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Fratricidal Jihad: Assessing the Central Asian ISKP Attacks on Turkey

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Fratricidal Jihad: Assessing the Central Asian ISKP Attacks on Turkey

Due to linguistic, religious, and cultural commonalities, members of the Islamic State and al-Qaida from Central Asia can often bypass security filters in the wider Turkic world.

Fratricidal Jihad: Assessing the Central Asian ISKP Attacks on Turkey

Turkish police officers stand guard in a cordoned off area outside the Santa Maria church, in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, January 28, 2024. Two masked assailants attacked a church in Istanbul during Sunday services, killing one person, Turkish officials said.

Credit: AP Photo/Emrah Gurel

Although Turkey regards the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia as its strategic allies, viewing them as “brothers with common historical, linguistic, and cultural ties,” and confidently assumes the role of a “big brother” (Büyük Abi) to politically and economically integrate the vast Turkic world, it has paradoxically encountered security threats from Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida over the past decade.

Beyond Borders: Tajik ISKP’s Calculated Strike on a Catholic Church in Istanbul

The January 28 assault targeting an Italian church in Istanbul’s Sariyer district during Sunday worship deeply unsettled Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan personally reached out to the church’s priest, Rev. Anton Bulai, to convey his condolences and express support for the country’s Christian community. 

In the aftermath, the Islamic State, through its official Amaq News Agency, claimed responsibility for the attack, which resulted in the death of one congregant and the injury of another. The group stated that the attack was perpetrated as part of their new global campaign titled “And Kill Them Wherever You Find Them,” which specifically targets Jews, “Crusaders,” and their perceived criminal allies, in response to Israeli military actions in Gaza, according to the Amaq News Agency. The attack was carried out by two Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) members.

Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MIT) swiftly apprehended two perpetrators allegedly responsible for the terrorist attack, naming them as Amirjon Kholikov from Tajikistan and David Tanduev from the North Caucasus in Russia, along with 34 suspected accomplices. The individuals are under investigation for alleged charges of “membership of the ISKP terror organization” and “premeditated murder.” 

The incident once again highlights how, due to linguistic, religious, and cultural commonalities, members of the Islamic State and al-Qaida from the Central Asian republics can often bypass security filters in the wider Turkic world. They can legally reside and work in Turkey, successfully infiltrating the local society. They patiently await commands from their emirs to carry out lone-wolf terrorist attacks, adeptly navigating security measures. According to MIT, Tajik ISKP member Kholikov had a residence and work permit in Istabul’s Basaksehir, which is a favorite haven for Uzbek, Tajik, and Turkmen migrants. Kholikov reportedly kept his residence permit inside a Quran, the holy book for Muslims.

One of the detained suspects, identified as Alisher Ugli Mirzoev and appearing to be of Uzbek nationality based on his name, attempted to organize weapons training for Islamic State members on a farm in Istanbul. He planned to send them to the U.S. in July 2023, as reported by Turkish intelligence. MIT asserted that Mirzoev, failing to accomplish his objectives, reported to Adam Khamirzaev, one of the Central Asian ISKP leaders, seeking permission to execute an operation in Turkey. These details, along with the insights from Telegram discussions among ISKP members, lead us to the conclusion that Tajik and Uzbek ISKP members have been attempting to plan transnational operations on U.S. soil. Their intent is to strike at the core of the “big enemy,” a warning previously emphasized by U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Michael Kurilla.

Resurfacing Horrors: The Lingering Impact of Past Uzbek ISKP Attacks in Istanbul

Significantly, acting upon the Islamic State Shura Council’s hukum (order), its Central Asian members executed three high-profile targeted attacks on Turkish territory in the past seven years. Overall, IS-linked foreigners were involved in at least seven of the 17 ISIS attacks in Turkey between 2014 and 2024 that killed some 300 people in total. These actions were aimed at undermining Ankara’s counterterrorism efforts, both domestically and in neighboring Syria and Iraq. 

The most prominent IS attack in Turkey involving Central Asian militants was the assault on the Reina nightclub on January 1, 2017, which was described by the Amaq News Agency as “God’s punishment for those who deviated from Islamic norms of life and celebrating the polytheistic [pagan] holiday of New Year.” The attack saw IS fighter Abdulkadir Masharipov (alias Muhammed al-Khurasani), an Uzbek national, open fire at the Istanbul nightclub, killing 39 people. Following an extensive manhunt, Turkish security forces arrested Masharipov on January 17, 2017, in Esenyurt, an Istanbul district densely populated by Central Asian migrants, where he had reportedly been hiding in the home of a Kyrgyz national since the shooting.

