Starting in mid-October Iraqi armed forces, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and Shiite militias with air support from international coalition forces led by the United States slowly but steadily began squeezing the Islamic State (ISIS) out of Mosul. During these military operations ISIS has launched a fierce resistance to hold onto the city it has occupied since June 2014.
As ISIS battles to keep the city, the group has increased its use of suicide bombers. Jihadist promotional materials distributed in November — from Al Hayat Media Center, al-Furat Press, and Amaq News Agency — encompass ISIS actively using fighters from Central Asia as so-called shahid bombers. It should be noted that in Islam the concept of “shahid” (which means “witness”) is used both in a generic sense and also in relation to believers who have died for their faith — martyrs.
On November 17, 2016 Amaq News Agency said ISIS had conducted 124 suicide attacks by shahid bombers when repelling the advance on Mosul in the previous month. According to Amaq News, the suicide bombings killed 2,671 among the spectrum of forces trying to push ISIS out of Mosul. It is nearly impossible to confirm such information using independent sources.
Analysis of videos, audio, messages, and statements from ISIS and other jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria shows that many fighters from Central Asia are becoming shahid bombers. Unlike local Arab fighters, they are less likely to be able to flee Mosul under a civilian guise if the city is captured. If they are captured their fate will likely be decided by the Iraqi government and leaders of paramilitary forces. Considering the shocking atrocities, torture, and public executions performed by ISIS during the last two years, there will be no mercy for prisoners. Lastly, Central Asian fighters who refuse to become shahid bombers can expect to be killed by their own commanders. There have been reports of ISIS executing their own fighters for desertion and disobeying orders to become suicide bombers.
ISIS is not the only Islamist group using Central Asian jihadists as suicide bombers. On October 28, Islam Avazi, an information service belonging to the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), disseminated a 4-minute video containing the footage of a suicide attack by a shahid bomber using an armored vehicle rigged with explosives. The video is titled “Will of the Martyr Hudhayfahal-Turki.”
The video starts with a young Uyghur man speaking in Arabic for more than two minutes. He swears allegiance to Allah, promises victory for Islam in the near future not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in China, and calls on others to continue jihad against kafirs. Then he recites a short surah from the Quran. After his speech, the smiling young man hugs his comrades and gets into a remodeled armored vehicle rigged with explosives. Someone off-screen asks him in Uyghur whether he’d forgotten which button to press. The young man shows off the buttons attached to the panel of the armored car. “When I reach the enemy’s territory, I will press the first button, and if it does not work, I will press the second one,” he says. “When I press the second button the bombing will take place automatically. Then, thanks to Allah, I will open my eyes in the next world, in paradise.” At the end the video shows thick fog rising after an explosion, presumably of the young man and his armored vehicle.
According to the Quran, after death shahids enter paradise where they take high positions and are forgiven all their sins. Young jihadists are promised heavenly enjoyments, black-eyed virgins, food, and drinks for their sacrifice.
The wide usage of shahid bombers by jihadists in Mosul was confirmed by the Pentagon in a November 16 press conference. The U.S. Department of Defense spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, Colonel John Dorrian, showed reporters a picture of a captured vehicle-borne improvised explosive (VBIED) device.
Dorrian said the VBIED was “reminiscent of a Mad Max vehicle, with armored plating in the front to protect the driver until he can detonate the explosives he’s carrying on board. U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have destroyed more than 60 vehicle bombs since Iraqi and Kurdish forces began the operation to liberate Mosul, Oct. 17.”
Suicide bombings play a key role in ISIS tactics, reflecting the urgency with which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seeks to hold onto the Caliphate’s territory at any cost.
Children in the Role of Shahid Bombers
Increasing usage of children as suicide bombers has become a new and very dangerous trend in protecting the Caliphate. Earlier this year, I wrote in The Diplomat about a teenager, Babur Israilov from Jalal-Abad in southern Kyrgyzstan, who became a suicide bomber in the Syrian town of Foix.
On November, 11 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called for immediate action to stop the use of children as suicide bombers. He said that ISIS deployed what it calls the “sons of the Caliphate” wearing explosive belts in the alleys of Mosul. The UN also highlighted a recent video posted by ISIS which depicts four children, between 10 and 14 years old, shooting to death four Iraqi and Kurdish prisoners, apparently for spying.
The 14-minute video was posted on November 9, 2016. One of the young executioners was a 10-year old boy from Uzbekistan. The Uzbek service of RFE/RL claims that the boy is Uzbek and came to Iraq with his parents. In the video he wears a uniform, speaks in Russian with an Uzbek accent, and calls Putin “a dog.” The other child has not been identified but appears to be Kazakh.
Earlier the Uzbek Service of RFE/RL reported that Central Asian children brought to the Caliphate by their parents are being trained as “the future of the Caliphate.”
How Will Battlefield Defeat Impact Returns?
The seeming military defeat of ISIS has influenced the migration of fighters to and from Central Asia. According to official information, between September and November 2016 the flow of those leaving for the battlefield in Syria and Iraq from Central Asian republics has decreased. Jenish Ashyrbaev, a representative of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, noted that for the last year, as a result of awareness-raising activities conducted with the help of citizens returned from battlefield, the number of those wishing to leave for Syria has decreased considerably. Nevertheless, recruitment through social networking is still continuing.
The governments of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have also noted a decline in the flow of fighters to the Middle East. This decrease is linked, first, with air strikes by the international coalition on ISIS positions in Iraq. Second, the governments of Central Asia have made attempts to seek novel methods of outreach to counter jihadist propaganda campaigns. For instance, dramatized plays about the threat posed by Islamic extremism have been staged in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbek Drama theater in the city of Osh staged a play “Mother’s Heart” ordered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In Kazakhstan by the order of and with funding from the State Committee on Religious Issues four plays — “Paradise,” “The Misled,” “Lianes,” and “Road to Hell” — have been staged. These plays depict the stories of fighters who joined the Caliphate. The effectiveness of these plays in combating extremism is unclear, but the plays have drawn interest from scholars of Islam.
In addition, Central Asian countries have adopted multiple laws increasing the criminal penalty for participation in jihad abroad. On June 8, the Parliament of Kyrgyzstan approved a bill which deprives citizenship from persons who take part in armed conflicts or undertake military training in conflict zones. Moreover, amendments to the Criminal Code stipulating punishment for removal of minors into armed conflicts have been approved. In Tajikistan, the general fight against Islamic extremists has been co-opted into repression against political opponents. Emomali Rahmon, the president, banned the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) under the guise of combating jihadists. Tajik courts rendered life sentences for two deputy leaders of the party and another 12 members were sentenced up to 28 years in prison.
Uran Botobekov has a Ph.D. in political science and is an expert on political Islam.