Central Asia and the ISIS Phantom

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Central Asia and the ISIS Phantom

The region’s leaders have been playing up the ISIS threat. How real is it?

Central Asia and the ISIS Phantom
Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

On September 16, just after the CSTO summit held in Dushanbe, Tajik authorities arrested 13 active members of the Islamic Renaissance Party and removed the passports of other 50 members to prevent them from travelling abroad. The next day, the General Prosecutor`s Office released a statement explaining the arrests as an action to prevent new acts of terrorism and crimes of an extremist nature, accusing the party of being affiliated with the armed group led by General Abduhalim Nazarzoda and of involvement in a violent attack on a police station and weapons depot that began on September 4. “Nazarzoda was acting on orders from the party, including the exiled party leader, Muhiddin Kabiri,” says the General Prosecutor`s office.

The exiled leader of a recently banned Islamic Renaissance party in Tajikistan, Kabiri has rejected Tajik authorities’ accusations that he ordered to Nazarzoda to instigate and lead the deadly mutiny in September. He insisted that neither he nor his party had anything to do with the incidents.

International human rights organizations have condemned the detention of opposition party members and demanded their immediate release. Amnesty International warned that all are at risk of torture and unfair trial.

“These arrests represent a full-scale assault on dissent in Tajikistan,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Tajik authorities have the obligation to charge these men promptly with specific crimes or release them and to maintain the presumption of innocence. They cannot hold opposition activists on spurious claims of preventing future crimes.”

Ivar Dale, senior advisor and representative in Central Asia for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, told The Diplomat that Tajik authorities are now destroying what little credibility they still had with the international community. “To outside observers, it’s obvious that Rakhmon wants to close down the opposition. If he would allow journalists to freely investigate and report on what is happening, perhaps the situation would be different. But right now this looks like a rough take-down of the political opposition, and we also see connections to recent attacks on civil society. Tajik authorities should think long and hard on how they want their state to be perceived abroad. They’re doing an extremely bad PR job right now.”

Dale added that the Islamic threat has been an excuse for the Uzbek regime to silence opposition and civil society for years. “Tajikistan has held a somewhat lighter hand over these groups, but what we are seeing now is a total ban, even on ordinary opposition,” he said.

According to Kyrgyzstan political scientist Tamerlan Ibraimov, the IPRT has not been extremist at all. “It could not have posed any security or political threats to Rahmon’s regime. However, usually the authoritarian regimes fear any political opponents and try to eliminate them by any means. Rahmon has done the same, as he has seen the Islamic Opposition party as a potential political threat. The recent incidents in Tajikistan have demonstrated that repressive methods will lead to radicalization and armed resistance. The banning of IPRT has shown that political pressure only contributes to the increase of extremism in that society.”

Last month, ISIS and its possible foothold in Central Asia dominated discussion at the CSTO summit held in Dushanbe. In a joint statement, the six member countries expressed concerns about a possible infiltration of ISIS militants from Afghanistan into Central Asian states, and possibly Russia too.

Russian president Putin and Central Asian leaders tried to show that they are seriously alarmed at the rising number of CSTO-member citizens fighting in Syria. They claim that ISIS has spread its wings far beyond Syria and Iraq, and has designs on CSTO countries.

Tajik president Emomali Rahmon, who declared that ISIS orchestrated the recent bloody attacks and claimed that organizers were acting under instructions from the Islamic State, urged CSTO countries to take urgent action as “the specter of emergencies and security threats in the region is not diminishing, and could even grow.” While the CSTO leaders were discussing this issue, Tajik authorities continued their manhunt for Nazarzoda. The general was killed a few days later by government forces.

An Exaggerated Threat

Central Asian leaders are well known for their poor records on human rights. Uzbek president Islam Karimov has built a reputation as one of the most brutal dictators in the world. Tajikistan’s human rights record has meanwhile deteriorated with a crackdown on free media and the imprisoning of opposition leaders. According to Human Rights Watch report, the human rights situation worsened across the region in 2014, with people imprisoned on politically motivated charges, heavy restrictions imposed on the press and freedom of assembly, and continued impunity for torture.

This dismal trend can be linked to the tendency of Central Asian countries, especially Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, to exaggerate the threat of ISIS and other radical Islamic groups, using it as a tool to justify their crackdown on domestic opposition. Certainly, the last two years have seen the region become one of the hubs for ISIS recruitment, but this is being driven by issues such as unemployment and poverty.

How many Central Asians have in fact left their countries to join ISIS? Government security agencies offer their own estimates, but they cannot track those who leave through Turkey and Russia. Eric McGlinchey, an associate professor at George Mason University and author of Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia, told The Diplomat that nobody has a good understanding of how many have joined ISIS. “We see different numbers from different sources, however none of them seems to be credible,” he said.

A recent report from the International Crisis Group suggests that between 2,000 and 4,000 Central Asians have travelled to Syria to join ISIS. However, experts claim that the figure of 4,000 fighters is an exaggeration. Deirdre Tynan, the ICG’s project director for Central Asia, admits that “nothing is exact, but 2,000 fighters is a more realistic figure for the region.”

Official government numbers vary: Tajikistan claims that about 400 Tajik citizens fight for ISIS, Kyrgyzstan says 300-350, Kazakhstan 250, and Turkmenistan about 300. Ultimately, though, even the numbers given by Central Asian intelligence services are questionable. This is a point made by Dr. Pal Dunay, an analyst specializing in Russia and Central Asia: “Secret services (that do not necessarily know better) tacitly speak about much higher numbers. For example, in Kyrgyzstan the official communication speaks of 200-250, whereas the services cannot exclude numbers above 1,000.”

Sirojiddin Tolibov, a journalist and expert from Uzbekistan based in Prague, said in an interview on August 28 that the number of Central Asians joining ISIS has grown, especially over the past two years. “Based on conversations with sources close to [ISIS] I believe that the number of Central Asians and Caucasians, including with their families, may reach up to 5,000.” The problem is that neither Central Asian governments, nor UN agencies, nor scholars or experts can be sure. As John Heathershaw, a Central Asia expert at the University of Exeter, noted in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, “the estimates and figures from Central Asian governments are all highly politicized and speculative. The simple truth is that no one has an accurate figure.”

And then there is a recently released report by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), which says that ISIS is not interested in Central Asia and does not see the region as a potential candidate for expansion. According to the report, Central Asia is not a preeminent source of recruits for terrorist outfits, domestic or international. PISM’s research compares Central Asian indicators with Western countries, stating that “Only 1 in 40,000 from Tajikistan have joined ISIS, while 1 in 23,800 from Belgium have. Keep in mind, there are far fewer Muslims in Belgium than Tajikistan, which is 90 percent Muslim and 85 percent Sunni.”

Every Jihadist Has a Story

If we look at the stories of those Central Asians who have joined terrorist groups in Syria, there is no common profile and motivations vary greatly. According to Shaiyrbek Juraev, a Bishkek-based Central Asian analyst, “the key driving factor are the failing public institutions (education, well-being, representation etc.), especially in the context of weak pre-existing social norms.” According to Dunay, motivations vary significantly: money, adventure, radicalization through social media. However he argues that the main reason could simply be a lack of opportunity. “Some Central Asian societies do not offer any [opportunity], except for leaving. There is stalemate in the society, high unemployment. Some believe this could be the way out,” he said.

However, not every new jihadist is coming from misery and poverty. Analyzing stories published in the media, speaking with villagers, and reading expert analyses, five different groups can be identified. The first group can be classified as social and political protesters. These are generally well-educated people who are not necessarily poor, and who have lived for many years with an unfulfilled desire for political and social change in their country. Frustrated and disappointed at the lack of change, they decide to fight in Syria in order to feel they are part of something significant, that they are protagonists in an idealistic fight for change. While some of them believe that they are fighting for justice against an oppressive regime, others believe that a secular political system has failed to provide them with a prosperous life, and that only an Islamic state can improve their lot.

The second group consists of people who have been persecuted, have escaped persecution, or are afraid of being persecuted. These people are a minority, accounting for perhaps only 10-15 percent of the total number of Central Asian fighters. According to Tolibov, for Muslims in Central Asia there are few or no political forums in which they can express their views. “Authorities in countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan do not tolerate any dissent at all. Territories controlled by ISIS [are] considered ‘a safe haven’ for those Central Asians who escaped persecution in their own countries. In areas controlled by [ISIS] they may feel relatively safe.” According to estimates, more than 10,000 people have been imprisoned in Uzbekistan for holding beliefs different from those endorsed by the government.

The third group of people comprises those who are in search of a better life, and who have been lured by false promises of money and good jobs. Recruiters might promise anything from $5,000 to $30,000 a month, which is big money in this region – enough to buy a car, or even an apartment in Bishkek or in Tashkent. However, these promises invariably prove false, and the recruits discover the harsh realities of ISIS too late. There is also a significant tendency for Central Asian migrants in Russia to be targeted for recruitment. These migrants are often working in low paid jobs, or are even unemployed, living isolated lives in Russia. In this context some fall under the influence of Chechen recruiters in mosques and travel to Syria through Moscow, Grozniy or Turkey.

The fourth group is made up of people with religious backgrounds and a strong interest in Islam. Religious knowledge in Central Asian countries is generally quite low, which is why many people who practice Islam have been easy targets for recruiters, who convince them that ISIS will unite and save all Muslims. Some strive to obtain an advanced Islamic education and dream of studying abroad – many recruits are lured by the promise of a unique opportunity to study in Turkey. The RFE/RL Kyrgyz service broadcast several stories about people who left for Turkey believing they were going to enroll in prestigious madrasa or theology faculties, only to end up in Syria. Orozbek Moldaliev, head of the Kyrgyz Government’s Religious Commission, told The Diplomat that Islamic education is weak in Central Asia, and people are joining ISIS out of their ignorance of Islam. Kadyr Malikov, an expert and theologist from Kyrgyzstan, argues that Central Asian countries must pay more attention to religious education. “We have to fight against jihadi groups with education, not with force,” says Malikov.

The last group comprises girls and young women captured by false promises of love. They are usually targeted through social media, lured by an attractive profile picture and dreams of marriage. In reality, recruiters play with their hearts and destinies. Nurgul, who lived in Belovodsk in Kyrgyzstan with her 4-year-old daughter, was divorced and lived in her mother`s home. One day she showed her mother a photo of a Kazakh man living in Istanbul, who had declared his desire to marry her and accept her daughter. Her mother was delighted, and the groom bought a ticket for Nurgul and her daughter. She left for Turkey and only after two months of silence did she eventually call her mother. The news was shocking: The nice groom from Kazakhstan did not exist, and she ended up in Syria.

Imaginary Threat?

The roots of the problem lie not in ISIS, nor in the Caucasian recruitment network that has been luring labor migrants in Russia. The problem lies in Central Asia itself. Central Asian leaders and their governments need to reconsider and resolve the domestic problems that are the main driving forces for recruitment.

Juraev, the Bishkek-based analyst, told The Diplomat, “It is the governments of Central Asia, first of all, who claim that Islamic radicalization is posing a real threat to the states of the region. Many forms of extremism tend to threaten the states and societies, but I believe the key threat in this region is the catastrophic quality of governance, which is creating an environment for various’‘radicalization,’ be it of an ethnic, religious or political nature.”

According to McGlinchey, some journalists and scholars have exaggerated the threat of ISIS. “We have to be honest and say that we do not have enough information to say one way or the other. We have very little evidence to make us concerned that ISIS is a major threat. Most Central Asians find little attractive [in] ISIS’s message, as ISIS theology is different from [the] kind of Islam that Central Asians practice, which is [a] much more inclusive and open-minded Islam. Some people may be attracted by money, but it is short-term, as people become unhappy with the organization and tend to try to escape.”

Alisher Ilkhamov, a research associate at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, says that the ISIS threat and Islamic radicalization are exaggerated by national governments in Central Asia. “What can fuel radicalization is mostly the suppression of dissent and government corruption that has reached [an] unprecedented level. People are getting tired of this system and lose faith that one day their lives will change for better. Corruption, dictatorship, nepotism, poverty have weakened the legitimacy of these ruling regimes in the eyes of the population,” he said.

Instead of addressing internal problems and eliminating the rift between people and their government, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have continued to crack down on local civil and Muslim organizations and movements. The fact that Tajikistan banned the quite moderate Islamic opposition party is only one example. According to Ilkhamov, this party, or at least its leadership, was not radical at all. “But the Tajik government has pushed them into corner, contribut[ing] to the radicalization of its ranks, as some members of IRP may decide now that they have been left with no choices but to confront the ruling regime with arms.”

Cholpon Orozobekova is a Geneva-based journalist and analyst specializing in Central Asia.