State Department, Assessing Terror In Ex-USSR, Turns Focus To ISIS
The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
For the most part, the report consisted of previously reported information and claims. Some of the excerpts addressing ISIS in the former Soviet Union, from the South/Central Asia and Europe sections of the report, are cited below. ISIS wasn't mentioned in the Turkmenistan section of the report, and there was no reporting at all on Armenia, Belarus, or Moldova.
"The Government of Kazakhstan views the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as a dangerous terrorist organization and publicly condemned the group. Kazakhstani law enforcement officials have inquired about best practices to counter ISIL propaganda, and in December banned dissemination of ISIL propaganda in Kazakhstan. The head of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee (KNB) said publicly in November that approximately 300 Kazakhstani citizens are members of ISIL, and that law enforcement officials are working to identify these individuals."
"Kyrgyzstan’s anti-Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) efforts were limited to domestic programs to prevent the flow of fighters to Syria and the prosecution of those who return. The Counterterrorism Center partnered with an international NGO to create community leadership groups in each region of Kyrgyzstan, led by local religious leaders trained in methods to prevent violent extremism, to deter potential fighters from traveling to Syria. Parliament worked with the OSCE to host public hearings in the southern provinces of Osh and Jalalabad (from where most fighters originate) to increase local awareness of ISIL recruitment methods. In November, the Counterterrorism Center agreed to a 2015 training plan developed and funded by the OSCE to increase its capacity to share information on terrorist threats between law enforcement agencies at all levels of government."
"The biggest change in Tajikistan’s security environment has been the acknowledgment that roughly 300 Tajik citizens are allegedly fighting against government forces in Syria and Iraq, and of the threat they could pose if and when they return. The Tajik government reported the threat of militants returning from foreign conflict zones increased in 2014, due to the drawdown of international troops in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s success in attracting recruits from Tajikistan’s Sughd and Khatlon regions, as well as among the migrant laborer population in Russia. Tajik government reporting indicated many Tajik militants brought their families with them to Syria."
"The government remained concerned about the recruitment of ethnic Uzbek fighters to fight in the Middle East and the threat from returning foreign terrorist fighters and possible collaboration between Central Asian extremists operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). On October 31, the Committee on Religious Affairs under the Cabinet of Ministers issued a public statement condemning ISIL as un-Islamic and urging citizens to resist its virulent propaganda. Uzbekistan President Karimov has also spoken out publicly against ISIL."
"Azerbaijan indicated its willingness to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) by continuing to share information and working to disrupt the flow of foreign terrorist fighters to Iraq and Syria and of illicit funding to support violent extremist groups there. Influential figures, including the heads of the Caucasus Muslim Board and the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations, undertook efforts to counter ISIL ideology publicly."
"Media reported that, as of December, between 50 and 100 Georgian nationals from the Muslim-majority regions of Adjara and the Pankisi Gorge were fighting in Syria and Iraq for either al-Qa’ida affiliates or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), including senior ISIL commander Tarkhan Batirashvili (aka Omar al-Shishani). Given Georgia’s geographic location, violent Islamist extremists continued to transit through the country between the Russian Federation’s North Caucasus and Syria and Iraq.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and former Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze publicly committed to provide humanitarian support as part of Georgia’s contribution to and membership of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. Following the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2178, the Georgian government initiated changes to its criminal code related to foreign terrorist fighters and modified regulations to strengthen document security along the border with Turkey. Georgian and Turkish nationals are allowed to cross the border in both directions using identification cards that lack the security features of passports, thus increasing the likelihood that fraudulent documents could be used at the critical Turkish-Georgian border checkpoint on the route to Syria through Turkey."
"On December 29, Russia’s Supreme Court issued a ruling recognizing ISIL as a terrorist organization and banned its domestic activity. With the ruling, participation in ISIL activities became a criminal offense under Russian legislation. In addition, Russia also took measures to address the issue of foreign terrorist fighters, which included law enforcement and judicial actions that resulted in the conviction of at least four Russian citizens, all of whom were sentenced to prison terms. Additional arrests were made but comprehensive information on foreign fighter cases was not publicly available."
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.