Masharipov hailed from a small town in the Fergana region along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. He was born in 1983 and graduated from Fergana State University in Uzbekistan. Associated with jihadi terrorist organizations since 2011, Masharipov received military training at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan. Subsequently, while in Pakistan, Masharipov joined ISKP, pledging allegiance to IS’ first leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at a later point.

Another sophisticated suicide attack involving Central Asian IS terrorists took place at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul on June 28, 2016. The assailants, hailing from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and the Russia’s Dagestan, carried out the attack on behalf of the Islamic State after traveling to Turkey from IS-controlled Syria. The incident resulted in the tragic loss of 45 people, with over 230 individuals sustaining injuries. Turkey’s MIT identified the mastermind behind the Istanbul airport attack as Akhmed Chataev, a Chechen Salafi jihadist and the leader of a Russian-speaking IS faction in the post-Soviet space. As a component of the subsequent counterterrorism operation, Turkish security forces implicated and apprehended 42 migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus. In June 2022, the Bakirkoy High Criminal Court in Istanbul sentenced six IS members to 46 aggravated life sentences and a cumulative imprisonment term of 2,604 years.

Unmasking Central Asian Clandestine Terror Cells in Turkey

As revealed by court documents on IS terror attacks in Turkey involving Uzbek and Tajik militants, evident linkages and tight coordination exist within the triangle: the Islamic State’s core leadership in Iraq and Syria, and its provinces of “Wilayah Türkiye” and “Wilayah Khurasan,” encompassing aspects such as recruitment, logistics, and fundraising. According to Masharipov’s 2017 testimony to the Turkish prosecutor, he was dispatched to Syria by his ISKP parent organization. The command to attack the Reina nightclub came through Telegram from an IS emir in Raqqa, named Abu Shuhada. Furthermore, the funds (amounting to $197,000), weapons (an AK-47 with six loaded magazines and three stun grenades), and multiple cell phone SIM cards were provided by the IS-Central cell in Istanbul. An investigation into the Reina attack revealed that over 50 IS operatives from Central Asia, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq directly provided support to Masharipov before and after the attack.

IS-Central, operating through its “Wilayah Türkiye” and “Wilayah Khurasan” branches, effectively engages in clandestine recruitment within the Central Asian migrant community in Turkey. Many Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen, and Kyrgyz migrants in Turkey had previously faced challenging conditions as migrant workers in Russia. Finding themselves unable to endure the religious pressures associated with Russian chauvinism and nationalism, they turned to Turkey. The Kremlin’s coerced deployment of disenfranchised Central Asian migrants as combatants in the Russia-Ukraine war, coupled with economic stagnation and the rise of pro-war nationalist-imperialist Putinism, is compelling Central Asian Islamists to undertake migration from Russia to Turkey. Some individuals thereafter have become ensnared in the recruitment networks of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups, such as the Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), the Turkestan Islamic Party, and ISKP. Although the threat posed by IS to Turkey has diminished since it held vast territory in Iraq and Syria, Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups affiliated with IS, al-Qaida, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) clandestinely continue to utilize Turkish territory as a rear base, logistics hub, and hawala transit center. 

It is widely acknowledged that IS specifically deploys Central Asian militants to carry out terrorist attacks within Turkey. This choice is influenced by shared language and culture, making them less likely to attract the attention of the Turkish security forces. Moreover, Ankara’s simplified visa regime permits residents of Central Asia’s Turkic-speaking countries to stay in Turkey for up to 90 days without a visa, further facilitating the activities of ISKP followers.

There is no singular solution to the challenges Ankara faces from Uzbek and Tajik ISKP members. Over the past quarter-century, Turkey has been on the frontline of combating global religious terror groups, enduring significant impact from both Arab and Turkish IS fighters, as well as Central Asian ISKP members. Following the recent deadly attack on the Santa Maria Catholic Church by the Tajik ISKP wing, Turkey launched a comprehensive counterterrorism operation, resulting in the detention of 147 ISKP suspects in January 2024. Additionally, in December 2023, Turkish security forces arrested 189 individuals suspected of having ties to IS as part of “Operation Heroes-38,” a coordinated effort spanning 37 provinces. In June 2023, the Turkish MIT arrested Shamil Hukumatov of Tajikistan, a “high-ranking” ISKP operative and the Tajik wing financier, for recruiting Central Asian migrants to IS and providing them with finances.

Uzbek ISKP’s Propaganda War Against Erdogan

The opulent Islamic heritage of Turkey, the heir to the Ottoman Empire, which presided over the fourth major Islamic Caliphate for over six centuries, has become the target of vehement ideological assaults from Central Asian ISKP jihadists. In the 26th edition of the Voice of Khurasan magazine, an article titled “Call to the Turkish People: Abandon Erdogan’s Highway to Hell and Join the Century of the Islamic Khilafah” fervently implores Turks to dismantle “Erdogan’s Taghut regime” and lend support to the authentic Islamic State. The latter identifies itself as the legitimate successor to the Islamic Caliphate and condemns modern Turkey for straying from the divine path of Allah. 

Developing propaganda attacks, the Uzbek-language Xuroson Ovozi also featured a comprehensive article on the decline of the Ottoman Empire and its perceived deviation from Islam. Abu Muhammad al-Uzbeki, the notorious ISKP ideologist, contends that the Ottoman Empire wasn’t deserving of the Caliphate title as it favored Sufis over Salafis, actively targeting the latter. He accuses Turkey of persisting in its continuing official support for the Sufi sect, members of which are deemed “apostates” by IS due to their veneration of mystics and the construction of shrines to saints. Consequently, ISKP draws a connection between its ongoing war against Afghan Sufists and its critique of Erdogan’s Turkey, merging both religious and political dimensions.

From the perspective of ISKP’s Al-Azaim Media Production, Turkey is classified as a taghut (idolater) state, and its leader, Erdogan, is labeled an apostate. The Uzbek and Tajik language pro-IS media arms have consistently targeted Erdogan personally, issuing explicit death threats and employing takfir, a form of excommunication. On February 18, 2023, the Voice of Khurasan, in its 22nd issue, published an article titled “The crimes of the Turkish Taghut,” listing reasons why Allah purportedly punished Turkey with deadly earthquakes in 2023. IS-Khurasan ideologies assert that God’s punishment has befallen Turkey for “replacing sharia with Kuffar (unbeliever) laws, committing Shirk, waging war against Islam, collaborating with NATO alliance, HTS, Afghan Taliban, Iran, and Russia, and legalizing alcohol, homosexuality, adultery, and nudity.”

Frequently, Uzbek KTJ and ISKP’s Uzbek wing engage in public disputes online regarding religious purity and the lofty objectives of holy jihad. These disagreements often escalate with threats to locate and execute their jihadi adversaries. Notably, Uzbek ISKP supporters allege that their counterparts within the Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Tajik KTJ ranks have forsaken Islam, transforming into pawns manipulated by Erdogan.

Strategic Imperative: Establishing a Counter-Terrorism Body in the Turkic World

Given the intensification of anti-Turkey propaganda, there exists a notable possibility that Ankara may once more become the focal point for attacks orchestrated by formidable Uzbek and Tajik ISKP terrorists. These potential attacks could materialize both within the borders of Turkey and against its strategic interests in Central and South Asia.

The challenges posed by Uzbek and Tajik jihadi groups highlight deficiencies in the exchange of information about individuals affiliated with IS between Central Asian states and Turkey at the intelligence service level. Facilitating robust cooperation in this regard is essential for effectively tracking, apprehending, and, if necessary, prosecuting, or repatriating individuals associated with ISKP, who may utilize Turkish territory as a transit zone.

Nevertheless, the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), which includes Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Turkey, notably lacks dedicated military and counterterrorism institutes. Turkey’s persistent endeavors to establish a military bloc among the Turkic states within the OTC framework face a vehement backlash from the Kremlin. In apprehension of potential dilution of its Collective Security Treaty Organization military bloc, Putin’s Russia opposes the formation of an alternative Turkic military union in post-Soviet Central Asia.

The establishment of a counterterrorism body within the OTS could serve as a preventive measure against terrorist attacks, benefiting not only Turkey but also Western nations. Such a development would be crucial for effectively addressing the challenges posed by Central Asian ISKP, given that its members occasionally attempt to infiltrate Europe and the U.S. to carry out lone-wolf terror attacks.