Central Asian governments are failing to address problems posed by violent radicalization, instead encouraging a growing number of Central Asians to take up arms in Syria and Iraq on behalf of the Islamic State. So says a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), “Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia.”
Estimates of the number of Central Asians currently living in the Islamic State (IS) vary. The ICG calls Central Asian government figures “conservative” and instead gives greater credence to Western officials’ counts, placing the number between 2,000 and 4,000—most from the “long-rebellious” Fergana Valley.
Poverty, migration, marginalization and state repression push Central Asians to join radical groups, the report says. But the Islamic State also provides “a meaningful alternative to post-Soviet life.”
The report debunks the myth, oft championed by Central Asian regimes, that it is only young, poor and uneducated men who have travelled to Syria and Iraq. Instead, the ICG documents the broad appeal that the Islamic State has in the region. Jihad appeals to rich and poor, educated and uneducated alike.
Many fighters are recruited through family networks, with as many as 20 Tajiks from one village departing together in September 2014. A commitment to holy war, the report argues, is the main reason that Central Asians are drawn to the Islamic State.
One unique aspect of the report is its focus on the growing number of women who join radical Islamic groups. Although many women travel to be with their husbands in Syria and Iraq, some go alone. ICG interviewed one woman from a group of four preparing to go to Syria. She told the researcher: “[Our husbands are] against religion, against Islam. My friends do not want to live with them anymore.”
The report also addresses a question of existential consequence for the region: Will the Central Asians fighting alongside IS return to wage jihad at home?
Central Asia fighters usually operate in jamoats (factions) organized loosely along ethnic and linguistic lines. These factions fight alongside militants from the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. There is a risk, the report argues, that these groups will strengthen their cooperation and then pose a threat to their home regions.
For now, however, with many jihadis committed to dying in the holy war, the report concludes that the Islamic State does not constitute an “immediate threat” to regional security. But the specter of the foreign fighters’ return still haunts Central Asia:
Should a significant portion of these radicalised migrants return, they risk challenging security and stability throughout Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan form a brittle region, sandwiched between Russia and Afghanistan, Iran and China.
In evaluating the response to the threat the report criticizes the Central Asian governments. Heavy-handed police crackdowns on suspected radicals and restrictions on religious freedoms remain counterproductive. Communist-educated party officials often conflate piety with radicalization:
Central Asian governments and regional security bodies are using the threat to bolster political agendas while curtailing civil liberties, but they have yet to create a credible counter-action plan. Instead, the security response – including surveillance, harassment and detentions – and legal measures limiting religious freedoms may inadvertently amplify the risk
Central Asian governments, though keenly aware of the dangers fighters could pose upon return from Syria, have done little to address the reasons why such a diverse cross-section of their citizens seek to participate in IS. Prevention of extremism and rehabilitation of jihadis are not yet high on the agenda, and female radicalisation is largely ignored by religious leaders, while the paucity of economic and political opportunities for young people compounds radicalism. Poorly educated imams struggle to compete with the Islamic State’s glamourisation of jihad.
In recent months, concerns about foreign fighters have become a key challenge facing Central Asian security services. Videos threatening reprisals, arrests of suspected radicals and cases of citizens travelling to the Islamic State are reported almost every day. “Syria Calling” documents the complexities of this ongoing problem and illustrates the ways in which clumsy security measures produce counterproductive results. Given their past behavior, however, it seems unlikely the Central Asian regimes will listen.