Central Asian militants fighting with the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Syria and Iraq pose a major security concern in Central Asia, yet governments have as yet done little to address why their citizens seek to join IS, a new report by the International Crisis Group says.
The 16-page report, Syria Calling: Radicalization in Central Asia, was published on January 20, and examines the sociopolitical context of the growing radicalization across the region.
Deirdre Tynan, the International Crisis Group's Central Asia Project Director, said that it is easier for IS to gain recruits in Central Asia than in nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Its appeal in the region is rooted in an unfulfilled desire for political and social change. Rich or poor, educated or not, young or mature, male or female -- there is no single profile of an Islamic State supporter," Tynan said.
According to the report, some 2,000-4,000 men and women from Central Asia have become radicalized and gone to fight with or support the Islamic State group.
Ethnic Uzbeks (including Uzbek citizens) are reportedly the largest group of Central Asians fighting with IS, and there may be as many as 2,500 of these, including from Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. The IS group has also attracted ethnic Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Turkmen, and Tajiks.
The report found that while there is no single profile for a Central Asian IS militant -- the group has attracted younger and older, richer and poorer men and women -- but one factor linking Central Asian IS supporters is "fatigue with social and political circumstances."
IS appears to have exploited these sentiments, with the report noting that, particularly in Uzbekistan, individuals who would not have joined older jihadi groups like the Taliban or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have been attracted to IS, seeing it as having created a new and ordained political order. Islamic State is also seen as standing for a universal purpose, and being about "principles, not colonialism," according to one imam from southern Kyrgyzstan who is quoted in the report.
According to the report, Central Asian governments have frequently failed to recognize that the IS group appeals to a wide cross-section of citizens.
"There are seventeen-year-old hairdressers, established businessmen, women abandoned by husbands who have taken second wives in Russia, families who believe their children will have better prospects in a caliphate, young men, school dropouts and university students. All are inspired by the belief that an Islamic state is a meaningful alternative to post-Soviet life. Some wish to fight, others to facilitate," the report said.
Push And Pull Factors
The report also found that one powerful recruitment tool in Central Asia is word of mouth: After one family member leaves for IS-controlled territory, several more follow.
There is no one single source of radicalization for Central Asian IS supporters. Some Central Asians have become radicalized in Turkey or while working (often illegally) in Russia, while others have been recruited while in religious schools in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Bangladesh.
For most Central Asian militants, entry to Syria is via Turkey, just as it is for many militants from other countries including European states.
Why do Central Asians want to leave their home countries and join the IS group in Syria? The report found that the main pull factor is an ideological commitment to the concept of jihad. Push factors include feelings of religious or ethnic discrimination by the state (this is particularly the case in southern Kyrgyzstan), as well as a background of alienation caused by poor state education and poor religious schooling.
Women who have joined IS have expressed their own reasons for doing so. One woman interviewed for the report said that her husband and those of her friends were "against religion, against Islam. My friends do not want to live with them anymore." Another woman and mother of three said that the IS group's fight was "for religion."
The fear of blowback from Central Asian militants returning home after fighting with Islamic State is a top security concern in Central Asia, the report found.
While many Central Asians militants in Syria will not return, because they will die fighting for IS, others who do wish to come home are too afraid because they do not trust the police.
Paul Quinn-Judge, International Crisis Group's Europe and Central Asia Program Director, said that while the risks from returning militants are "still in infancy," governments should "assess accurately the long-term danger jihadism poses to the region and take proper preventive action now, not brush the danger aside or exaggerate it in a way that will only make the problem worse."
In order to counter the threat of blowback and successfully rehabilitate returnees, the report recommends that Central Asian governments implement a program whereby European and Asian police share with Central Asian security services their experience in rehabilitating male and female former radicals.
"However, the capacities of Central Asian police forces to absorb and implement lessons learned are undermined by weak state structures and distrust of the police," the report noted.
Furthermore, the "zero-tolerance approach" to returning militants expected of the security services in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan could push returning IS militants and supporters to go to Kyrgyzstan rather than their home countries.
Threat To Freedoms?
RFE/RL asked Deirdre Tynan about concerns that the responses by Central Asian governments to the threat posed by the Islamic State group could pose a threat to freedoms.
In November, the government of Kazakhstan reacted sharply to the release by Islamic State of a video showing ethnic Kazakhs -- including children -- undergoing ideological and military instruction.
Kazakhstan immediately banned distribution of the video and blocked sites that showed it. The Kazakh ban also affected neighboring Kyrgyzstan, with a Bishkek news outlet being blocked for showing the video. Earlier this month, Kazakhstan rushed to deny that a man shown apparently being executed by a child in a later video was a Kazakh national. (That video was also banned in Kazakhstan.)
"The response to Islamic State threatens a variety of freedoms, not just freedom of speech. The risk here is that, by creating less free societies, governments inadvertently push people towards radicalism. It could be argued that if Central Asian governments had prioritized freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and allowed for religious plurality at a much earlier stage, fewer people would have been marginalized to the point where Islamic State looks credible," Tynan told RFE/RL.
Despite the fears in Central Asia regarding radicalization, Tynan said that it is not too late for Central Asian governments to address this issue and come up with better responses.
"They would though need to examine their existing laws and question how effective their security strategies are. Better information sharing among Central Asian polices forces, and with their international counterparts, would likely produce more in the way of tangible security improvements than blocking videos," Tynan said.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk