Since the beginning of March 2016, the Islamic State (ISIS) has been losing its position in the field and suffering from significant casualties. Although the air forces of the coalition led by the United States and that of the Russian Federation operate fragmentarily in Syria, and their political goals regarding the regime of Bashar al-Assad diverge, their strikes have nonetheless led to a weakening of ISIS’ armed capabilities. As U.S.President Barack Obama noted, after a meeting with his National Security Council at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia on April 13, 2016, “The actions of the US-led coalition, which is fighting in Syria and Iraq against the ISIS, led to the fact that the militants of the group took a defensive position. We are in the offensive; we have gained momentum and are going to save them.”
As a result of airstrikes, territories occupied by ISIS in Syria and Iraq continue to decrease. In Iraq, the government forces with U.S. and coalition air support is conducting an operation to liberate Mosul which is considered as a stronghold of the Islamic State. Prior to that, the Ministry of Defense of Russia had “triumphantly” reported that the “consolidated detachment of the International Mine Action Center of the Russian Armed Forces, [had] started an engineering exploration, and mine-clearing an entrance ways to the historical part, and the surrounding area of Palmyra” liberated from ISIS by the Syrian army in March 2016. Following this, the Kremlin’s favorite conductor Valery Gergiev and a close friend of Putin, cellist Sergei Roldugin–the antagonist of some of the Panama Papers revelations alleging he laundered hundreds of millions of dollars in offshore transactions–gave symphonic concert in Palmyra, which was attended by Russian soldiers and Syrian government ministers. Such “musical diplomacy” was not meant for ordinary Syrian citizens, but to satisfy the Kremlin’s own imagery.
But the fall of the city of Al-Raqqa, which is considered to be ISIS’ capital, is still a long ways off. Some military analysts have likened Al-Raqqa to the Berlin Reichstag during the Second World War, the fall of which will mean the destruction of ISIS’ core. But the question is who will first set its flag over Al-Raqqa: Assad’s army or the rebellious opposition forces? This will depend on many factors, including the outcomes of the ongoing Geneva talks and the military and economic support of the key players in the Syrian conflict: the United States and Russia.
Analysis of ISIS activities over the past two months shows that as they are weakened by defeats on the battlefield, jihadists have begun to change their recruitment tactics, particularly with regard to efforts targeted at Central Asia.
Initially ISIS’ Russian-language media center Furat Media prepared and distributed propaganda videos and print materials dominated by scenes of “Takfir” procedure (declaration of “infidels” from opponents of the Muslims) and the brutal murder of “kafirs”(infidels). Recently, however, these materials have shifted focus to women and children.
At the beginning of April 2016, ISIS propaganda machine Al-Hayat Media Center posted two videos on YouTube. In the first video, a 60 year-old man named Abu Amin said that he came with his wife and children from the city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan to seek redemption for his sins and to protect and promote the Caliphate. Further, he encourages Central Asian Muslims to follow him as an example and join ISIS with their families. According to him, the country of “Dar al-Islam” (the Caliphate, where Islamic laws are applied) has all the necessary conditions for raising children and living together with their families according to Shariah law. He calls upon all true Muslims to leave the “Dar al-Kufr” (country of disbelief), because the reign has fallen, and it is controlled by devils. The video shows him sitting with his grandson. His half-hour speech in the Uzbek language was accompanied by a translation into Russian in a subtitle.
On the other video, two men of Kazakh nationality with two young boys call upon Kazakhstani Muslims to come to Syria and join ISIS. One of them is Marat Maulenov, from the village of Kazygurt in the South Kazakhstan region. Before departing for Syria–with his wife and six children–he taught Russian language classes in the local school. The video includes scenes of young boys in camouflage uniforms, appealing to the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in the Kazakh language, calling him a “kafir,” and Kazakhstan – “Kafiristan.” At the end of the video, there is an appeal to educate children on the basis of Sharia in the Caliphate, where all the conditions for Islamic education are being created for true Muslims who arrive in Syria.
From these two video messages, we can conclude that the ISIS propaganda machine has begun to change its recruiting tactics in Central Asia. In the early promotional videos, ISIS militants threatened to return home to overthrow oppressive governments and to establish Sharia law, and now ISIS propaganda now encourages Central Asians to come with their families to live in and protect the Caliphate. The initial videos (such as “How Kazakh children execute enemies of Islam”, published in January of 2015 and “Addressing to the people of Kyrgyzstan” in July 25 of 2015), were imbued with the spirit of cruelty and intimidation; more recent videos focus more firmly on family and children.
Last year, Alberto M. Fernandez, a former director of the U.S. government’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), noted that the success of ISIS propagandists is linked to their “volume” and “originality.” Will McCants, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy and director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, wrote “[ISIS is] not just churning out content without direction: ISIS is winning the social media war, because it is strategic in its approach” In traditional Central Asian society, the family institution is highly valued. In this regard, the ISIS propaganda wing has tried to take into account specific local conditions of potential members when crafting its messaging.
The “demonstration” of family values at play in the Caliphate also indicates that ISIS has faced certain problems in the recruitment of militants from Central Asia. Despite the seeming military defeat and gradual loss of territory observed in recent months,ISIS does not stop churning out propaganda materials. Despite the war, they regularly produce photo, audio and video materials of the “peaceful” life, by showing examples of compassion and camaraderie in the ranks of militants which is attractive for foreign recruits. ISIS ideologists began to emphasize the social justice in the Caliphate, religious “purity” and family values for raising children according to the canons of Shariah. This “peace” propaganda is directed primarily to the marginal and uneducated part of the population of the Ferghana Valley, which is subjected to religious discrimination from the power structures.
Total unemployment, economic poverty, persecution on ethnic or religious grounds, as well as the corruption of the authorities are forcing desperate people to seek mental peace in religion. And in this situation, ISIS invites them to go to Syria and Iraq, not only to protect the Caliphate, but also in order to achieve social and religious justice. ISIS is trying to make up for their military failures by propagandizing family and children from Central Asia as proof of a good life in the Caliphate. An analyst from the United Kingdom, Haras Rafiq, has shared the same opinion, writing in Newsweek in January that, “[o]ver the past year, ISIS has increasingly used children as propaganda weapons.”
We know that the citizens of the Central Asian states and Russia, make up the third largest number of foreign fighters in ISIS. According to Noah Tucker, a well-known researcher, “The states of the former USSR provide the third largest proportion of foreign fighter recruits behind the Western Europe and the Middle East… it is clear that Central Asians are playing a noticeable role in the conflict and that the foreign recruiting for the war has surpassed even the Afghanistan/Pakistan conflict at its height.”
There is no accurate data regarding the numbers of Central Asians who have joined ISIS. We can refer to sources that have better reliability, but must recognize that these are general estimates at best. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), 360 Turkmen citizens are fighting on the side of the ISIS. The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kyrgyzstan confirmed that more than 500 of its citizens are in Syria and Iraq. According to security services of Kazakhstan, there are about 400 Kazakhs in the armed conflict in the Middle East.
There is no exact data regarding the number of citizens of Uzbekistan who have joined the ISIS and the issue is complicated by mashing ethnicity with nationality. According to the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, about 200 Uzbeks are fighting in the ranks of the ISIS. According to the ICSR, there are more than 500 Uzbeks fighting in Syria and Iraq. However, the number of Uzbek jihadists more broadly exceeds 1,500, when you consider that the core of the terrorist groups like Imam Bukhari Jamaat, Tawhid wal-Jihad and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) consist of ethnic Uzbeks. Some Uzbek groups have pledged allegiance to the Al-Nusra Front, while others, such as the IMU, have made pledges to ISIS.
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon said that more than 1,000 citizens of Tajikistan are fighting in Syria. This figures is likely greatly exaggerated, because the Tajik authorities are using the threat of Islamic radicalism to suppress domestic opposition. The authorities accused the leaders of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), of having links to the ISIS. On September 29, 2015, the Tajik Supreme Court banned the party, labeling it a terrorist organization. Prominent members of the party were arrested–violated the conditions of the peace agreement in 1997 that ended the bloody five-year civil war in Tajikistan by bringing the opposition into the government and allowing the IRPT to contest elections.
