Over the past week, political figures in Kyrgyzstan have given very different estimates for the number of Kyrgyz citizens fighting with militant groups in Syria, ranging from 225 to over 500.
It is not known how many Kyrgyz citizens are fighting with Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria. In September, following a report that eight Kyrgyz nationals had been killed fighting with Islamist militants in Syria, a spokesman for the Interior Affairs Directorate in Kyrgyzstan's southern region of Osh, Jenish Ashyrbaev, said that some 100 Kyrgyz citizens had joined the Islamist insurgency in Syria.
There are also reports that at least one Kyrgyz woman, a 19-year-old medical student from Osh, traveled to Syria to join the IS group in July. Osh police chief Suiun Omurzakov said that jihadist groups were actively recruiting female Kyrgyz medical students.
While the concerns over Kyrgyz nationals traveling to Syria are legitimate, the recent leap in the estimated numbers of Kyrgyz nationals in Syria, and the context in which these figures were expressed reflects heightened fears in Kyrgyzstan about the influence of the IS group and its extremist ideology. The raised estimates also follow reports of a crackdown by Kyrgyzstan against what it sees as the growing spread of IS ideology on the Internet.
'Over 500' Kyrgyz In Syria?
The figure of "over 500" Kyrgyz nationals in Syria was proposed on December 23 by lawmaker Mayrambek Rasulov.
Rasulov, who is a member of the Kyrgyz parliament's human rights committee and who has previously spoken out against "gay propaganda," said that "even pregnant women" were among those Kyrgyz citizens who had joined the militants.
"Today there are three of our citizens in Syrian jails and who face the death penalty for taking part in the hostilities," said Rasulov, who called on the government to "intensify efforts to explain to the public that they must not go to Syria and about what awaits them there."
...Or 225 Kyrgyz In Syria?
Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Abdyrakhman Mamataliev insisted that the government was aware of every person who had gone to Syria and was "doing its utmost to make sure that no one at all goes to the war."
Mamataliev said on December 23 that the government had organized a coordinating council to combat extremism and terrorism, which was carrying out an "informational campaign" among citizens.
Although he did not openly disagree with Rasulov's figure of 500 Kyrgyz nationals in Syria, on December 26, Mamataliev told the Kyrgyz news portal Vb.kg that there were 225 Kyrgyz citizens fighting in Syria, including with the IS group.
Mamataliev also warned that Islamic State militants were using the Internet to promote their activities, and reemphasized the need to crack down on such activities.
"This phenomenon is giving rise to concerns that this activity has started to influence minors. In this case, we must remember that the fight against extremism cannot be reduced to bringing to justice those individuals who perpetrate these crimes. Here we must introduce a series of antiextremism measures," the minister said.
Kyrgyzstan has already begun to crack down on what it sees as IS activities on the Internet, including by blocking a local news portal, Kloop.kg, which had posted footage from an IS video featuring Kazakh children.
The move to block Kloop.kg because of its reporting on the video led to criticism from the website's co-founders that the government was acting illegally and that it was punishing Kyrgyz citizens in order to appease Kazakhstan, which has blocked the IS video.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk