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Is Syria Still Calling to Would-be Uzbek Militants?

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Is Syria Still Calling to Would-be Uzbek Militants?

With a series of recent arrests, it seems Uzbek authorities believe that Syria remains an attractive destination for prospective fighters.

Is Syria Still Calling to Would-be Uzbek Militants?
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In November there were several reports of Uzbek law enforcement intercepting potential migrants on the way to Syria, allegedly to become fighters, and bringing others back from foreign countries through extradition agreements to prosecute them. It is hard to conclude there was a surge of arrests of Syria-bound individuals based solely on the latest news without comparing information across past several years with reliable data, but a cursory look at the frequency of appearances of such cases in the news provides evidence of a rise of such cases. 

One of Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s reforms after ascending to the Uzbek presidency in 2016 was suspending the severe prosecution of Muslims. What followed was an easing of the fear of practicing Islam that characterized his predecessor’s regime, and rising interest in seeking knowledge to explore religious identity among the population of Uzbekistan. An unwelcome side-effect of that transition has been greater access to extreme ideas, wrapped in the guise of religious teachings — including calls to participate in jihad by joining fighters in Syria and Iraq.

In the first half of November, three unrelated arrests of alleged members of extremists groups took place in separate parts of Uzbekistan. On November 9, in Sirdarya Region, several people were arrested for maintaining contacts with unspecified terrorist organizations in Syria. The authorities claimed that the group’s leader was planning to travel to Syria and that the group distributed extremist material.

On November 5, in Surxondaryo Region’s Termez, a group of workers in a local bazaar were detained for allegedly planning to travel to Syria to join a militant group. Through a virtual group on Telegram, the individuals allegedly promoted the ideas of terrorist organizations and made several collective financial transactions to support individuals in Turkey, Syria, and Egypt. 

The third arrest took place the same day in Samarkand, where two residents and eight others of an alleged cell created a virtual community to distribute materials calling for jihad and, according to the authorities, planned to send two of its members to Syria. 

Between October 30 and November 8, Uzbek law enforcement officials returned three individuals who had already left Uzbekistan and were reportedly on their way to Syria. On November 8, an individual wanted for an alleged connection with Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, an ethnic Uzbek terrorist group active in Syria, was arrested in an unspecified Central Asian country while on his way to Syria to join the group. The individual allegedly organized and led an online group with individuals from Uzbekistan over Telegram to promote extremist ideas and discussed plans of the group members to leave Uzbekistan for Syria to join the terrorist organization.

On November 2, an individual was detained in the United Arab Emirates by Interpol and extradited to Uzbekistan. The man was wanted for terrorism charges, but according to press reports had been residing in the United States since 2006.

On October 30, a third individual who left Uzbekistan as a labor migrant to Russia in 2014 and allegedly became involved in international terrorist organizations online was returned to Uzbekistan. From Russia, he and his wife crossed through Ukraine first into Turkey and then into Syria, where he reportedly joined the Islamic State. According to the authorities, he was planning to take part in terrorist activities in an unspecified Central Asian state in September 2021. 

Greater freedom to practice Islam, seek religious knowledge, and explore Muslim identity in Uzbekistan over the past five years has brought its own challenges. Among those challengers are greater possible numbers of those willing to leave Uzbekistan and join the ranks of foreign fighters. The Ministry of Interior Affairs of Uzbekistan was motivated to issue a statement this past summer asking the population not to listen to religious propaganda from the popular ideological leader Zofir Gafforov (a Turkish imam also known as Abdullah Zufar). The Ministry blamed Gafforov as driving the spread of terrorist and extremism ideas among youth.

This litany of arrests, although separate cases, demonstrates a rise of interceptions by law enforcement of suspected terrorists and sympathizers. Social media continues to feature as the medium for recruiting individuals, distributing materials, and maintaining contacts among groups. These “interest groups” tend to be small; the case in Samarkand involved 10 people, with just one or two attempting to migrate to an area of conflict. Uzbekistan Ministry of Interior Affairs calling this past summer on individuals not to listen to extremist propaganda indicates that Uzbek authorities may be struggling to contain the spread of extremist ideas.