According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, between five and seven thousand from Russia and Central Asia are fighting on with ISIS side.
The Soufan Group says that the population of militants from Russia and Central Asia is third in size after the Middle East and Europe. The ISIS propaganda machine is consistently increasing its media products in Russian. Russian became the third most frequently used language in ISIS promotional materials (after Arabic and English). ISIS also professionally prepares and successfully distributes audio, video and text materials in Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek and Tajik languages.
In the wake of military defeats, jihadists have started to change their recruitment strategy. Continuously searching for new ways of recruiting, ISIS seeks to influence the minds of the inhabitants of Central Asia, through the promotion of social justice in the Caliphate. This works to an extent because the authoritarian government of the former Soviet republics are not ready to respond to the challenges associated with the radicalization of Islam in the region. Corrupted authorities are not able to provide a thorough analysis of ISIS propaganda materials and response. On the contrary, some of the states of Central Asia are targeting all Islamic rhetoric in order to further tighten the screws on domestic political opponents. The threat posed by ISIS has been co-opted by Tajik President Rahmon to eliminate his political opposition in the country, and further strengthened his personal power.
Kyrgyz authorities have not been able to lead serious political and economic reforms before demonstrations this spring. Politicians have begun blaming opposition, making often arbitrary connections to everyone from Islamic jihadists to former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, as well as the United States, Turkey and Uzbekistan. In March 2016, two leaders of the National Opposition Movement, Kubanychbek Kadyrov and Bektur Asanov were arrested, allegedly for plotting a coup d’etat. President Almazbek Atambayev, by politicizing the threat of ISIS, has been able to neutralize domestic opposition, diverting public attention away from pressing social and economic problems.
A popular myth across the former Soviet space is that ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the IMU were all established and supplied by the West, and that now those the U.S. armed are now out of control. Pro-Russian analysts like to say that the chaos in Syria and Iraq, the flow of refugees to Europe, ‘color revolutions’ in the CIS countries and the Maghreb are the result of the US policy. This line–fed by pro-Russian analysts–has significant sway in countries like Kyrgyzstan.
Uzbekistan’s leaders are using ISIS as the ground for organizing a ‘witch hunt’ that has been followed by the arrests of religious leaders and relatives of jihadists fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq.
Kazakhstan, on the other hand, is trying downplay the threat of ISIS to its territory. Astana seeks to control the flow of information about the Caliphate. But behind the curtain ‘theater of tranquillity,’ the repressive machine works like a clock which is accompanied by the arrests of returned militants and prospective ISIS recruiters.
Russia uses the threat of the Islamic State to implement its geopolitical ambitions, and gain military influence in the Middle East. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine consistently depicts ISIS as a direct threat to Central Asia which can only be countered by cooperation with the Russians. Russia has consistently declared the problem of religious extremism at SCO, CIS, CSTO summits, although the impact of these organizations in the struggle against the ISIS is far from significant.
It is no secret that many Russian politicians and journalists accuse the United States of creating ISIS to threaten Moscow’s strategic interests. It must be acknowledged that the Russian military operation in Syria strengthened the Assad regime and, to some extent, created a diversion from problems in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Under the guise of fighting against jihadists, Russian power structures started mass arrests of migrant workers from Central Asia, suggesting that they were connected to ISIS. But foolish bans and fierce accusations against Muslims only kindle faith in the fairness of Caliphate’s ideas.
War with ISIS cannot last long. With the military and economic assistance of the international coalition led by the United States, the so-called Caliphate will fall. And then thousands of jihadists will return home; many of them will go underground. But Islamic ideology will live on. War with religious extremism will move into a new, more complex phase. Terrorist and guerrilla attacks may destabilize regional security in Central Asia. The arena of military action may move from Syria and Iraq to the towns and villages of the Fergana Valley.
Leaders in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan must ask themselves if they are ready to deal with these new threats? Regimes with total poverty, corrupt political systems, high crime, repressive power structures, persecution of political opponents, widespread violation of human rights, and lack of democratic reforms are not able to cope with such a complex challenge as radical Islam.
Uran Botobekov has a PhD in political science and is an expert on political Islam.