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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 31 New Delhi July 25, 2015

Growing Threat of Islamic State for Central Asia

Sunday 26 July 2015

by R.G. Gidadhubli

Cooperation and coordination to deal with threats of terrorism and extremism, especially from the rapid rise of the Islamic State (IS), have been discussed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the leaders of the five Central Asian countries during his visit to those states in the second week of July 2015. Moreover, at the SCO Summit, held in the Russian city of Ufa, the issue of growing threats of terrorism was also discussed.

 In view of this it is necessary to examine as to what are the factors that are contributing to the growing influence of the IS in Central Asia. What will be the likely impact of this on the CAS? What policy measures are to be under-taken by the political leaders to contain it?

Before going into the details, it is pertinent to know the magnitude of the issue. As regards the total number of militants from Central Asia, a report published in January 2015 by the International Crisis Group (ICG) found that between 2000 and 4000 citizens from across the five ex-Soviet Central Asian states— Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan—have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the IS and other militant groups. Uzbekistan has already been a victim of its home-grown Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan during the last about two decades after the Soviet breakup. Abdulaziz Mansur, the Deputy Chairman of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, has stated that there were “about 200” Uzbeks in Syria, while a Kazakh analyst, Erlan Karin, has estimated that there are about 500 Uzbeks there. In fact, as opined by many analysts, the actual number could be more than what is officially reported. A substantial number of Tajik youth have joined the IS. Similarly, the Kyrgyz officials have also begun to admit that the actual number of Kyrgyz citizens fighting in Syria could be a lot higher than the official estimated figures of 350-400. What could be alarming is the fact that as per Kyrgyz official sources, among the Kyrgyz nationals recruited in Syria and Iraq by the IS, there are 49 women and 22 minors. Moreover, as reported by the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry, the recruiters “convince and intimidate” the young women using Koranic verses.

The major factors for Central Asians joining the IS and participating in its activities are as follows. Firstly, the growing influence of the IS’ religious factor, and specifically radicalisation, seems to have resulted in large scale recruitment of Jihadists in Central Asia. In the post-Soviet era, when the communist ideology virtually failed and has become irrelevant, religious groups—which were dormant in the past— have taken advantage to fill the vacuum and propagate their ideology. Thus indoctrination has been taking place by several religious groups and organisations in Central Asia to attract members to join the IS and fight for Islam and sacrifice their life for this cause. There are reports indicating that while joining the IS, some Central Asians went to Syria with their wives and children. For instance, a video posted online in November 2013 showed a group of about 150 Kazakh militants claiming to have brought their wives and children with them to Syria. This was an indication that they would not be interested to return to their homeland.

Secondly, socio-economic conditions have worsened, particularly in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, after the Soviet breakup resulting in declining income levels and growing unemployment. This has led some youth, who might have been influenced by promises of good remuneration made by organisations for recruiting members for the IS, to join the organisation. What has made matters worse is that during the last few years, several young men, working in Russia, having been sacked from their jobs, have returned home where there is no scope for earning their livelihood. Hence some of them were attracted to join the IS on being promised monetary benefit apart from religious influence.

Thirdly, social issues and family problems are also responsible for some Central Asians joining the IS. For instance, as reported by a Western expert, a Tajik citizen Saidrakhmonov married three times, twice in Tajikistan and once in Russia, and had three children with his Tajik wives and a three-month-old baby with his Russian spouse. But he “was very dissatis-fied with his personal life”, as stated by his sister Anora, who also said Saidrakhmonov went to live in Russia where he was radicalised and became “completely absorbed in ideas of jihad”. Thus family disputes could be a major cause for some joining the IS. In other words, there are instances of unhappy family life leading citizens to join the IS.

Fourthly, as opined by some analysts inclu-ding Aaron Y. Zelin, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the IS currently produces official propaganda messages in Arabic, English, Kurdish, French, and Russian. It is reported that the Russian media has been used for propaganda and recruitment purposes by certain Jihadi groups. Though Russian-speaking IS militants have put out their own propaganda for some time, in the recent past a new Russian-language IS media wing, namely, ‘Furat Media’ has emerged taking on official, or at least semiofficial, status within the IS’ overall media operations. Furat’s work has two main purposes. It is dedicated to recruiting new Russian-speaking militants, both from the Russian Federation—particularly the Caucasus region including Azerbaijan—and especially from Central Asia. As reported by some analysts, Furat is also engaged in spreading the IS’ messages to Russian-speaking militants who are already fighting alongside the group, both via social media and by creating and sending CDs containing Russian-subtitled IS propaganda videos to various Russian-speaking militant groups in IS-controlled territory. It is important to note that a militant, who calls himself Artyom, maintained an account on the Russian-language social network VKontakte trying to reach out to those interested in joining the IS until it was blocked on June 13, 2015.

 Fifthly, while many hundreds of those who have joined the IS have been killed in the fight by the armed forces of several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the USA etc., as pointed out by Central Asian analyst Joanna Paraszcuk, there are several cases where militants have faked their deaths after joining the IS. It appears that this could be stage- managed by some militants in connivance with concerned Jihadi groups to declare themselves as ‘martyrs’ to showcase their cause for publicity. There is also a flip side to this issue since a far more important reason for faking deaths could be that they want to stop officials in their home towns and villages from interrogating their relatives after getting information that they are killed. There is evidence to that effect as informed by one activist, Yusufi, on Radio Ozodi in July 2015.

How Effective are Government Policies?

The political leaders as also the government machinery of the CAS and Azerbaijan have reasons to be concerned about the growing influence of the IS in their countries. In fact they have already adopted stringent policies against those joining the IS. For instance, on July 1, 2015, a court in Azerbaijan has sentenced 10 people to jail terms of four to fifteen years for joining the Islamic State extremist group. Prior to that in 2014, as per reports, 26 people were arrested for their activities connected to the IS. The Kazakh authorities are against radicalisation and are trying to take strong policy measures to discourage their citizens from joining the IS.

It is important to note that despite being Islamic states, major sections of the leaders of the CAS do not seem to favour radical Islam and are against terrorism in the name of religion. This is partly because of their historic past when they were part of the former Soviet Union for seven decades when anti-religious commu-nist ideology was propagated and prevailed. Moreover, the majority of the Central Asians, including a major section of political leaders, intellectuals, the new generation of entrepre-neurs, social groups etc. have established political and economic ties with West Europe, the USA and China, apart from Russia, which seems to have made some impact on their socio-political outlook since strong secular ideology prevails in those states.

It should be a matter of great concern for Tajikistan since there are many Tajiks who have joined the IS much against the efforts made by their government to discourage the citizens to do so. What seems to have upset the authorities is that the Interior Ministry Forces (OMON) commander Gulmurod Halimov’s disappearance in April 2015 to join the IS abroad caused a major embarrassment for Tajikistan. This might have a negative impact in this less developed and predominantly Muslim state that has struggled to discourage its young men from travelling to Syria and Iraq to fight for the radical Sunni group.

From what is stated above, it appears that the governments’ policies and measures under-taken in the CAS seem to have had a limited impact so far on the growing active move by their citizens to join the IS. Hence there is a potential threat of the IS for Central Asia in the future. In fact apart from Central Asia, even the AfPak region, Russia and the Caucasian state of Azerbaijan are not being spared from the growing influence of the IS. Hence this should be a matter of concern for India as well since there are reports about a few dozens of Muslim youth from India who have already joined the IS in Syria and Iraq. Thus cooperation and coordination among the regional as well as global powers are urgently needed to effectively deal with this issue.

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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