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Central Asia’s Dangerous Homecoming

The Islamic State could make the region its next base.

  • Last updated: June 14
  • Total word count: 2295 words

Summary

Nearly four years ago, the Islamic State was on top of the world. After seizing large segments of Iraq and Syria, the group announced the establishment of a caliphate on June 29, 2014. Islamist extremists from all over rushed to join the group. Major militaries bent on destroying the group were not far behind. By the end of 2017, the Iraqi government was declaring Iraq “totally liberated” of IS, and the Russian General Staff was touting similar results in Syria.

The same year IS was making headlines in Iraq and Syria, a branch of the group was taking root in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Its fate has been very different. In April 2017, when U.S. officials estimated there were 700 IS members in Afghanistan, the U.S. military made its intentions to dismantle the group known when it dropped the “mother of all bombs” on IS targets in Nangarhar province. A few months later, a U.S. airstrike in Kunar province killed the leader of the Afghan branch. By November, however, with the war still raging, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan said American forces had killed over 1,600 IS fighters in Afghanistan. In late December, IS blew up a cultural center in Kabul, killing 50 people. Other bombings followed, the largest of which killed almost 70 on April 22, 2018. A few days ago, on June 8, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan said anti-IS operations would intensify during the ongoing temporary cease-fire against the Taliban.

The Islamic State branch in Afghanistan benefited somewhat from the demise of IS in Iraq and Syria. As the latter crumbled, current and would-be foreign fighters – many of whom come from Central Asia – sought out the next battleground, which many decided was Afghanistan. Looking ahead, in much the same way that successes against IS in Iraq and Syria pushed the fight to Afghanistan, successes in Afghanistan could push the fight north, into Central Asia. Thousands of people from Central Asia are believed to have joined IS in Iraq and Syria, so in a way, this would be a homecoming.

Terrorist groups near the borders of several Central Asian countries are already growing more active. More than 15,000 IS fighters are at the southern borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, the secretary of the Security Council of Russia said in late May. There are reports of IS fighters concentrating in the northeastern Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar and Kunduz, all of which border Tajikistan. Specifics on the fighters are hard to come by, but Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security believes they number about 7,000. This includes about 4,000 in Kunduz, an estimated 95 percent of whom are Uzbeks from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (which pledged its loyalty to IS in 2015).  

To be fair, many prognosticators – ourselves included – have been waiting for years for the turmoil in Afghanistan and Pakistan to drag down Central Asian states. Yet the Institute for Economics and Peace, which puts out a yearly Global Terrorism Index, placed only Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the half of countries most affected by terrorism, and even those only barely. (Kazakhstan ranked the worst at 67 – the higher the ranking, the more effect terrorism has on the country – just behind Canada.) Incidents of terrorism actually dropped between 2002 and 2016 in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, according to the index. But think tank indexes don’t change geopolitics, and they can’t fix socio-political or economic stresses. What those indicators say is that Central Asia has a rather high chance to become a new hotbed for terrorists. This would be bad news not just for Central Asia but also for its neighbors, especially China and Russia. In this Deep Dive, we’ll look at the geopolitics and the internal stresses of the region, as well as how Russia and China are preparing to fight back.

An Islamic Arc of Instability

Central Asia is surrounded by a sort of Islamic arc of instability. In the south, it borders Afghanistan and Pakistan. To the east is the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China’s most unstable region, where a plurality of the population – about 45 percent – is Muslim. And to the west, the restive Caucasus is separated from Central Asia by only the Caspian Sea. The southern section of the instability arc is the most contagious, so although the socio-economic vulnerabilities in each state are fairly comparable, the three that border Afghanistan – Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are most immediately vulnerable to the spillover of IS and the Taliban.


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Tajikistan has the weakest army and the longest border with Afghanistan – more than 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) – of the Central Asian countries. It is simply incapable of securing its borders and stopping extremists from slipping into its territory. Turkmenistan’s border with Afghanistan is a little more than half as long as Tajikistan’s, but a nearly 500-mile border is not much more defensible. Turkmenistan is also attractive to Islamists because of its sparse population, weak military and the absence of Russian military bases, factors that combine to make it easier to put down roots and spread.

Uzbekistan, on the other hand, may be the best-prepared country in Central Asia to counter an influx of terrorists from Afghanistan. The border is less than 90 miles long and traces the Amu Darya river, a natural obstacle to clandestine crossings. Uzbekistan also has Central Asia’s largest active-duty military, according to a 2017 International Institute for Strategic Studies report, and it inherited a great deal of the Soviet Union’s military equipment when the USSR collapsed.

Farther north, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are shielded from the Afghan border, but they have another threat: Xinjiang. The Chinese state-run Global Times newspaper quoted unnamed sources in 2014 as saying some 300 Chinese Uighurs were fighting with IS in Iraq and Syria. And in the late 1990s, Chinese Uighurs in Xinjiang formed what is now known as the Turkistan Islamic Party, a terrorist group whose goal is to create a caliphate in Xinjiang and Central Asia. Moreover, Kazakhstan’s vast steppes are desirable terrain for jihadist groups, including those that could come from the south, because many areas are sparsely populated and hard to patrol. From there it is also possible to move into Russia and the Caucasus, where allies would not be difficult to find.

Turmoil Inside the Arc

The roots of extremism and terrorism in Central Asia can be clearly traced back to the 1990s, but that isn’t when the first wave of Central Asian terrorism began. The first terrorist movement there was actually the Basmachi movement, a Muslim revolt against the Bolsheviks and the Russian people under the banner of a “holy war,” starting in 1917. The movement was defeated by the Red Army in 1938, but Central Asian Islamism was not extinguished. In the Soviet Union, Muslims could not openly profess their religion and were instead forced to accept state atheism. The successes of Islamists in Afghanistan against the USSR in the 1980s, combined with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, breathed new life into Central Asian Islamism, and a number of groups emerged that began to cooperate with, for example, the Taliban movement.

The strict authoritarianism that took hold in the newly independent states of Central Asia in the mid-1990s was fuel to the Islamist fire. Government efforts to stop the spread of Islam and Islamist groups, which they perceived to be a threat to their power, had the reverse effect. Political opposition became violent resistance, and terrorist movements formed in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, bent on creating an Islamist state inside their territory.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, established in the late 1990s, became the largest terrorist group in the region. Its mission was to topple the regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who died in 2016, and establish an Islamic state uniting the five states of Central Asia. The IMU was once aligned with al-Qaida but it formally switched loyalties to IS in 2015. Other groups include Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, Jamaat Ansarullah (originally from Tajikistan) and the Turkistan Islamic Party (formerly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement), which mostly threatens China. A newer group, Lashkar-e-Khorasan, has formed with the goal of creating a Central Asian caliphate, though it is not tied to IS, according to Andrei Serenko, a scholar at the Russia-based Center for Studies of Modern Afghanistan. Lashkar-e-Khorasan consists mostly of people from Central Asia.

The motivation of terrorists is a hotly debated topic, but religion alone is rarely a sufficient driver. Extremism usually spreads when there are unfavorable social or economic conditions and the legal avenues for political dissent prove ineffective. Central Asia in the 1990s is a case in point. In the first years of independence, Central Asian countries had poor economic performances, and parts of the population were marginalized.


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Much has changed in the two decades since. Macroeconomic indicators in Central Asia today are positive. The World Bank estimates that Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan all experienced gross domestic product growth of at least 5.3 percent in 2017 and expects 5 percent or better growth for each for at least the next three years, while the GDPs of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan grew by an estimated 4 and 4.6 percent last year, respectively. But their rapid modernization covers up demographic problems and widening social divisions. Poverty and unemployment – especially youth unemployment – are still an issue, even if official statistics don’t always show it. Many are trying to move abroad to find work. Most go to Russia, since Russian is still commonly spoken in post-Soviet states. Some become radicalized. Frustrated youths are the ideal target for jihadist recruiters, and Central Asia has plenty of them.

Pre-Emptive Action

For years, Central Asian extremists concentrated their efforts on Central Asia. But when the Islamic State declared its caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the most dedicated jihadists in Central Asia rushed to join the effort. Most of the fighters came from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In early 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there were some 9,000 people from Commonwealth of Independent States countries (the five Central Asian states plus Armenia, Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine) fighting in Syria. Uzbekistan led the way with 1,500 citizens fighting alongside IS. Tajik official data said about 1,150 of its citizens in recent years had gone to Syria or Iraq to join IS. Tajikistan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs says 519 Tajiks are fighting with IS, while 150 more have died and 36 were allowed to return home and avoid criminal prosecution. Kyrgyz authorities estimated that about 600 of their citizens joined extremist groups in Syria and Iraq; Kazakhstan puts its own estimate at 500; and Turkmenistan says 400. Reliable data does not exist – these estimates count only men, for instance – but the totals are in line with the upper end of most other estimates.

The flow of fighters started to reverse when IS began losing ground and running out of funds. The extremists who left for Iraq and Syria years ago return home battle-hardened, experienced and devout. Border authorities attempt to catch them, but some inevitably slip through the cracks. The fear inside the governments of Central Asia is that the returning militants will create sleeper terrorist cells in their countries, recruiting more fighters and ultimately unifying Islamist movements in the region.

Central Asian governments are also concerned that refugees from Afghanistan could become radicalized, or that Taliban or IS fighters could hide among them. However, the number of refugees in Central Asia is still small: At the start of 2017, 729 refugees were registered in Tajikistan, 653 in Kazakhstan, 339 in Kyrgyzstan, and 27 each in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Central Asian governments have been taking pre-emptive action. Since fall 2015, Tajikistan has closed more than 1,500 mosques in an effort to combat religious extremism. Earlier this year, Russia and Tajikistan carried out joint anti-terrorism drills near the Afghan border. In May 2018, Collective Security Treaty Organization countries launched anti-terrorism drills in Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan, which strives for independence and neutrality, ratified the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Convention on Countering Extremism last June and rejoined SCO counterterrorism drills after a long absence. And the president of Kyrgyzstan said he is not opposed to opening a second Russian military base in the country.

Central Asia’s most powerful neighbors, Russia and China, are keeping a watchful eye on the situation and have been quick to offer help. Both share long borders with Central Asian states and realize that they could be next if terrorism started to spread in the region. In addition, China is cognizant of the threat to its One Belt, One Road projects through Central Asia.

Russia and China, in the framework of the CSTO and the SCO, are working out joint plans with partner states to combat the terrorist threat. After a seven-year hiatus, the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, designed to help Afghanistan fight terrorism, drugs and crime, met in October 2017 in Moscow. The group met again this year in Beijing. In late April, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow was increasing the combat readiness of Russian military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to prevent the spread of militants from northern Afghanistan to Russia’s allies in the CSTO.

Iran and the U.S. have also shown an interest in the stability of Central Asia, and Russia and China are wary of their intentions. Whether it’s conspiracy theory or legitimate fear, Russia seems particularly concerned that the U.S. could be encouraging unrest in Central Asia. Instability there could disrupt China’s One Belt, One Road initiative and distract Russia from interfering in areas more important to U.S. foreign policy. On the other hand, the U.S. will never forget what happened in 2001 when Islamism in Afghanistan grew powerful enough to reach even the United States. And as Central Asian governments have already shown in recent years, nothing gets Russian military bases in the region upgraded or joint drills carried out like hyping the threat of terrorism.