“I am writing to you to let you know that I’m going [back] to Syria, to the Caliphate, as we intend to live in the Islamic State.” So wrote Aynura* to her mother on Viber last September. Since then, the two occasionally chat online and exchange information about their life and family.
In February 2014, Aynura’s husband Bakyt had died “as a martyr” in Syria, although the exact date and circumstances of his death are unknown. As his widow, Aynura tells her relatives in Kyrgyzstan that she and her children live in a house in the Syrian city of Raqqa along with the families of other martyrs, where they are provided with anything they need by the jama’a, or community: food, clothes, and medicines.
This reinforces her family’s suspicion that Bakyt was killed fighting for the then Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL (also known as ISIS). Since its establishment in April 2013, ISIL has expanded to control an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom between northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. At the time of Bakyt’s death, the couple and their children were known to be living in the Aleppo governorate, which they had reached via Turkey in the summer of 2013, as Aynura herself had told her distraught family in a brief phone conversation from inside Syria.
“There are Uzbek, Tatar, Chechen, Azeri and Kazakh women living in the house in Raqqa,” Aynura’s brother Azamat recounts. “On one rare occasion, we were speaking on Skype and I asked my sister who the Russian-speaking lady next to her was. So she disclosed the places of origin of some of her housemates.”
Aynura’s family has exhausted all possible avenues to find her and the children. They wrote to the Kyrgyz authorities, the International Red Cross, and other international organizations. They even hired a private investigator to help locate her in Turkey, where she allegedly lived for a few months with her children after Bakyt’s death.
This may have been a period of self-doubt for Aynura, and her family had hoped to convince her to come home. Her brother travelled to Turkey in an attempt to find her, to no avail. “I went to Konya as we had some proof that my sister may be staying there. The city is very Islamized and the locals show a lot of support for the refugees, whom they consider brothers and sisters in Islam,” he says. “But she refused to disclose her exact location and meet with me.”
When, with hope fading fast, her family confronted Aynura with the devastating effects her choices were having on her relatives’ psychological and physical health, her tone was conciliatory but firm: “Please try to understand me, I live in a true Islamic country where my beliefs are accepted. I want to raise my children as true Muslims and I can do that only here.” She added: “This is the duty of a true Muslim. My reward is in the afterlife. One’s parents are not as important as Allah.”
In her communication with her family, Aynura has made clear her desire to stay in the Islamic State: “I don’t intend to come back to Kyrgyzstan. Since I’ve embraced Islam, I’ve always wanted to live in a place that is governed according to Allah Almighty’s law. Now thanks to Allah’s mercy I have been given such a chance.”
In this sense, she appears to be one of many Central Asians who “do not want to return [home] because of ideological commitment to [the Islamic State],” as a recent Crisis Group briefing stated. But Aynura may also be afraid of the possible consequences of coming back to a country where returnees are routinely arrested and where the subject is so sensitive that even asking questions about it can get journalists in trouble.
While evidence indicates that thousands have travelled from Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, to join the Islamic State, some scholars argue that the mainstream discourse about “a widespread and increasing problem with Muslim radicalization” in the region is a dangerous myth fostered by security analysts and Central Asian governments alike. Instead, they emphasize that “Central Asia [stands] out for how secularized its Islam and security affairs are. Nowhere in the ‘Muslim world’ is national Islam quite so devoid of theological content. In few other places is a particular brand of Islam (in this case Sunni Hanafi Islam) so clearly secularized as a part of national culture and tradition.”
Naturally, this is little consolation to Aynura’s family, who fear for the fate of her children, especially the eldest who is now in his teenage years. “We know for a fact that the kids attend Islamic school. We saw some pictures of the eldest with a friend, where he carries a gun,” Azamat declares, adding: “We don’t know what to make of it, as everyone has a weapon in Syria. But we are afraid that they may brainwash him into becoming a fighter for the Islamic State, or worse.”
Crisis Group’s Deirdre Tynan has said that “there is no single profile of an Islamic State supporter” emanating from Central Asia. Aynura and Bakyt come from middle-class families and are well educated. She gained a degree in English while he finished law school. After graduation, they married and lived a settled life in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, where he worked as an office clerk. In the mid 2000s, however, Bakyt suddenly quit his job, performed the Hajj pilgrimage twice in two years and then took his wife and children to North Africa to study Arabic and Islam.
The family returned to Kyrgyzstan in the late 2000s, but something had radically changed. “They lived according to new strict Islamic rules, so they wouldn’t watch TV or celebrate the kids’ birthdays. They even abandoned their Kyrgyz names and adopted Arabic ones,” her brother recounts. Then, with no prior notice, Bakyt moved to Pakistan and a few months later Aynura followed him with the children. Again, her family learnt about it only afterwards, when they found Aynura’s apartment empty “with furniture and other belongings scattered around, and even food still left on the stove,” Azamat explains. And finally came summer 2013 and the move to Syria.
There are no indications that Aynura will ever return home. The distance between her and her family seems unbridgeable, as she appears to believe in the Islamic State’s claim to a superior understanding of the scriptures: “I know that you must think I’m crazy and someone who doesn’t think about anyone else, but this is not so. Unfortunately, I cannot show this to you as no matter what I’d tell you, you’ll think it is all made up stuff. You’ll never be able to understand me until you believe in Allah’s Book and what He has revealed in It.”
Luca Bello is a freelance journalist. *Names have been changed.