Crossroads Asia

Central Asia as a Source of ISIS Militants

A recent report suggests a surge in the number of Central Asians heading off to fight with ISIS. Really?

Casey Michel
Central Asia as a Source of ISIS Militants
Credit: Syrians fleeing Kobane via fpolat69 /

Last week, the Washington Post published an article on the latest numbers of foreign fighters streaming toward Iraq and Syria. Based on research from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), the write-up claimed a massive upsurge in Central Asians absconding to fight with ISIS over the past three months. And while the article and attendant graphic represent a clear step up from the prior offering last October – which suggested that only 30 Central Asians, all from Kyrgyzstan, had uprooted to fight with ISIS – a look at their Central Asian analysis tosses the entire ICSR report into doubt.

There have been no signs since October of the colossal increase in Central Asian fighters ICSR claims. While this may be, partly, an attempt to correct the fact that the prior report failed to note anyone outside of Kyrgyzstan joining ISIS, it’s simultaneously disingenuous to claim that the regional numbers have grown from 30 to 1,400 in a matter of three months. Moreover, while ICSR notes that tabulating the fighters isn’t an “exact science,” some of the numbers proffered for regional fighters are in fact oddly exact. Between the 190 fighters from Tajikistan and the 360 from Turkmenistan, ICSR’s estimates carry implications of accuracy that, unfortunately, doesn’t exist. While they remain somewhat close to governmental estimates – Kazakhstan at 300, Tajikistan at 200 – they attempted to offer an estimate that was too fine by half.

Further, these numbers may be near official estimates, but there’s no guarantee that the claims Dushanbe or Astana are making are accurate. A recent report from International Crisis Group is the most thorough look into Central Asians fighting with ISIS we’ve yet seen. (Full disclosure: I aided with research on this report over the summer.) According to Western officials cited, each Central Asian nation has supplied approximately 400 nationals to ISIS. A Russian official cited claimed 4,000 in total had departed to fight with ISIS – though this may well be an attempt to further play up the threat ISIS poses in the region. Other findings within the report offer insights into those who’ve opted to fight alongside ISIS. Perhaps most importantly, Central Asians – “known collectively as Chechens,” as the report notes – constitute only a small fraction of the total number of fighters. And often, those who’ve made it to Iraq and Syria are simply “human material” – cannon fodder among the more seasoned fighters.

The numbers are still estimates, looser than ICSR’s attempts at some form of exactitude. And they don’t claim an apparently massive surge of fighters over the past 90 days. We may someday know just how many have uprooted to lend their services to ISIS. At the moment, though, claiming a number as specific as 360 from a nation as opaque as Turkmenistan seems something of a stretch.