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Concerns Over Kyrgyz Men -- And Women -- Fighting With IS


According to one scholar, "Islamic organizations, with a variety of intents ranging from benign to extreme, have gained influence in some parts of [Kyrgyzstan] by filling a vacuum created by poor governance and a lack of social services." (file photo)

According to one scholar, "Islamic organizations, with a variety of intents ranging from benign to extreme, have gained influence in some parts of [Kyrgyzstan] by filling a vacuum created by poor governance and a lack of social services." (file photo)

The government, security services, and nongovernmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan are concerned about Kyrgyz nationals -- including women -- fighting with the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, analysts and local experts say.

There have been reports of a number of Kyrgyz nationals fighting with IS in Syria, though according to Nazira Kurbanova of the Institute of History, Social and Law Education at Kyrgyz State University, the exact numbers are not known.

Speaking at a roundtable event on IS this week, Kurbanova said that Kyrgyzstan faces a threat of ideological blowback from Kyrgyz nationals fighting in Syria.

"It is not so much IS that is dangerous, but the ideology that it touts. The experience obtained by Kyrgyz who are there [in Syria], which they will bring with them when they return to Kyrgyzstan," she said.

Deirdre Tynan, Central Asia Project Director at the International Crisis Group's Bishkek branch, told RFE/RL that Kyrgyzstan's security services and government are concerned about the issue of Kyrgyz nationals fighting in Syria.

"The number of people who have left for Syria is higher than figures made public, and importantly: it is a wide cross section of people who go," Tynan said in an e-mail.

"Some go to fight with ISIS [another acronym for the Islamic State group], but to say the Islamic State appeals only to uneducated young men is too narrow. Others -- women, businessmen, families -- go to support the Islamic State project because they have an ideological commitment to it. In these sorts of cases they see the violence as unavoidable even though they may not be directly involved in fighting," she added.

This week's round table on IS in Bishkek featured discussions on methods used by the extremist group to radicalize Kyrgyz men and women, and about which population groups were particularly targeted.

Kurbanova said that there has been an increase lately in the number of Kyrgyz women who have gone to the war.

She said that this is both because of a high degree of poverty in the south of the republic, and the legal disenfranchisement of women. According to Kurbanova, polygamy is widespread in the south of the country and many women are not aware of their legal rights.

The website IslamSNG.com quoted Ikbolzhan Mirsaitov from the Kyrgyz nongovernmental organization Search for Common Ground as saying that IS recruiters were primarily seeking girls and women who had medical education. They were also targeting women who felt resentment or dissatisfaction toward the authorities, he said.

Mirasaitov also noted that IS were targeting "educated youth and women" via Russian-language websites.

Asel' Myrzakulova of the Bishkek-based think tank Center Polis Asia said that extremist groups like IS were offering poverty-stricken Kyrgyz assistance in paying for health care and debt. Women were particularly at risk from extremist recruiters because of their low level of Islamic education, which made it hard for them to distinguish between accepted religious norms and IS's radical propaganda.

Filling A Vacuum

However -- at least from media reports of the event -- the roundtable did not appear to come up with many answers about how to combat radicalization.

Deirdre Tynan said that Kyrgyzstan, like other Central Asian states, is moving to criminalize fighting abroad.

"But these laws seem to be put in place to act as a deterrent to would-be returnees. Efforts to prevent extremism are embryonic and rehabilitation is absent. Some 'explanatory work' is done at mosques but radicalization takes place outside of the registered mosque system, often in prayer rooms or private homes, and the government has yet to devise a way to reach these people," Tynan said.

While some in the Kyrgyz security establishment consider IS to be more of a regional risk than the Taliban, Tynan said that the Kyrgyz government is struggling to counter the growth of radical Islam.

"Islamic organizations, with a variety of intents ranging from benign to extreme, have gained influence in some parts of the country by filling a vacuum created by poor governance and a lack of social services, and that's also a threat to Kyrgzystan's secular government," Tynan told RFE/RL.

One approach to countering IS that was presented during this week's roundtable suggested including other regional countries -- notably Russia -- in efforts to combat the extremist group.

Tokon Mamytov, the head of Kyrgyzstan's Border Service, said that IS was a "new type of army" that the Central Asian republic could not deal with alone. Instead, Kyrgyzstan should work with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the intergovernmental military alliance between Russia and five other post-Soviet states including Kyrgyzstan.

Mamytov said that "like Ukraine's Right Sector", the Ukrainian nationalist political party, IS had arisen from "the chaos of globalization."

The Border Service head suggested another approach to dealing with the threat of IS in Kyrgyzstan.

"Sometimes I even fantasize that the Ebola virus was invented just so that it could put a stop to IS," he admitted.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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