8: Central Asian IS fighters
About. 4,000 Central Asian foreign fighters are in Syria. Many are part of IS, but most will be with the Nusra Front (now: Al Sham, which seems to distance itself somewhat from Al Qaeda ). A few Central Asians are also in Chechen groups. Although the tendency is to cut all the Central Asian countries into one comb, these countries deal with foreign fighters very differently . This reflects how different these countries are both politically, economically and culturally.
From KASAKHSTAN comes approx. 250 foreign fighters in Syria – most of them recruited while working in Russia. Kazakhs in IS stand out because they are the only ethnic group from Central Asia that IS has actively used in its media channel. Among other things, IS published in 2014 a video of Kazakh children executing what IS claims are two Russian spies. The video received a lot of negative attention in the home country.
In contrast to neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the authorities in Kazakhstan have taken a relatively pragmatic stance on the IS threat. The authorities have acknowledged that some compatriots have traveled to Syria, but have less than neighboring countries used the threat to pit religious and political groups against each other. At the same time, Kazakh authorities have in some cases linked internal unrest to alleged “foreign terrorists”.
Analysts believe that USBEKERE is a particularly prominent group among foreign fighters from Central Asia. As Uzbeks applies both citizens of Uzbekistan and ethnic Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. IS has its own material in Uzbek. Estimates of the number of Uzbeks in Syria range from 500 to 2000. In any case, the Uzbeks are the largest group among Central Asian foreign fighters. According to US authorities, in 2015 there were three Uzbek-led groups, all of which took part in battles around the strategically important city of Aleppo.
Uzbek authorities have acted with two faces in dealing with foreign fighters: They have inflated the IS threat and arrested dozens of people illegally for IS membership. Later, they have downplayed the threat and sought to strengthen the power of religious leaders in the face of violent extremism. Among other things, the famous poet (Hayrulla Hamidov) was released in 2015 (previously convicted of extremism ). After his release, he took the lead in opposing IS’s message, which became very popular among young Uzbeks.
KYRGYZSTAN is considered the most democratic of the Central Asian countries. In 2015, Kyrgyzstan authorities said about 200 Kyrgyzstan nationals had traveled to Syria. Most of them are said to be ethnic Uzbeks who are often discriminated against by Kyrgyzstan. In the summer of 2016, the authorities stated that they had arrested three people in the Batken region to plan an underground cell that would carry out attacks in the country. About 30 Kyrgyzstan are said to have been prosecuted on the basis of their alleged IS membership.
TAJIKISTAN is the poorest of the Central Asian countries. The government of Tajikistan has stated that there are 1,000 IS fighters from Tajikistan in Syria, but this is probably greatly exaggerated. More real figures show around 190. Tajik authorities have offered amnesty to 50 returned foreign fighters who have voluntarily surrendered. These have later participated in public campaigns to warn others against participating in extremist groups. At the same time, the government is trying to link IS to the opposition in the country and thus blacken it.
TURKMENISTAN is the most closed of the Central Asian countries, and it is difficult to get reliable information about how many have traveled to Syria. Given the strict control, it is most likely very few from Turkmenistan who have traveled to IS, probably no more than 360 in total. However, it is unclear whether these are ethnic Turkmens from the Middle East and Turkey, or whether they actually come from Turkmenistan. There is also no IS material in Turkmen.
9: The way forward
It is disputed whether returned foreign fighters could pose a real threat to Central Asia and Russia. All countries have strict border controls, and the authorities have very broad powers over violent extremist groups. At the same time, the brutal anti-terror policy of these states means that the polarization and thus the level of conflict in the countries can increase. Uzbekistan, and especially in Turkmenistan, is very closed, which makes it difficult to confirm the information about the foreign fighters from there. During 2016, the international coalition stepped up its military efforts in Syria and Iraq, and IS has been significantly weakened .
The group will most likely use its remaining resources to strengthen its position there rather than send people home. Due to the weakened position, IS ‘strategy has also changed. Now they use the propaganda apparatus to reach people in their home country rather than make them travel to Syria.
According to ITYPEAUTO.COM, Russia and the Central Asian countries are very different , but all (except Kyrgyzstan) are considered authoritarian countries. Restricting people’s religious freedom and using ” radical Islam ” as a pretext to oppress their own people is likely to lead to even stronger responses from violent extremists. If Russia and the Central Asian countries are to succeed in the fight against radicalization, a fundamental shift is needed in the handling of foreign fighters and of minorities in general. The authorities in most of the mentioned countries use coercive force rather than dialogue and integration . Such a policy can lead to even more anger and frustration, which in turn can intensify recruitment to violent extremist groups.
Muslim majorities and radical subgroups
Sunni Islam and Shia Islam are the two major faiths in Islam. In recent years, the media has focused on a number of smaller directions as well – most often radical – which are partly based on the big ones and are based on these. Some of them are:
- Salafists- strong believers and strictly practicing Sunni Muslims who try to live as the first generations of Muslims did, before Islam absorbed foreign elements and became more “diluted”. Some (jihadist-holy war) Salafists want armed struggle against unbelievers or corrupt states.
- Sufists- followers of Sufism, which is a common term for Islamic mysticism and is used by both Shia and Sunni Muslim groups. A majority of Sunni Muslims consider Sufism to be part of Sunni Islam. Sufists generally place greater emphasis on the inner spiritual aspect of religiosity than on the observance of religious rules.
- Wahhabites- adherents of Wahhabism, a radical, fundamentalist direction within Sunni Islam and movement founded in the 18th century by Mohammed Abd al-Wahhab. State ideology in Saudi Arabia.