothold in Central Asia

The terrorist organization seeks to take advantage of a security vacuum in the Fergana Valley.

A video has recently surfaced in Tajikistan of Tajik ISIS militants calling for jihad against the central government. The video has been condemned by the Islamic Center of Tajikistan (ICT), an organization that works in conjunction with the Tajik government and controls the country’s Imams. The ICT stated ,”How is it possible to wage jihad in a state whose population is 99 percent Muslim? With whom do they want to wage jihad?” The video is part of a series of efforts by ISIS militants to gain a foothold in the Fergana Valley.

The Fergana Valley represents a melting pot of Islamic militant groups, but this was not always the case. Sufism, a more moderate form of Islam, once dominated in the Central Asian region. However, oppressive tactics against Muslim groups by Soviet security forces eventually gave rise to Salafism, a more conservative form of Islam.

The power vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union bolstered the rise of Islamic extremist groups. Aided by the mountainous geographic terrain, a natural buffer against Chinese and Russian influence and control, these semi-autonomous organizations were given the space to grow. Regional governments have had a difficult time reigning them in and maintaining a monopoly of force.

The 1990s saw a number of Islamist groups emerge in the Fergana Valley, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group that is allied with al-Qaeda and the Taliban and that suffered heavy casualties fighting in Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion in 2001.

With ISAF and NATO forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, ISIS has been looking to take advantage of the impending power vacuum. In December, 50 young men were arrested in Tajikistan on suspicion of attempting to join fighters in Syria, specifically ISIS. In March, Sabiri’s Jamaat, an Islamist group comprising Tajiks, Uzbeks and Russians in the Caucasus, swore allegiance to ISIS. It is believed that several senior ISIS members are Kazakh, and estimates of Central Asian fighters in Syria range from 500-1000.

In September the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Usmon Ghazi, swore allegiance to reclusive ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On August 28, just days prior to Uzbekistan’s Independence Day celebrations, the black flag of ISIS was hung from a bridge in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, and that same month al-Baghdadi appointed a Tajik as the commander in Syria’s Raqqa province.

Leaflets have poured into Tajikistan offering Tajik fighters salaries of $5,000 a month, far more than the average salary in Tajikistan.

Porous borders, mountainous terrain, political instability, and economic inequality in Central Asia provides fodder for groups like ISIS looking to build a presence in the region. Central Asian militants fighting in Syria will eventually make their way home. All this should worry policymakers in the region and elsewhere, given Central Asia’s strategic position and abundance of oil.

Correction: AN earlier version of this article referred to Emomali Rahmon as the leader of the United Tajik Opposition, this was inaccurate. Rahmon led the Tajik government during the Tajik civil war, not the opposition movement. The United Tajik Opposition (UTO) included the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan as well as Pamir groups and democrats.