Central asia: facing radical islam

Abstract. This article examines the global, regional and internal Uireats and challenges currently faced by Central Asian republics. The author sets out a number of complex security dilemmas in the region which have been caused by a whole set of domestic and external factors. Having analyzed the geopolitical situation of the Central Asian republics, their domestic political make-up and current trends, he sets out various strategies for developing the region as part of the so-called “Great” and “Small” games. Particular attention is paid to the ongoing situation in Syria, which is having a significant effect on the regional security system. As the boundaries of the Syrian conflict have expanded, CentralAsian Coiuitries have faced a threat from their own citizens, who, having gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, are forming new radical cells on these countries’ territories. Guaranteeing stability and security in CentralAsia involves stepping up cooperation on both regional and global scales.


Twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the declaration of independence by the republics of Central Asia, the issue of guaranteeing stability and security still looms large on Central Asia’s agenda.

In the post-Soviet period. Central Asia has always been regarded as significant from a security point of view. The Central Asian states played along with tliis perception and turned it to their advantage, putting forward various proposals to safeguard stability and security. External players also concealed their interests in the region in the language of guaranteeing security and, while suggesting that the region unite in various security structures, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Sliangliai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), spoke out from time to time about the need for joint action to repel new threats.

Attempts to seek out and assign the region a new meaning beyond simply being a “buffer zone” between different geopolitical forces or an outpost on the road of threats from Afghanistan have not been particularly successful. Central Asia therefore continues to be regarded as a potentially unstable region [1]. Various unresolved problems—from inter-ethnic clashes to territorial and water disputes—Iiave also built up over tliis period and could grow into domestic, or even regional, conflicts.

For a long time, terrorism and extremism were not seen as serious threats to regional security. For a time. Central Asian governments even denied that the threat of terrorism existed because they did not want to indirectly acknowledge that some of the preconditions for terrorism were present in the region. If radicalism, extremism and terrorism were discussed, it was only in the context of external threats, while the idea of terrorist threats originating from Afghanistan was more common. Therefore it came as Sometliing of a surprise to local societies and to Central Asian governments themselves when they began to notice that radical groups were operating in the region. It is no coincidence that in a number of countries, the people sometimes criticise the authorities for their delayed reaction to new threats and the inability of Central Asian states to combat the radicals.

The danger now, though, is that the first wave of poorly trained radicals may be replaced by fighters who have experienced war in Afghanistan and Syria, and acquired considerable military experience there. No evidence has yet come to light of terrorist organisations like “Al Qaeda” and the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) being present in the region. Or at least, there is no direct link between the recent terrorist attacks and these groups’ activities. Nevertheless, what they are doing in Syria and Afghanistan is likely to inspire radicals in Central Asia.

Increasing geopolitical tension, ongoing instability in neighbouring Afghanistan, the war in Syria and the appearance of new radical cells in Central Asia all serve to amplify threats and risks to the regional security system. What is more, the geopolitical situation is deteriorating against a background of growing domestic instability in Central Asian countries. A transition of power is taking place in Uzbekistan and, consequently, political elites are inevitably being replaced. In Kyrgyzstan, a political struggle is underway between the current authorities and the opposition in the run-up to the 2017 presidential elections. Consequently, new dividing lines are appearing within the elites and society, and domestic turbulence is growing. We are therefore seeing a new focus in security policy, with domestic political problems coming to the fore. Again, less attention is now being paid to the new threats and Cliallenges presented by radicals.

All of tliis generates new dilemmas for Central Asian security. Both societies and elites face new questions. What is more important, internal or external threats? How to respond to the emerging threats? Is it better to take decisive action now or take the long view and focus on neutralizing those factors which cause radicalization? Not only the security and stability of the region but also the prospects of the states themselves depend on resolving these dilemmas.

The rise of terrorist threats in the region

Some phenomena revealing the increased activity Central Asian terrorist groups are extremely worrying.

Firstly, the mere fact that Central Asian citizens are fighting for Al Qaeda or ISIS in Syria and Iraq can reinforce the interest of the major terrorist groups for the opportunities that the region may present.

Secondly, to achieve recognition and legitimacy in the eyes of the terrorist groups’ leaders. Central Asian fighters are striving to excel themselves in combat and resorting to the most brutal of methods. The children of Central Asian fighters have been used in a series of ISIS videos to carry out demonstrative public executions.

Tliirdly, given the potential for Central Asian fighters to reinforce their positions in the Al Qaeda or ISIS Iiierarchy, we could see a gradual changing of the guard as Central Asians take up crucial positions in the major terrorist groups. In future, therefore, there is a threat that these groups may redirect some of their activity towards Central Asia.

Finally, the possible heightening of the terrorist threat in Central Asia is linked to the return of home-grown fighters. Cases have already been reported of people who, having received military training in Syria, intended to carry out terrorist attacks in their home countries.

The processes underway in the Middle East and Afghanistan are exerting increasing influence on the geopolitical space of Central Asia.

Central Asian armed groups in Afghanistan and Syria Most of the well-known Central Asian military units are closely linked to Afghanistan in general and the Taliban in particular. History, religion and the proximity of the Afghan border all played their part, as did the changing political landscape to an even greater extent. In Afghanistan, these groups received sanctuary, experience of combat and the opportunity to gain a foothold in the so-called “global jihad”.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)

For twenty years, IMU was one of the major, combatready, terrorist groups in Central Asia and it had contacts not only with the Taliban but also with Al Qaeda. Initially, it sought to Oi crthrow Islam Karimov’s government and establish an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. However, Iiaving participated in the Afghan conflict, IMU members began to espouse cosmopolitan (as opposed to national) values [2]. The Syrian crisis changed the group’s activity and its future existence. In 2015, the leader of IMU, Usman Ghazi, swore loyalty to ISIS and criticised the Taliban, noting that the movement’s leader. Mullah Omar, Iiad died fourteen years previously and accusing the Taliban’s Ieadersliip of “lies, Afglian-isation and nepotism” [3]. These statements led to a schism within IMU and a showdown of a faction of it with the Taliban. In December 2015, internet sites affiliated to the Taliban announced that IMU’s leader, and several of its members, Iiad been killed in a clash with Taliban fighters. It marked the destruction of IMU’s most important unit. In June 2016, however, several IMU fighters announced that IMU was still in existence and that they remained loyal to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Nevertheless, the group is not as influential or broadly-based as it was when it first appeared.

The Islamic Jihad Union (IJU)

The IJU is made up of another group of fighters who broke away from the IMU. Information about tliis radical cell is Iiiglily contradictory. Indeed, such were the doubts about the existence of the group that many regarded it as all but the brainchild of the Uzbek secret services. IJU claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in Taslikent in 2004, however, thereby demonstrating its seriousness of purpose. According to experts, it was the first terrorist group in Central Asia to use suicide bombing as a tactic [4]. For a long time, IJU developed in an Afghan mould and its ideology gelled over time with Al Qaeda’s strategy. For a time, it is believed, IJU’s chief strategist was Abu Leith al-Libi, one of Usama’s bin Laden’s main field Coimnanders [5] . It is not surprising, therefore, that the group tried to operate on a global scale. In 2007, members of IJU were arrested in Germany: they Iiad been planning an attack on the Ramstein airbase, a US military facility in the state OfRliineland Palatinate. The fighters who returned from Syria to Kyrgyzstan in autumn 2013 were also members of IJU, suggesting that the group, which had earlier been deployed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was now actively engaged in transferring fighters. Several members of another group—Jund al-Klialifat—who were connected to IJU, were arrested in Turkey as they tried to reach Syria. Thus, to tliis day, IJU represents a serious problem for Central Asian states.

