Once again Central Asia became the focus of world media attention after the June 28, 2016 terrorist attack at the Ataturk airport in Istanbul. Shortly after the attack, Turkish authorities and media hastened to announce the involvement of Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajik citizens in the explosions that left 42 people dead and more than 230 wounded. Turkish newspaper Sabah claimed that the three suicide bombers who attacked the airport on the banks of the Bosphorus were Tajiks, other sources called them Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Russian.
After the attack, many looked to the foreign ministries of the three named states of Central Asia joined to clarify this information. Rulsan Moldakunov, a representative of the Kyrgyz consulate in Istanbul, reported that during an anti-terrorism meeting in Turkey, officials could not confirm that one of the bombers was a citizen of Kyrgyzstan.
The head of the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ information department, Vafo Niyatbekov, stated that authorities in Istanbul and the Turkish security forces had not confirmed any involvement of Tajik citizens. He noted that a representative of the Consulate General of Tajikistan in Istanbul also met with the editorial board of the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, which had reported about the possible involvement of Tajiks in the bombings. The information was later removed from the newspaper’s website and Tajik officials maintain that no Tajik citizens were involved.
Uzbek officials have not made a direct statement about the involvement of any of their citizens in the terrorist attack. Uzbek security services say they have not received notification documents from Turkey concerning the alleged participants of the terrorist attack.
However, among the dead and injured were citizens of Uzbekistan; two were killed and four were wounded. Also among the injured was one citizen of Kyrgyzstan.
Since the immediate flurry of reports following the attack, Turkish security services investigating have kept silent about the involvement of Central Asian nationals. The country’s security services have accused the Islamic State of plotting the attacks, though there was no claim by the group, and have put forward the claim that the organizer was the one-armed Chechen, Akhmed Chataev.
Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry issued a special statement saying that Turkish authorities had identified two of the terrorists as Rakim Bulgarov and Vadim Osmanov, both Russian citizens.
The initial assertion that the attack was committed by jihadist bombers from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan has not officially been confirmed. Today, Turkish law enforcement authorities are increasingly inclined to argue that the suicide bombers were Russian citizens of Chechen origin who fought on the side of the Islamic State in Syria.
Nevertheless, in the weeks following the attacks Central Asians have been the target of investigation and suspicion. In several different cities within Turkey, authorities have checked and detained immigrants from Central Asia. Turkish police conducted raids on houses in Istanbul, where Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyzs live. The Office for Combating Terrorism of Istanbul detained two people who arrived from Kiev and were suspected of being involved with ISIS. According to Turkish police the detainees were carrying passports from Kyrgyzstan and Russia, four optical binoculars, three military camouflage outfits, and five birth certificates.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on July 5 that police had arrested a total of 30 people, including several foreigners from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia’s Dagestan. On July 6, Turkish media published the names of 17 people who were accused of involvement in the attacks. All of them have been charged with membership in a terrorist organization. Among them, 11 are citizens of Russia, while the citizenships of the others have not been specified. Following a statement by Erdogan, Turkish police and the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality further strengthened control over migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
In an interview with The Diplomat on condition of anonymity, Central Asians living in Istanbul expressed concern about increased suspicion directed toward them. “We are concerned after the terrorist attacks in the international airport and our Turkish friends, teachers, neighbors, employers began to look at us with suspicion,” said a Kyrgyz student living in Turkey. “I have a feeling that as if I was in a strange and unfriendly country. The air is filled with the atmosphere of phobia. We are afraid of this.”
With fear, religious animosity, and ethnic hatred, the organizers of the bloody attack planned to cause a state of frustration among Turkish residents. Hidden aggression and suspicion from the Turks toward their Central Asian neighbors indicates that the terrorists achieved their goal.
It is no coincidence that one of the ideologues of the Islamic State, Abu Muhammad Al-‘Adnani, called on followers to attack military and civilian targets in the United States and Europe during the month of Ramadan.
Extremists have committed acts of terrorism in Orlando, Aktobe, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, Medina, and Kabul in recent months resulting in the deaths civilians from many different countries (Nice may soon be added to that list; as of this writing details of the July 14 attack remain unclear). According the ISIS’s Newsletter “al-Nabā’ (#38, July 12, 2016), the Islamic State claimed to have killed and wounded 5,200 people around the world during the month of Ramadan.
A report issued by the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) of the U.S. State Department warned that the ISIS threat during Ramadan could be credible because of the group’s motivation to sacrifice themselves during this sacred time. “According to Islamic practice, sacrifice during Ramadan can be considered more valuable than that made at other times, so a call to martyrdom during the month may hold a special allure to some,” the report stated.
Analyzing the recent terrorist attacks during Ramadan, it appears that ISIS has started to change its tactics after significant territorial losses and a series of defeats on the battlefield. After losing the cities of Fallujah in Iraq and Aleppo in Syria, ISIS is now trying to move the theater of war outside the immediate area.
Despite the fact that ISIS has not claimed responsibility for the Istanbul attack, analysis nonetheless points toward its likely involvement. People from Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Russia play an active role in many militant groups in Iraq and Syria, including ISIS.
The names of the arrested indicate they are of Chechen or Dargin origin. A source in the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry told The Diplomat that perhaps some of them are Kyrgyz citizens of Chechen nationality. Turkish police did not give any information since a Kyrgyz name was not on the list, but not all Kyrgyz citizens are ethnic Kyrgyz. Wahhabis in Central Asia and the North Caucasus have the same roots and it is not a secret that there are Chechens living in Kyrgyzstan, some of whom are strongly involved in radical groups. A huge influence is drawn from the theologians Ibn Taymiyya and Abd al-Wahhaab, the founders of the Salafi group. Both advocated the purification of Islam from innovations and for the return to the faith during the times of the Prophet Muhammad.
ISIS militants are guided in part by the ideology of Salafism. As a result they destroyed ancient statues, temples and cultural sites such as those at Palmyra and Mosul. Salafists believe that idolatrous images have no place in “pure Islam.” Chatayev, the Chechen Turkish authorities believe orchestrated the Istanbul attack, is a follower of Salafism and swore allegiance to ISIS. He was the amir (head) of an ISIS-affiliated group during the fighting in Kobani, Syria, and Baiji, Iraq.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, recently defended Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Chechen who was convicted and sentenced to death for planting bombs at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. The Tsarnaev family spent time in Kyrgyzstan before moving eventually to the United States. Taking this in to account, it is possible that among the perpetrators of the explosion in Istanbul there may be jihadists who have roots in Kyrgyzstan but are not necessarily Kyrgyz citizens or ethnic Kyrgyz.
The bloody attack at Istanbul’s airport underscored the fact that the fight against ISIS requires the coordination of all states. The contradictions between the Western coalition, led by the United States, and Russia on the Syrian crisis and the fate of President Bashar al-Assad benefits only ISIS. The “Cold War” between Moscow and Ankara following the downing of a Russian fighter jet last November has distracted attention from the fight. Inconsistency among the main external players in Syria has slowed the progress of fighting against the Islamic State.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Turkey has been forced to fight on two fronts. The first is the fight against Kurdish separatists in the southeast of the country, who have declared open war against Erdogan’s government. During the Turkish-Russian confrontation, the Kremlin was accused of secretly supporting the Kurdish activists. The second front is the reception and accommodation of more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees, which has resulted in an excessive burden on the state budget. Turkey is on the frontline, literally, of the fight against ISIS. If the international community does not quickly agree to stop the civil war in Syria, the situation in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate.
To successfully fight against ISIS, the Turkish government has to eliminate the domestic political and social conditions that led to the radicalization of Kurdish separatists. Due to the denial of democratic reforms and the strengthening of authoritarian rule, Turkey has ceased to be a model for the Turkic countries of Central Asia and has become a prime target of jihadists.
Uran Botobekov has a PhD in political science and is an expert on political Islam.