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.
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