Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Miroslav Niyazov, has said that the Islamic State (IS) militant group has become a “real threat” to Central Asian countries.
In an interview with the BBC’s Kyrgyz Service on January 13 that was translated into Russian by the Kyrgyz website Gezitter.org Niyazov was asked how real he thought was the possibility of the Islamic State group carrying out active operations in Afghanistan.
“Islamic State has become a real threat. It is an especially radical, combat-ready movement. Its supporters are among us. Intelligence agencies and the state as a whole should be prepared to counter this threat,” Niyazov said.
Regarding reports that several Kyrgyz citizens had returned to Kyrgyzstan after fighting in Syria for Islamic State, Niyazov said that foreign and domestic intelligence services needed to monitor the Islamic State group “around the whole world.”
Niyazov’s remarks come amid Western media reports this week that the Islamic State group has started to recruit militants in Afghanistan -- which shares a border with Kyrgyzstan’s neighbor, Tajikistan -- and Pakistan. The Islamic State group announced in a video on January 10 that it had established an organizational structure in the region. An Afghan general said on January 12 that Islamic State had launched a recruitment drive in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
Central Asian states and Russia had warned last year that the Islamic State group was gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, with Uzbek President Islam Karimov referring to the threat when he asked his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for assistance in combating extremism in Central Asia. The Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, warned of the threat from Islamic State militants in Afghanistan in December.
The Kyrgyzstan diplomat’s comments about the Islamic State threat also come amid increasing fears about the growth of domestic radicalization and extremism.
The Kyrgyz media reported on January 12 that there had been a number of arrests in the south of the Central Asian republic of individuals suspected of involvement in “extremist activities.”
One of those arrested was suspected of disseminating propaganda materials for Islamic State and for the international pan-Islamic Sunni group Hizb ut-Tahrir, is banned in Kyrgyzstan as well as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as a terrorist group.
Kyrgyzstan’s fears of domestic terrorism and extremism also stem from concerns that Kyrgyz citizens who are fighting in Syria could return home and carry out terrorist attacks.
Detainees in a detention facility run by Kyrgyzstan’s State National Security Committee (SNSC) in Osh told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service this week that they underwent military training in Syria.
It is not known how many Kyrgyz citizens are fighting in Syria and figures quoted by the security services and politicians vary wildly. A spokesman for the Internal Affairs Directorate in Osh put the number of Kyrgyz citizens in Syria as 100 while lawmaker Mayrambek Rasulov claimed there are 500 Kyrgyz nationals fighting with Islamic State.
Kyrgyzstan’s fears about the growth of domestic extremism have been exacerbated over the past few months by the rise of Islamic State in Syria, and the emergence of the group closer to home, in Afghanistan. In October, the Central Asian militant group the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- whose militants fought with Kyrgyz troops in southern Kyrgyzstan in 1999 -- also pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Although the “IS threat” has been played up in Kyrgyz media, it is worth noting that foreign as well as local analysts have for many months warned of the Central Asian state’s vulnerability to extremist Islam. In a report in February 2014, Jacob Zenn of Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst noted that the presence of Central Asian militant groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Afghanistan, and the fact that hundreds of Central Asian militants are fighting in Syria, pose a threat to Kyrgyzstan.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk