Foreign Fighters from Russia and Central Asia Part I

By | October 22, 2021

In January 2017, Turkish authorities arrested a man from Uzbekistan. He was a member of the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) and is now suspected of having carried out the terrorist attack that killed 39 people at a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve .

The suicide bombers who blew themselves up at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport in 2016 came from the Russian republic of Dagestan and the Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

  • Why do foreign fighters from Russia and Central Asia go to Syria?
  • What is the prehistory of violent extremism in the region?
  • What response do the different countries have to the threat?
  • How big a threat can foreign fighters pose to their home countries?

According to ACEINLAND.COM, there have been many media reports about foreign fighters who have traveled from Western Europe to join IS. There have been far fewer ads about those who have traveled from Russia and the Central Asian countries. In December 2016, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that 3,200 Russian citizens had traveled to fight IS in Syria , most of them from the Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. 4,000 foreign fighters from Central Asia are said to have traveled to Syria . Only from the Middle East, North Africa and Western Europe have more traveled (see graph).

2: Why do they leave?

The individual reasons why people travel are very different; it is impossible to generalize when so many have traveled from such a large area. Nevertheless, it is possible to point out some main reasons:

  • Discrimination and alienation. Many Central Asians are recruited via the Internet while working in Russia. Most of them work in miserable conditions and experience being discriminated against and treated condescendingly by Russians. Some believe that this makes them more susceptible to radical currents online. In addition, most Russians have a very negative perception of people from Chechnya and Dagestan, where most Russian IS fighters come from.
  • Economically set aside(marginalized): Many in Central Asia and the North Caucasus feel that the authorities are not meeting their most basic needs. The North Caucasus is the poorest region in Russia – i.a. with the highest unemployment. Groups that claim to be able to offer an alternative and better society often seem more attractive.
  • Stamping: The authorities pursue a brutal anti-terror policy and use the threat image of ” radical Islam ” – to tighten the grip on the population. Stamps such as “radical Islam” are often used to crack down on religious groups that do not fit into the ideology of the state. This can lead to further frustration and radicalization among those who are exposed to what they experience as unreasonable treatment.

3: Religion in Soviet times

The Soviet power’s view of religion is an important backdrop for understanding why citizens of the former Soviet republics join violent extremist groups in Syria.

For a long time, Soviet governments viewed religion as an evil . In Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church had been an important bearer of identity, but the Soviet government saw it as a threat to the formation of a socialist society. In the 1920s, there was widespread persecution of Christians, and many Christians were arrested or executed. During and shortly after World War II, Christianity was given somewhat freer rein , before new persecutions followed until the liberalization and dissolution of the Soviet Union (from the late 1980s).

Against Islam, the anti-religious line was not as strong. Right after the Russian Revolution, most of the inhabitants of the Muslim republics were allowed to practice their religion. Nevertheless, Soviet authorities later – especially under Stalin – imposed restrictions on the practice of Islam. Religion should be a private matter and should not be practiced in public. Surveys (around 1980) showed that the union’s Muslim citizens were far more religious than the Russians. In the Russian Soviet Republic, 80 percent were non-believers, in the Muslim republics only 20 percent.

4: Many have experience from Afghanistan

Many of the foreign fighters from the former Soviet Union have experience from Afghanistan , especially as members of the terrorist organization Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). This is not the first time Afghanistan has served as a hotbed of jihadist ideology, which later spread to the post-Soviet republics. During the war between the Soviet Union and the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan and the resistance movement Mujahedin (1979-1989), something reminiscent of today’s foreign fighters emerged. Many then traveled from the Middle East to Pakistan to receive military training and fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Also in Central Asia, the history of violent extremism is linked to Afghanistan, especially through the IMU. The IMU declared jihad against Uzbekistan in 1998, but the country’s security forces cracked down on the group. In 2000, the IMU fled to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban and Al Qaeda . The IMU originated in Uzbekistan, but has since become increasingly international, both in terms of membership and goals.

Nevertheless, Uzbekistan has used the IMU as a threat to gain international support and to justify its authoritarian rule. Many of the Uzbeks who are now members of IS and Jabhat Fath Al Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) were former IMU fighters. Among rebels in Afghanistan, the term “Uzbeks” is apparently used as far more than Uzbeks. Among the “Uzbeks” are also Tajiks, Chechens, Pakistanis and Saudis.

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