The trail of the terrorist attack on Istanbul airport that killed 42 people looks now to be leading inexorably to the former Soviet Union, and Central Asia in particular.
The New York Times cited Turkish officials as saying on June 30 that the three suicide bombers that mounted the attack were citizens of Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Uzbekistan.
Turkey has already linked this to the Islamic State militant group, which is known to have large groups of Central Asian and Russian citizens among its ranks. Estimates on the exact number of Central Asians in the group vary, however, from the low hundreds into the thousands.
Turkey has said that 13 people, including three foreigners, have been detained in connection with the attack on Istanbul’s main airport on June 28. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which also claimed victims among Uzbek citizens, according to Turkish media.
Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry cast some confusion over proceedings by telling media that it could not confirm that one of its citizens had been linked the bombings.
“Employees from the Kyrgyz consulate met with representatives from the anti-terrorism department in Istanbul. They did not confirm the information. According to them, the identity of the suicide bombers is still being established,” the ministry said.
That statement appeared to have been superseded by events, however.
This latest link between Central Asia and terrorism will rekindle oft-aired concerns that the region is a hotbed of Islamist insurgent potential, although such rapid analysis tends to misreading the facts. In fact, the radicalization appear often to occur in Russia rather the militants’ home countries, where a combination of intense repression and social support networks can help to mitigate against recruitment. A USAID report from 2015 describes the dynamic well.
“As recruiting gained momentum in 2013 and 2014 … many sources report that the preponderance of new Central Asian recruits began to come from Russia. There are up to seven million Central Asians working as migrant laborers under difficult conditions in Russia, with better Internet access and relatively more freedom to recruit in person without the resistance of local community structures or omnipresent security services. As a result, migrant workers became the primary target audience for Central Asian groups recruiting for the conflict,” the report said.
Central Asia government are eager to promote the notion that they are fighting, and winning, against domestically radicalized militants. Arrests and trials are relatively common, although in the total absence of transparency in the region’s justice systems, it is hard to tell determine whether governments are being sincere in their claims.
Earlier in June, for example, a court in Uzbekistan’s Samarkand region sentenced six people to jail terms for the claimed offense of planning to go and fight in Syria, UzTag news agency reported.
“Residents of the Paiaryksky district of Samarkand region, Azizhon Nosirov and Ravshan Pulatov, having received extremist material in digital form via a citizen of Kyrgyzstan — a certain “Abdullo” — bean to actively urge those around them to abide by the canons of sharia law,” according to an unattributed comment made in the court.
Those two men and another four allegedly recruited later on were handed jail terms of between two and nine years.
Exploitation of the Islamic State specter is even more egregious in Kyrgyzstan. A hugely destructive raid last summer on the safe-house of a group of armed men in the center of the capital, Bishkek, was cast by security services as a strike against the Islamic State, although there was no credible evidence to support those hastily formulated claims. The government attaches terrorist labels to suspected militants so liberally, it renders it impossible to take any of their claims at face value, including the accurate ones, granted that there are any.
The Russian, or North Caucasian to be more specific, angle will likely yield the strongest clues.
Turkish daily newspaper Yeni Safak named the suspected mastermind of the attack as a Chechen named Ahmed Chatayev, who has been added to the US Department of the Treasury sanctioned terrorist lists over alleged ties to the Islamic State group. Chatayev was actually languishing in prison in Georgia until 2013, when he was released by court order.
Hurriyet newspaper named the Russian attacker as Osman Vadinov, also a Chechen, with recent experience fighting in the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in Syria.
Neither of those reported pieces of information had been confirmed by the evening of June 30.