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Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia

By International Crisis Group

20 January 2015

Growing numbers of Central Asian citizens, male and female, are travelling to theMiddle East to fight or otherwise support the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIL orISIS). Prompted in part by political marginalisation and bleak economic prospectsthat characterise their post-Soviet region, 2,000-4,000 have in the past three yearsturned their back on their secular states to seek a radical alternative. IS beckons notonly to those who seek combat experience, but also to those who envision a moredevout, purposeful, fundamentalist religious life. This presents a complex problemto the governments of Central Asia. They are tempted to exploit the phenomenon tocrack down on dissent. The more promising solution, however, requires addressingmultiple political and administrative failures, revising discriminatory laws and policies,implementing outreach programs for both men and women and creating jobs athome for disadvantaged youths, as well as ensuring better coordination betweensecurity services.

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Should a significant portion of these radicalised migrants return, they risk challengingsecurity and stability throughout Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan form a brittle region, sandwiched betweenRussia and Afghanistan, Iran and China. Each suffers from poor governance, corruptionand crime. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan resemble authoritarian police states.Kazakhstan has some wealth, but its regions are in disrepair, and its political systemis autocratic. All five fail to deliver quality social services, particularly in rural areas.Their security services – underfunded, poorly trained and inclined to resort to harshmethods to compensate for a lack of resources and skills – are unable to deal with achallenge as intricate as radical Islam. Rather than promoting religious freedomwhile safeguarding secular constitutions and attempting to learn from European orAsian experiences in rehabilitating jihadis, the five fuel further radicalisation byusing laws to curb religious growth and the police to conduct crackdowns.Recruitment to the extremist cause is happening in mosques and namazkhana(prayer rooms) across the region. The internet and social media play a critical butnot definitive role. The radicalisation of women is often a response to the lack ofsocial, religious, economic and political opportunities afforded to them in CentralAsia. Economic reward is not a motivation for those drawn to IS-controlled territory.For some, it is a personal adventure; for others it is a call to arms. Many find them-selves providing support services to more experienced fighters from the Caucasus orArab states.Ethnic Uzbeks, including citizens of Uzbekistan, are most numerous among theCentral Asians with the Islamic State, but Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Turkmen and Tajiks arealso well represented. Some are recruited at home; others are radicalised abroad,often as migrant workers.

The problem is acute in southern Kyrgyzstan, where therisks are amplified by the alienation of the Uzbek community since the violence inOsh in 2010.The appeal of jihadism in the region is also rooted in an unfulfilled desire for politicaland social change. Rich or poor, educated or not, young or mature, male orfemale, there is no single profile of an IS supporter, but fatigue with social and politicalcircumstances is an important linking thread. Uzbekistan is particularly exposed.Frustrated and excluded, people who would not have considered fightingwith the longer-established Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or the Talibanin Afghanistan perceive the Islamic State as the creator of a novel and ordained politicalorder.The number of Central Asians receiving combat training and progressing throughIS command structures is increasing, as are the jihadi networks of which they are apart. Although most Central Asians find themselves in jamaats (factions) organisedloosely along ethnic and linguistic lines, these form larger regional battalions of cooperatingfighters from across the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan andChina’s Xinjiang region. The risk is rising that these connections will gather paceand purpose in Central Asia, blindsiding governments ill-prepared to respond to asecurity threat of this type.Russia and China are already concerned and have urged the Central Asian statesto address the problem of radicalisation in light of the rise of IS. The region’s otherinternational partners, including, the EU and the U.S., should recognise that CentralAsia is a growing source of foreign fighters and consider prioritising policing reform,as well as a more tolerant attitude to religion, in their recommendations for combatingthe problem. Without a concerted effort on the part of the Central Asians, includingtheir security services with respect to intelligence sharing, however, the responseoutside powers seek will likely flounder.