The two-day June 2016 Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Tashkent, Uzbekistan hosted leaders from the region to address a range of traditional issues, including drug trafficking, human trafficking, organized crime, and terrorism. What has been left out of these discussions is the all-important intersection of these activities, which creates a trafficking/terrorism nexus.
The gravity of the nexus has been recognized in the academic and policy worlds. The states of Central Asia have been named as an important site where terrorism and trafficking intersect. While these intersections can take on various forms, two, in particular, have been observed in the region. Drug trafficking groups have carried out armed attacks on state agencies and representatives, and terrorist groups have resorted to drug trafficking and illicit trade for financing their activities in pursuit of political aims.
Tajikistan, where Islamist attacks have allegedly been on the rise, exemplifies these types of crime-terrorism intersections. The summer of 2012 saw a spike of violence in Gorno-Badakhshan, an impoverished and lawless region, which was given autonomy as part of a power-sharing agreement following the civil war. Local warlords filled the power vacuum in the region, winning the support of the Pamiri communities who often feel unrepresented by the current Tajik government of President Emomali Rakhmon.
In July 2012, the region’s security chief, Abdullo Nazarov, was killed in what the Tajik government dubbed a terrorist attack. His deputy, Tolib Ayombekov, was charged with the slaying. The government launched a week-long counterterrorism operation against the “militants.” Although Ayombekov was not captured, at least 22 locals and many soldiers were killed.
While the apprehension of Ayombekov was the declared purpose of the dispatch of security forces in the region, it is more likely that the government used Nazarov’s death as a pretext for unseating the local warlords loyal to the slain security chief. It is also telling that Ayombekov and his men had been implicated in the smuggling of tobacco, gems, narcotics, and possibly humans.
In the wake of the military operation, the Tajik government announced that it had captured 40 militants, including eight Afghans, implying that the Afghan Taliban was involved in the fighting. However, it is very unlikely that the predominantly Sunni Taliban would have much in common with the Pamiri ethnic groups, which adhere to Shia Islam. If there were any links, those would have to do with drug trafficking and other illicit trade.
The most recent incident of “terrorist violence” that was later re-framed as a foiled coup d’état took place on June 5, 2016 in Kazakhstan. At least 30 armed fighters attacked two gun stores and a military installation in Aktobe, the fifth-largest city in Kazakhstan, near the Russian border. By different estimates, 23-30 people died in the shooting. Following allegations that the deadly attacks were ordered from abroad in an attempt to destabilize the country, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev referred to the assailants as salafists who had returned to Kazakhstan from Syria.
Yet it did not look like an act of terrorism. Neither did it look like a stymied attempt to topple the Nazarbayev government. It is noteworthy, however, that Tokhtar Tuleshov, an eccentric businessman from Shymkent implicated in the plot, was charged a few months earlier for drug trafficking, human trafficking, and financing of a transnational organized criminal group, among other crimes.
This is not to suggest that all organized violence perpetrated in the region results from a turf war between business, criminal, and official interests. It is well established, for example, that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was also a leading trafficker of opiates from Afghanistan. The IMU’s incursions in Kyrgyzstan in 1999, which have been commonly portrayed as an attempt by a radical Islamist movement to take down the secular government of President Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, actually pursued a different purpose: namely, securing a drug trafficking route from Afghanistan. It remains likely that the remnants of the IMU and its splinter groups continue using drug trafficking to fund their operational activities.
Our research, funded from the Department of Defense Minerva Initiative, shows that there are very few constraints for the transit of drugs or the conduct of insurgency operations in Central Asia. When obstacles do emerge, criminal organizations have shown to be quite adept at identifying and exploiting new weaknesses, thus circumventing law enforcement, border control, and counterterrorism efforts. While international efforts (mostly from the United States and Russia) have slightly enhanced some technical capabilities of law enforcement and security agencies to address the trafficking/terrorism nexus, there is little evidence of coordination among these agencies within each state. More importantly, the willingness of state agencies to address the nexus is greatly hindered by their involvement in it.
The nexus is a 21st century challenge for Central Asia that requires concerted national and international efforts (such as those by the SCO). Yet it remains uncertain whether formal declarations will be followed by inter-agency cooperation, technical expertise, and political will.
Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas. She is the author of Counterterrorism Policies in Central Asia (Routledge, 2011) and Democracy in Central Asia: Competing Perspectives and Alternate Strategies (University Press of Kentucky, 2015), and editor of Nationalism and Identity In Central Asia: Dimensions, Dynamics, and Directions (Lexington Press, 2014).
Dr. Lawrence P. Markowitz is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Hollybush Institute at Rowan University. He specializes in the study of state failure, social movements, and post-Soviet politics. Markowitz is author of State Erosion: Unlootable Resources and Unruly Elites in Central Asia (Cornell University Press, 2013) as well as articles in Comparative Political Studies, Democratization, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Demokratizatsiya, and Central Asian Survey.