Interview: ISIS in Central Asia

Tatyana Dronzina shares the results of her research into ISIS militants in Central Asia.

Interview: ISIS in Central Asia
Credit: An ISIS video

Central Asian countries seem to be increasingly exposed to the propaganda of ISIS recruiters. Dozens of Central Asian citizens from countries such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are believeled to have joined the ranks of the ISIS army and be fighting in Syria and Iraq, as confirmed by sporadic evidence that has emerged online and the testimony of returning fighters. The real reach of the long arm of ISIS in Central Asia is still debated though, as authorities and independent observers struggle to track the path of local fitghters. Yet they all agree that the ISIS may represent an additional destabilising force in traditionally Muslim countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which are characterised by weak or widely unpopular institutions. Tatyana Dronzina, an expert in Islamic and ethnic conflicts from the Sofia State University in Bulgaria, is one of the first academics to have carried out on-the-ground independent research on ISIS militants in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. She spoke to The Diplomat and highlighted some of the major findings of her research.

What are the motivations that push Central Asian Muslims to abandon their countries and join ISIS?

Central Asian militants join ISIS for different reasons. Let me say first that in my fieldwork I didn’t find atheists (who went for money) or the hopelessly poor. All were believers at the moment of departure; some were practicing Muslims, others less so. What caught my attention, however, was the fact that no one had deep knowledge of Islam. I detected it through three questions: What does jihad mean? Did you know that a believer can go to jihad only with the permission of his parents? Did you know that you can become shahid [martyr] only under declared war?

I asked these questions to three recruiters in Kyrgyzstan who had been detained and were awaiting trial. The results were as follows. All of them knew only about the militaristic interpretation of jihad; no one had an idea that jihad means, above all, fighting the evil inside us. No one knew that they need the permission of their parents and that they can only become martyrs under declared war.

Poverty is definitely not the main reason – I visited the homes of 27 men and women who joined the ISIS and almost all of them belonged to the lower-middle class, owning their homes and with the salaries of immigrants in Russia. But in all places the quality of the social services was low – I saw men squatting around the houses because they literally didn’t have anything to do – no leisure, no sports facilities, no jobs.

Many joined ISIS guided by reasons of social justice – to help Muslim brothers, to fight a regime that oppresses them, to defend the weak. Others chose to join because of adventure, romanticism, love (especially women), their wish to become heroes, or just because they feel the caliphate is the right place for a good Muslim life and they want to contribute to its development. Others felt they are not granted religious freedom in their country.

Do you see any specific Central Asian country particularly exposed to returning ISIS fighters willing to continue their jihad back at home?

Today, Central Asia countries don’t have any program to tackle this challenge. Besides, I strongly doubt that Central Asian governments can take any measures – they don’t even know who is there and who is not. Actually, I spoke to people who have left and returned many times and the police have no knowledge they have been in Syria. With the permeable frontiers of Central Asian countries, effective measures are almost impossible – although it is not politically correct to say it.

Somebody suggested the possibility of luring back ISIS militants by offering them an amnesty. What are your thoughts about that?


This is the worst they can do, because they don’t know who is returning – people disappointed by ISIS or experienced recruiters. That’s why I preferred to answer in this general way.

ISIS militants have also been spotted in Afghanistan. That raises a question about the relationship between ISIS and the Taliban. ISIS fighters follow Wahhabism, considered the most extreme current of Sunni Islam, while the Taliban are regarded as followers of another Islamic current, the Hanafi fiqh. Do you think principles prevent the two sides from finding common political ground? Or will they join forces and emerge as a serious threat to the stability of Afghanistan’s neighbors?

Let’s start with Wahhabism. Many scholars insist that it has never existed in one only version. After Wahhab found a patron in Muhammad Ibn Saud, at least two versions developed. The first one – of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself, based on the education, dispute and conviction in disseminating the fight, and the second one – of Muhammad Ibn Saud, who did the same using violence. Moreover, even today there are strong tensions between clerical circles in Saudi Arabia and the Monarchy, which is the promoter of modernization. It is well known that ISIS, since the very beginning, was financed by Saudi Arabia, even though the Saudi attitude to jihadism is very specific. The House of Saud [the Saudi royal family] supports jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and the ISIS and uses them as an arm against Shia Islam, but within Saudi Arabia they do everything possible to restrict their activity in order not to threaten the internal status-quo.

In recent years, though, the Saudis have not been very successful in this strategy. They didn’t manage to create in Syria and Iraq an opposition to Al-Assad and Al-Maliki [Syria’s president and Iraq’s former prime minister], which, at the same time, would be obedient to Saudi ruling elites. On the contrary, they created an organization with highly motivated militants, ready to fight against its “parents.” ISIS does follow Wahhabism, but it is radical in another way, differing from Saudi Arabia modernized establishment. Having said that and concerning the relationship between the Taliban and the ISIS, it is difficult to predict how they will develop. Answering your question briefly, I don’t see any chance in the near future of common political ground to be found.

Central Asian autocrats seem to be widely using the Islamic State to justify further social and religious crackdown fitting their specific political agenda – Emomali Rahmon in Tajikistan for example. What are your thoughts on how Central Asian political authorities are addressing the issue? What could they do better to prevent the ISIS threat from mounting?

If the regimes do not allow political opposition, citizens will turn to religious options – just because in their perception it is sanctioned by an authority that is higher than any secular power and because they have no other option left. And ISIS, which is part of this “divinely” sanctioned project, will get stronger and stronger.

Jacopo Dettoni writes on business and current affairs.