Kyrgyz nationals heading to Syria to join militant groups including the Islamic State (IS) group are motivated by ideology rather than financial reward, according to Rafik Mambetaliev, the head of the Interior Ministry's Department for Combating Organized Crime.
Mambetaliev spoke to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyk, this week about why Kyrgyz citizens are radicalizing and joining groups like IS in Syria and whether returning fighters pose a threat to Kyrgyzstan.
"At first, citizens were pushed to Syria by deception, with promises of money. But now, Kyrgyz in Syria are attracted not by material values, they are once again being conned by having ideology imposed on them. Some are susceptible to these tricks and go, they even take their families and children with them," Mambetaliev said.
While he said that ideology and not financial incentives was the main factor in attracting Kyrgyz nationals to radicalize and go to Syria, Mambataliev also said that the socioeconomic situation in Kyrgyzstan was a push factor.
"Many of our citizens are working abroad, some of them fall under the influence of various religious movements," he added.
Who Goes To Syria?
Mambataliev said that the Kyrgyz government has created a special group to analyze the profiles of those who go to Syria. As part of the group's work, analysts visited the regions in Kyrgyzstan which had seen the highest numbers of people going to Syria.
"As a result of the analysis carried out, we uncovered about 200 people who had gone to take part in the hostilities in the Middle East. Of these, 125 were Uzbeks, 23 were Kyrgyz and 15 were Tajiks and other ethnic groups," Mambataliev said.
The analysis found that about 30 women were among those who had left to go to Syria.
According to Mambataliev, the regions of Kyrgyzstan from which Kyrgyz nationals are traveling to Syria are mainly in the south of the country. They include the Kara-Suu, Aravan and Uzgen districts in the southwestern province of Osh; the city of Kyzyl-Kiya and the Kadamjay in Batken province also in the southwest. However, recruits also came from the Suzak district of Jalal-Abad province in the center-west of the country and Kara-Balta in the northernmost Chuy province.
Most recruits went to Syria via Turkey, Mambataliev said. However, not all went to Turkey from Kyrgyzstan; other Kyrgyz nationals came via Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia.
According to Mambataliev, many of the Kyrgyz nationals who go to Syria are not aware of the situation there.
"When they get to Syria and see what is happening, they repent. But then it's too late to repent, but some do escape and try to return to [Kyrgyzstan]. In that case, citizens should not forget that returnees will be brought to justice. Recently a Kyrgyz was sentenced to four years in prison for taking part in the fighting in Syria," he said.
However, Mambataliev said that the Kyrgyz government would permit those who had fought in Syria to come home.
"Even if an offense has been committed or the law broken, they are our citizens," he said.
Mambataliev noted that Bishkek is currently preparing to amend existing criminal legislation to toughen up punishments on Kyrgyz nationals who participate in hostilities or conflicts abroad.
"Work to toughen legislation is already under way in Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan," he said. "In Kyrgyzstan we are still engaged in prevention and explanations. We need to bring a whole new level to the struggle against extremism."
A report published this month by the International Crisis Group noted that while Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have introduced laws that make fighting abroad a criminal offense, and while Uzbekistan banned terrorism training in January 2014, proposed amendments to the terrorism legislation in Kyrgyzstan have yet to be signed into law. And since Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are expected to take a "zero tolerance" approach to returning militants, IS supporters seeking to return to Central Asia would "likely choose to go to Kyrgyzstan," the report found.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk