Media outlets in the Central Asian former Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have expressed concern over the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq. They have also expressed disquiet about possible threats posed by the group in the region.
One outlet in the increasingly pro-Moscow Kyrgyzstan has even suggested that the United States intends to use IS to destabilize Central Asia, so that it can re-enter the region via NATO.
Fears that Islamic State is gaining influence in Central Asia have been growing for months. There have been numerous reports that Central Asian citizens are fighting in Syria, mostly for IS.
In Tajikistan in August, there were reports that a Tajik national had been appointed the emir (leader) of the IS-controlled Raqqa province. Earlier this month, it was reported that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) had decided to support IS.
These fears, coupled with concerns of U.S. intervention in the region, are reflected in media reports. Analyst Ikhom Kuliyev, writing in centralasia.ru on October 21, said that over 200 Tajik nationals were reported to be fighting in Syria.
In December, Tajikistan's Supreme Court sentenced three Tajik students to prison terms after they were found guilty of fighting with the "armed opposition" in Syria. It is not clear which group the men were fighting with, but it was likely to be IS.
Kuliyev warned that the threat from IS to Tajikistan and to other Central Asian countries was very real.
"Today, such a threat has turned from something hypothetical into reality. Central Asian states are at the center of an 'arc of instability' through which an attack of 'global jihad' is being launched on modern civilization, and is in direct contact with several terrorist hotbeds (Afghanistan, Xinjiang, Kashmir, North Waziristan). The situation shows that an underground infrastructure has developed in the Ferghana Valley that enables local extremists to collaborate with jihadists in Russia, the Middle East and Africa," he wrote.
Outlets in Kyrgyzstan, where intelligence services have warned that hundreds of nationals have joined extremist organizations, used the IS debate to adopt an anti-American stance, similar to that taken by Russia -- and a sign of the former Soviet Republic's drawing closer to Moscow.
Kyrgyzstan's Russian-language Vesti news outlet, which is noted for featuring local analysts who express opinions on controversial topics, cited "international affairs expert" Mars Sariyev as saying that Washington could use instability caused by IS in Central Asia as a reason to bring NATO forces into the region.
"It is no accident that the emir of one of the towns captured by IS is a Tajik native. Therefore IS can be used by the Americans in our region for the start of so-called "hybrid wars." Then riots and destabilization of the political situation will start…When the conflicts move into a more serious stage, the Americans surely intend to come to "help" in the form of NATO at strategic sites in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan," he added.
Vesti even goes on to cite a "religion expert," Kadyr Malikov, who also blames the West for IS and links IS tactics -- "a humanitarian catastrophe, controlled chaos" -- with those seen in Ukraine.
Kyrgyzstan's NewDayNews outlet offered a more optimistic view, citing local analyst Sergei Masaulov as saying that Kyrgyzstan is less at risk from IS than other Central Asian countries.
Masaulov was asked whether the closure of the U.S. Air Force base, the Manat Transit Center, earlier this year (a move that reflected Kyrgyzstan's desire for closer ties with Moscow) would have an impact on the threat of IS in the country.
The expert said that the base had never been intended for Kyrgyzstan's security.
As regards IS and Islamic extremists in the country, Masaulov said that, while groups like the Pakistani Islamic missionary group Tablighi Jamaat had established a strong presence in Central Asia, it did not mean that IS had taken a foothold in Kyrgyzstan.
"Citizens of the republic see them [Tablighi Jamaat] and get scared and think IS is already in Kyrgyzstan…we have them [extremists] but in Kyrgyzstan we are less susceptible than other countries. After all, we do not have a direct border with Afghanistan…We have to work with the law enforcement agencies and with analysts, which is already happening. We will succeed and beat the enemy, and then everything will be fine," he concluded.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk