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Qishloq Ovozi

A video grab allegedly shows Islamic State (IS) militants waving a jihadist flag at Mosul Dam on the Tigris River.

As if there were not enough militant problems for Central Asia already, some sources suggest the Islamic militant group currently dominating world headlines is also Central Asia’s greatest extremist challenge.

There has not yet been any indication Islamic State (IS) is in any position to threaten Central Asia, but there have been some statements of support for IS from militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and these latter groups are on Central Asia’s doorstep.

What kind of a threat does IS represent to Central Asia and what conditions could allow the group to become a genuine menace to the region?

That was the topic of a roundtable discussion (audio recording below) hosted by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, and moderated by service director Muhammad Tahir.

Participants in the discussion were: Casey Michel, author of many recent articles about Central Asia, including “Moscow Hypes the Central Asia Jihadist Threat”; Alisher Sidikov, the head of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, who has reported extensively on militant groups in Central Asia (and close by); Abubakar Siddique, chief editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website and author of the recently published book “The Pashtun Question, The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan”; and, as usual, I said a few things also.

Tahir asked the panelists where are these warnings about an IS threat to Central Asia coming from.

Michel pointed to Russia as a primary supplier of fuel to Central Asia’s fears. Michel cited a recent interview on the website UzNews.net with Yevgeny Satanovsky. The interview starts by saying, “The catastrophic wave of violence at the hands of the Islamic State will repeat itself in Afghanistan and then move on to Central Asia, forecasts the president of the Russian Institute for the Middle East Studies.”

Michel said it is part of a Kremlin campaign to whip up concern in Central Asia. The great publicity the IS has generated has, Michel said, “allowed Moscow to capitalize and they have allowed the [Russian] media as well as [Russian] think tank individuals and certain security officials to portray Islamic State as this massive bogeyman...coming for every Central Asian state.”

It might be working, too. The leaders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan both made references to the IS in their recent Independence Day addresses to their people. All five of the Central Asian leaders also attended the CIS summit in Minsk earlier this month. That does not happen very often. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon even called for a common CIS strategy to confront IS at the Minsk summit.

Ample reporting exists to show some Central Asians who have traveled to Syria are in the ranks of IS.

Many of these Central Asians, as Uzbek Service chief Sidikov noted, actually were in Russia as migrant laborers and became radicalized, or were simply recruited by the IS on the promise of better pay and a chance to wage jihad. “We see that the majority of militants from Uzbekistan in Syria basically traveled from Russia to Turkey and then into Syria and Iraq,” Sidikov said.

Sidikov also said there could be some contact between IS and Central Asia’s primary militant group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The IMU recently said it “supports” the IS goal of creating an Islamic caliphate but stopped short of saying it was willing to merge with IS.

Sidikov pointed out that the IMU has been active in Afghanistan and Pakistan for well over a decade now and has learned to avoid the sophisticated war machines of Western nations as well as how to attack better-armed opponents. It would be useful knowledge for a group that is already facing attacks from warplanes and drones.

The tradeoff could be financing, since the IMU doesn’t have the same access to funding that IS currently enjoys.

Gandhara chief editor Siddique agreed there was a possibility of increased contact between IS and the IMU and also between IS and some militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.

But Siddique explained that as concerns Afghanistan, “the IS caliphate is in a direct clash with the Islamic caliphate that Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, announced a long time ago.”

Besides the Taliban there is Al-Qaeda, which regards Pakistan’s tribal areas as its birthplace. Siddique pointed to Al-Qaeda’s recent creation of a group to take jihad to India as proof al-Qaeda is interested in expanding its territory and influence, and Siddique mentioned that the terror group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is “clearly opposed to the Islamic State.”

But most importantly, Siddique explained that IS is essentially an Arab movement with its religious roots in the orthodox Islam of the Arabian Peninsula.

Other panelists followed this thought, commenting that Central Asians, while Sunni Muslims, practice a slightly different version of Islam. Central Asia is the birthplace of Sufism, for example, and in the eyes of IS, Sufis are heretics.

All the panelists agreed that the strongest appeal IS could have for the people of Central Asia would be the militant group’s potential to topple the unpopular and unjust regimes of Central Asia.

The same Central Asian governments that now warn of the danger of IS might be creating an environment that would help the Arab extremist group gain supporters in Central Asia.

The continued repression in Central Asia of opposition groups, the suspicion with which the Central Asian governments treat the pious Muslims of the region, and the poverty, inequality, and injustice the people of the region are enduring could drive some to put their trust in an outside Islamic group promising change.

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Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political, energy, and security development. He's written for "Foreign Policy," "The Atlantic," "The Moscow Times," and Al-Jazeera, and has worked with International Crisis Group in Bishkek. He's always looking for birding tips in Central Asia. Follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

News from Alisher Sidikov and the RFE/RL Uzbek Service can be found athttp://www.ozodlik.org/

Abubakr Siddique’s critically acclaimed book is on sale and his Gandhara website can be found at http://gandhara.rferl.org/

News from Muhammed Tahir and the RFE/RL Turkmen Service can be found athttp://www.azathabar.com/

-- Bruce Pannier

U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer (file photo)

Turkmenistan is a troublesome partner. The country needs outside help to develop its vast energy resources but shuns a foreign presence on its soil or any foreign advice about how the county should be run.

International human rights groups and media freedom organizations perennially list Turkmenistan as having one of most abusive regimes in the world.

That should make Turkmenistan an unlikely party to be a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but it is a member, though the country's participation is difficult to see sometimes.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, or Azatlyk as it is known locally, recently interviewed the U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer on the sidelines of the Forum 2000 conference in Prague to ask about both U.S. and OSCE relations with Turkmenistan.

Azatlyk noted Turkmenistan was included on the U.S. State Department's list of countries of particular concern during the most recent report on religious freedom after being left off the list previously.

Asked if this were part of a new U.S. approach toward Turkmenistan, Baer said not really.

"I don't think that constitutes a new approach," the ambassador said. "I think that there have been consistent concerns with the observance of the government of Turkmenistan of its international obligations with respect to human rights and those are concerns that we have raised both publicly and privately for many years now."

Turkmenistan's poor human rights record came up at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, "Europe's largest annual human rights and democracy conference," in September. The OSCE organizes the event each year.

Baer confirmed that Turkmenistan was a topic during the meeting. But he said only delegates of other countries discussed the issue.

"Unfortunately, Turkmenistan boycotts that meeting -- and it really is unfortunate -- because, if the government of Turkmenistan were there to engage, they might be able to respond to some of the concerns that are raised," Baer said.

Asked about OSCE regulations on the continued absence of a member, Baer said there were no regulations on this point. But he said Turkmenistan has already been the subject of a special OSCE report and the organization was looking into how best to convince the Turkmen government to implement the recommendations from that report.

Afghan Withdrawal

With respect to U.S.-Turkmen relations, Baer said, "United States' officials both in Ashgabat and in Washington and various other places around the world where we meet with Turkmen officials, raise a range of concerns."

Baer said he personally has "raised concerns about political prisoners. I won't go into the 'he said, she said' back-and-forth of a particular conversation, but let's just say that we have a genuine and a lengthy engagement on a range of topics, including human rights."

Azatlyk asked Ambassador Baer about the upcoming drawdown of foreign forces in Afghanistan and what measures the OSCE and Washington are taking to help safeguard Central Asia from threats emanating from Afghanistan.

The issue is particularly important to Turkmenistan where six soldiers and border guards were killed along the Afghan border in two separate incidents earlier this year.

According to Baer, "specific, concrete work with the OSCE would be the engagement through the border management staff college and other specific projects of the OSCE office in Turkmenistan."

As regards Washington, "there's been a long-standing cooperative engagement between our two governments on issues of security and that conversation is ongoing."

Russian Influence

Asked about the potential for Russian influence to grow in the Central Asian region as a void is created by the foreign forces departing Afghanistan, Baer said, "Russia has had a long relationship with the countries of Central Asia and there's no reason to be concerned about a relationship per se, there are trade relations, there are family relations, there are obviously a lot of migrant workers that have come mainly from the Central Asian states."

But Baer said there is concern about Russia's influence rolling back democratic progress in Central Asia.

Baer, perhaps from a sense of diplomacy, did not mention Turkmenistan in this regard.

The ambassador's omission might be a reflection of the fact there has not been any significant "democratic progress" in Turkmenistan since the country became independent in late 1991.

The ambassador instead commented on the one country in Central Asia that has some potential to move toward a more democratic system, Kyrgyzstan, seemed to be imitating some of Russia's recent controversial legislation.

"We see in a place like Kyrgyzstan the passage…through parliament of a law that looks pretty much exactly like the so-called gay propaganda in law in Russia," Baer said. "That's a roll back of democratic freedoms in Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyzstan can do better."

-- Bruce Pannier, based on an interview conducted by Muhammad Tahir, the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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