Jamaat Ansarullah

Reports suggest that Jamaat Ansarullah (the Society of Allah’s Soldiers) was founded in 2006 by Tajik fighters who Iiad split off from the IMU [6]. The group made itself known in 2010 when it claimed responsibility for an explosion in Khujand, the capital of Sughd province in September that year. The Tajik authorities also accuse the group of taking part in an ambush in the Rasht valley, Wliichresulted in the death of 20 soldiers. In 2011, a video was published in the group’s name appealing to the Muslims of Tajikistan to take up jihad against state policy. Despite all tliis, doubts were raised about whether Jamaat Ansarullah really existed but these were undermined by the official position of the Tajik authorities. In May 2012, the country’s Iiigh court ruled that Jamaat Ansarallah was banned on the territory of Tajikistan [7]. Open sources indicate that the group is active in Afghanistan. Currently, the 50-60-strong group is most active in the Afghan province of Badakhshan and maintains links Witlitlie Taliban. [8] Reports also suggest that some members of Jamaat Ansarallah have joined the ‘international jihad’ in Syria [9].

Central Asian fighters go to Syria establish their own ethnic detachments, or jamaats. Due to a dearth of funds and weapons, however, the Central Asian jamaats are forced to act under the auspices of large terrorist groups. We now know about several of these military formations.

Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (Jannat Oshiqlari)

The group was formed relatively recently, in 2014, by an ethnic Uyghur and citizen of Kyrgyzstan, Sirojiddin Mukhtarov [10] (also known as Abu Saloh). It is known that the group is very active in Kyrgyzstan where it recruits and sends fighters off to Syria. Tliirty-Iive people left for Syria from Osh province alone in 2014-2015 to join Katibat al Tawliid wal Jihad. Current data suggests that the group is 180-200 people strong [11], with most of them hailing from the Osh, Batken (Kyrgyzstan) and Jalal-Abad (Pakistan) regions, as well as China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In September 2015, the group was incorporated into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front, which had been allied to Al Qaeda in Syria), and together they took part in operations against Russian forces in Syria. In September 2015 for instance, the group claimed responsibility for an attack OnRussianforces in Syria.[12] And although tliis Central Asian group is now one of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s main operational formations, the group has not abandoned its goal of Organisingjiliad in Central Asia. InAugust 2016, the State National Security Committee of Kyrgyzstan announced that the group was implicated in the car bombing of the Cliinese embassy in Bislikek [13].

Imam Bukhari Battalion (KIB)

Currently, the Uzbek Iman Bukhari Battalion (Katee- bat ImaamAl-Bukliari, KIB) is the largest Central Asian military formation in Syria and it is made up mainly of citizens from Central Asian states. Up to 400 Uzbek citizens are fighting in KIB’s ranks [14], according to the Tmkish media, and most of them have experience of military operations in Afghanistan. The founder of KIB, Salahuddin, “fought alongside [Uzbeq radical Islamists Juma] Namangani and [Tahir] Yuldashev and joined IMU in 1999” [15], suggesting that KIB lias its roots in IMU. Salahuddin moved to Syria in 2011 and within three years, he had formed Iiis own detachment. Imam Bukhari Battalion. Media reports from November 2014 indicate that KIB was fighting in ISIS’s ranks. In September 2015, however, it became clear that KIB Iiadjoined Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.[16] Nevertheless, some Claimtliat the group, which first made a name for itself in Syria, is in contact with the Taliban.

Sabri Jamaat

Early in 2014, Sabri Jamaat, a Tajik-Uzbek military formation in Syria, led by Klialid ad-Dagestani, released a video stating that it Iiadjoined ISIS. [17] The decision to join ISIS was taken after Jabhat Fateh al-Sham tried to take Sabri JamaaCs anti-aircraft weapons. Later, however, the group gave no public sign that it was active in Syria.

Central Asians are also fighting in other groups dominated by Russian-speakers, such as the so-called Crimean Jamaat, as well as the Chechen group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar.

Online propaganda

Widespread propaganda on the internet is crucial in contributing to the successful recruitment of Central Asian fighters. On the popular video- sharing platform YouTube, one can freely search for and view a huge number of professional and amateur videos about the activities of different terrorist groups. These propaganda clips are very popular and have been watched more than 100,000 times.

Virtual recruitment is therefore becoming a powerful tool of manipulation and it is more and more difficult to track. Whereas state security services used to be able to block resources containing terrorist or extremist content, they do not always succeed now in taking countermeasures because most terrorist groups have shifted their focus to social networks such as Twitter, where they propagate an ideology of war and jihad.

Moreover, fighters are becoming less active in the Russian portion of the internet, including on the social networks Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki. One reason could be that the account holders have died, another might be greater monitoring of social networks by the Russian law enforcement agencies. In recent months, therefore, ISIS lias Sliifted “some of its propaganda and recruitment work to the crypted mobile messaging service Telegram”. [18]

Terrorist groups are widely and actively taking advantage of the opportunities that the internet affords: they are nimble and professional in their use of information technologies and know how to turn “public relations” to their own ends. In 2015, special Structmes within the Collective Security Treaty Organisation intercepted more than 57,000 websites that were being used to recruit Central Asian citizens.[19]

Terrorist attacks in 2016 (Aktobe, Bishkek)

Predictions around the activation of sleeping cells and the negative influence of internet propaganda have started to come true, as the recent terrorist attacks in Kazaklistan and Kyrgyzstan graphically demonstrate.

On 5 June 2016, in the Kazakh city of Aktobe, a group of radicals carried out a series of attacks which resulted in the deaths of civilians and soldiers, as well as the attackers themselves. Radical internet propaganda was the main catalyst for the attack. The Kazakh secret services revealed that the group’s members Iiad earlier listened to a speech, supposedly by an official member of ISIS, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, calling for jihad. Afterwards, the radicals decided to organise “jihad” in their country.

Tliis terrorist attack was carried out by a group that was neither part of, nor affiliated to, any of the major terrorist groups. They acted without orders from any centre and had only indirect links with radical groups abroad. They listened to sermons by an ISIS ideologue, for instance.

It was an attack by a sleeping cell and the terrorist threat came from within. These conspiratorial cells present a very serious threat because they act spontaneously, without a definite plan. It is extremely difficult to anticipate their strategic goals and possible course of action. Sleeping cells can take us by surprise by coming alive at any moment.

The attack on the Cliinese embassy in Bislikek, Kyrgyzstan, in August 2016 Sliowedjust how serious is the threat of terrorism from without. It showed that Central Asian radical groups deployed in Syria are both willing and capable of operating on their own states’ territory. What is more, the attack in Bislikek brought home the possibility that internal and external threats could merge together. If tliis Iiappened, the outcome would be serious and unpredictable. Central Asian fighters see the region as part of a single Islamic caliphate. The countries of Central Asia must therefore extend regional cooperation in counter-terrorism.

Current world trends mean that in the short term. Central Asian countries will likely strive to maintain the existing strategic balance of power. International and regional players with a stake in the region will safeguard its security, as far as they are able, in order to advance their own security interests.

In the medium term, the Central Asian republics will have to reckon with the influence of global political transformations. The way in winch Central Asian political systems function is deeply ingrained and will Irinder the formulation of adequate response to new problems. Tliis inadequacy is primarily linked to domestic challenges. The five state of Central Asia must therefore focus their efforts on achieving certain goals, such as creating the conditions for further political and social modernisation.

Reducing radicalisation must remain one of the main priorities in guaranteeing regional security. Tliis can only be helped by resolving acute social and economic problems, reining in corruption, reforming education policy. spreading counter-narratives more widely and blocking radical content in a timely manner. Other prophylactic measures might include tightening controls over the routes that citizens use to reach, and return from, combat zones. It is also important to take steps to monitor [... ] the financing of terrorist groups by bodies which appear to perform charitable or other work not directly connected to the radical groups. It is crucial for Central Asian states to prevent terrorist activity from moving into their own countries.

Year: 2018
City: Almaty