Multiple news agencies cited Turkish security sources in reporting early today that the three Islamic State suicide bombers who attacked Atatürk airport in Istanbul on Tuesday were from Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
An IS attack against a Turkish soft target is unfortunately not out of the ordinary these days. Turkey has been cracking down on IS for some time now, both out of deference to U.S. requests and because IS was becoming too powerful for its liking. As a result, Turkey has been targeted multiple times by IS in recent months.
The important part of these developments from our perspective is that two of the three militants directly involved in this attack were from Central Asia. It represents a significant confirmation of our forecast that Central Asia is on the verge of a serious destabilization.
Central Asia is currently at the crossroads of a number of external crises. The drop in oil prices has severely damaged the region’s largest economy, Kazakhstan, and put pressure on Turkmenistan. Sustained low oil prices have also put a great deal of pressure on Russia’s economy, to which all of Central Asia is highly exposed.
Meanwhile, China’s economic struggles have negatively affected Chinese investment and trade activities in Central Asia as well. The result is that there have been periodic instances of civil unrest throughout the region. We do not expect this to crest into a serious threat to the current regimes in 2016, but the longer the situation continues, the more chance there is for serious conflict.
One of the other key factors playing into Central Asia’s destabilization however is the spread of jihadist ideologies into the region, which is only exacerbated by economic challenges.
It is impossible to know how many individuals from Central Asian countries have been recruited into IS. International Crisis Group produced a report last year which suggested that at least 2,000 Central Asians had joined IS. The Kazakh government estimates that about 300 of its citizens have joined IS. And on the battlefield, fighters with Central Asian nationalities are as some of IS’ best. Still, any hard information is anecdotal at best, as these are impossible to track with high accuracy. It is notable that in the past few months, IS has produced multiple propaganda videos seemingly to recruit people with Central Asian nationalities, in languages like Uzbek and Kazakh and with Russian subtitles.
Just because hard data is difficult to come by doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. And the news that Uzbek and Kyrgyz citizens likely traveled to the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Raqqa, planned a sophisticated attack inside Turkey and successfully carried it out means that IS and those sympathetic to the jihadist cause are organized in Central Asian countries. They can recruit and redirect recruits to different parts of the world. Therefore, the various terror alerts that come from places like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan should not be dismissed as merely excuses by local governments to abuse human rights, but rather as responses to a real and growing threat.
As the attack on Atatürk airport shows, this kind of destabilization in Central Asia is not going to stay in Central Asia. It can exacerbate issues in China and Russia. It can make even more productive already fertile recruiting ground in the Russian-controlled and Muslim-majority parts of the Caucasus.
And most pertinent to our forecast, it represents a direct threat to the various regimes keeping tight hold over their people throughout Central Asia. Just earlier this month, jihadists were allegedly behind an attack in the Kazakh city of Aktobe. The head of Kazakhstan’s national security committee said yesterday that it detained “several” members of a group planning future attacks. One detonated a suicide bomb rather than be taken into custody.
The other question is whether Central Asian countries will turn to outside powers for help in combating this threat in the region. Last year, Eurasianet reported that Russia had troops in Turkmenistan guarding the border against infiltration by militants from Afghanistan, and Russia maintains an active presence in some of these former Soviet states, most notably Tajikistan. One thing to watch will be whether Russia or the U.S. is invited to send significant anti-terrorism forces to the region to help keep the situation under control.
Our annual forecast foresaw instability in Central Asia. We have been tracking increasing instability. The attack in Turkey and the identification of the attackers indicates that Central Asian instability is increasing. If they can hit Atatürk airport, they will eventually go after Central Asian regimes.