Uzbek militants fighting alongside the Islamic State (IS) group were recruited from among migrant workers in Russia and not within Uzbekistan, a senior Uzbek theologian has claimed.
Abdulaziz Mansur, the deputy chairman of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on March 24 that while Uzbek nationals have joined IS, only "two or three people" traveled directly from Uzbekistan.
"They didn't travel [to Syria] via Uzbekistan. Those who ended up in Syria are those who worked in Russia and afterwards went there. According to the latest figures, they number about 200 people. About 2-3 people went directly via Uzbekistan, but they were arrested," Mansur told RFE/RL.
Mansur said that IS is heavily criticized in Uzbekistan.
"In Uzbekistan, there are books written and magazines published with critical articles about them," Mansur explained.
IS militants have demonstrated that IS is "an organization that acts against Islam," Mansur said.
"The killing of people and violence against women show who they really are. All their actions cause people to not see Islam in a positive way," the theologian told RFE/RL.
How accurate are Mansur's claims about the numbers of Uzbeks in Syria?
While the exact number of Uzbeks -- both Uzbek citizens and ethnic Uzbeks from elsewhere in Central Asia -- fighting in Syria and Iraq is not known, Mansur's estimate of 200 Uzbek nationals fighting alongside the Islamic State group is likely rather low.
There are varying estimates of the numbers of Central Asian militants in Syria and Iraq. A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) estimated that between 2,000 and 4,000 men and women from across five Central Asian states have gone to Islamic State-controlled territory. A Kazakh analyst, Erlan Karin, estimated that 500 Uzbeks, as well as 360 Turkmen, 100 Kyrgyz, and 190 Tajiks are fighting in Syria.
Karin's figure of 500 Uzbeks currently fighting in Syria and Iraq would more accurately reflect the evidence seen on the ground, where there are a number of ethnic Uzbek factions and militants.
In addition to Uzbek factions within the Islamic State group, there is the Uzbek group Katibat Imam al-Bukhari, which is aligned to the Afghan Taliban. Another Uzbek group, Tawhid wa Jihod, is fighting in Aleppo Province and is allied to (but not part of) Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Recruited In Russia?
Mansur's claim that Uzbek nationals are not recruited to militant groups in Uzbekistan, but rather in Russia, reflects a trend in Central Asia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union whereby some officials have been unwilling to accept that radicalization occurs at home.
While there is certainly ample evidence that Central Asian migrant workers in Moscow are being targeted for radicalization, Central Asians are also being radicalized in their home countries, including in Uzbekistan.
The ICG report found that frustration with social and political realities was an important factor among those who had been radicalized and gone to Syria, particularly in Uzbekistan. Young Uzbeks who would not have thought to join older radical groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) saw IS as "the creator of a novel and ordained political order," the report said.
The trend of blaming external forces or minority ethnic groups for radicalization has been seen elsewhere in Central Asia, with Kyrgyzstan's National Security Committee (KNB) claiming last week that most Kyrgyz nationals fighting in Syria are ethnic Uzbeks.
This trend, which has grown out of an existing opposition by governments and pro-government clergy in Central Asia to Islamic fundamentalism, has been particularly noticeable in Uzbekistan where clergy have insisted that Uzbeks are not interested in "Wahhabism." In comments earlier this year, for example, Mansur has claimed that other extremist groups like IMU have no support at all in the republic.
In his most recent comments to RFE/RL, Mansur claimed that while Uzbekistan was under threat from radical movements in the past, that danger has now passed.
"In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Wahhabis had a strong influence on the country. They were going to build mosques, support madrassas [religious schools], provide literature," Mansur said, using a term employed by government leaders in Central Asia and the North Caucasus to denote "Islamic fundamentalism."
A similar phenomenon has been seen in the North Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya, where the pro-Kremlin Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has waged a personal battle against "nontraditional Islam" and "Wahhabis."
Kadyrov has insisted that Chechen residents fighting in Syria were recruited by external forces, including Western intelligence agencies, and that ethnic Chechen militants had gone to Syria from Europe and not from the Chechen Republic.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk