Detainees in a detention facility run by Kyrgyzstan's State National Security Committee (SNSC) in Osh have claimed that they underwent military training and fought in Syria, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Radio Azattyk, reported on January 12.
Detainees interviewed by Radio Azattyk also said that they had returned home with the intention of organizing terror attacks in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Over half of the detainees admitted that they had made a mistake and said that they did not realize that their intentions and actions were misguided, Radio Azattyk reported.
One of the detainees at the facility said that he had become interested in religion after talking to an acquaintance named Farhad. After that, the detainee said that he went to Russia where he committed crimes.
"I went to Russia where I perpetrated robbery for three years. The last time we killed four girls and their "madam" who wore the hijab but carried out sexual services in a sauna. We'd warned them beforehand," he said.
After that, the detainee said he returned home to Osh where he got married. Around half a year later he went to Syria, telling his parents he was going to Turkey for business.
"Even now Mom thinks I was arrested after going to Turkey. I only told my father that I'd gone to Syria. They wouldn't understand me if they knew about my trip to Syria because they don't have a religious education," he said.
The detainee said that, when he is released, he will start a new life and will read Islamic prayers to his family.
It is not known how many Kyrgyz nationals are fighting in Syria, and political figures in the Central Asian republic have given very different estimates.
In September 2014, a spokesman for the Internal Affairs Directorate in the southern region of Osh said that some 100 Kyrgyz citizens had joined the Islamist insurgency in Syria.
A few months later in December 2014, however, lawmaker Mayrambek Rasulov said that "over 500" Kyrgyz were fighting in Syria, while Deputy Prime Minister Abdyrakhman Mamataliev said there were 225 Kyrgyz nationals in Syria and that the government was aware of every one of them.
The jump in estimates from 100 to 225 or "over 500" Kyrgyz in Syria reflects increasing fears about the domestic threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) group in Kyrgyzstan and the wider region.
While there are concerns that the "IS threat" is being overhyped in Central Asia in order to promote crackdowns on certain freedoms, there are legitimate fears concerning radicalization. While the exact numbers remain unclear, there are reports that young Kyrgyz men and women are traveling to Syria to join extremist groups, including Islamic State.
Radicalized In Russia
On December 31, the International Crisis Group published an interview with a Kyrgyz man named Ramaz who said that his 18-year-old daughter had run away from home in February 2014 and went to Syria via Turkey.
The interview sheds some light on how the young girl was radicalized and why she decided to travel to Syria.
According to the girl's father, his daughter had begun to become more religious, praying five times a day, after she started to communicate with a man from Moscow via the Russian social networking site Odnoklassniki.
The girl then gave up her hairdressing job because she said she no longer wanted to cut men's hair. Shortly afterward, the girl ran away to Turkey and said she wanted to study in a religious school. She then told her family she was in Syria and was getting married to a man from Moscow.
The girls' father later found out that the man in question was named Umar and is from southern Kyrgyzstan and had known his daughter from childhood. It was Umar who persuaded the girl to go to Syria. Umar himself appears to have been radicalized in Russia, after going there to work.
Tough Terror Bill
In an attempt to contend with the "IS threat" -- which includes fears of the threat of radicalization of Kyrgyz on domestic soil as well as concerns that Kyrgyz nationals will go to Syria and come home with plans to organize terror attacks, the country's National Security Committee has submitted a bill to parliament that proposes toughening criminal responsibility for those convicted of providing support and assistance to terrorist groups.
According to SNSC press secretary Rakhat Sulaymanova, the bill will target those returnees from Syria who plot terror attacks.
While some Syria returnees "realized that their actions were wrong so they came home and lived peacefully," Sulaymanova said that others "came back with the intention of organizing terrorist attacks in Bishkek and Osh. In addition, they recruit people to go to Syria to participate in fighting with the extremists. For them, punishment should be severe."
Some in Kyrgyzstan have questioned whether increasing punishments for those convicted of crimes related to terrorism or extremism will do much to reduce the problem.
Radio Azattyk spoke to conflict expert Anara Zholduyeva who said that Kyrgyzstan must address the ideological aspects of radicalization, by mobilizing religious leaders to explain to young people "the values of traditional Islam."
"Traditional Islam" is a term used in Russia and other former Soviet states to refer to what are considered indigenous, non-Salafist and non-extremist forms of Islam.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk