How big a threat is Islamic State in Central Asia?

The aftermath of an anti-terrorist raid in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. EPA/Igor Kovalenko

The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) is seen as a growing threat throughout much of the world, its influence extending to North Africa, Europe, and even as far as Indonesia. Yet for the post-Soviet Central Asian republics the potential consequences of the rise of radical Islamism are not clear.

For some, IS is simply the latest version of the “Islamic threat” to Central Asian security. The International Crisis Group, for example, links growing support for violent extremism with the last few decades’ Islamic revival in Central Asia. Others in the media have been more sceptical about the influence of IS in the region, and the attitude of some Western officials has, more than anything, been rather cheerful.

Yet Central Asian governments have continued to use the “war on terror” as an excuse to crack down on opposition, whether Islamic or otherwise. Oppressive security policies towards Islam in Central Asia are often just short-sighted “fixes” that do little to address the long-term structural problems, and if anything, only aggravate them. In their attempts to deal with perceived threats to civil stability, Central Asian governments may actually end up deepening the very problem they seek to resolve.

What is the threat?

Very little is known about IS’s involvement in the countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. What we hear is often alarming, or perhaps alarmist.

Kyrgyz authorities cite a raid they mounted on the home of alleged terrorists in July 2015 as evidence of an IS cell in the capital, Bishkek. The recent defection to IS of Tajik special forces commander, Gulmorod Khalimov, was also understood as an example of “radicalisation”. While the full context of these events has not been made clear, it’s doubtful that they indicate a broad trend of IS activity in the region. In the case of Khalimov, at least, his defection was probably more tied to his falling out with the regime than to any jihadist conviction.

Estimates of the number of Central Asians recruited by IS vary. Most are migrant labourers with little religious background, recruited from Russia and other intermediary countries. Unlike wealthier Muslims in Europe and in neighbouring Middle Eastern states, in remote Central Asian villages, where the internet is less accessible, residents have less opportunity to join IS.

Why are Central Asians joining IS?

Despite limited opportunities and their small numbers, the Central Asian recruits who have joined the extremist group deserve attention.

The absence of widespread political violence in Central Asia since the 1990s may explain why recruitment is lower in this region than in the Middle East and North Africa, where war and brutality have been common features for many years. But violence is more than physical. Threats to a person’s ethnic and gender identity and to their daily survival can be, and have been, just as much of an incentive.

There also appears to be a link between domestic violence and sympathy for violent extremism, which is particularly visible in the highly patriarchal societies that prevail in much, but not all, of Central Asia.

This points to another crucial factor, which is altogether more personal, more gendered and probably more important: feelings of alienation and exclusion.

Noah Tucker, who has surveyed the social media accounts of Uzbek IS recruits, notes that “young people who go want to belong to something bigger than themselves, often in a situation in which they feel isolated and alone. They are looking for meaning in their lives, for something significant to be a part of.” In many cases, rather than a gradual process of becoming more and more religious, the shift in opinion to support of jihad occurs rapidly.

The politics of counter-radicalisation

It seems that IS’ political ideas about the repression of Muslims, at home and abroad, are more important for many Central Asian recruits than its religious beliefs and practices. The political ideas of IS can be held by someone with little or no knowledge of Islamic moral code and with no commitment to its practice in prayer, worship or other rituals.

This distinction between politics and religion – a distinction found neither in the extremist ideology itself, nor in much secular analysis of it — is narrow but important. The existence of this distinction is crucial to make sense of why IS attracts many Muslims, and even some non-Muslims, with little or no knowledge of Islam.

Ayatollah Khamenei. Presidential official website/EPA

The politics of counter-radicalisation are far more significant than radicalisation itself to Central Asia, which has, so far, been free of IS-inspired terror attacks. Authoritarian governments in the region have increasingly used the hysteria surrounding IS as a pretext to crack down on their non-violent religious and political opponents.

In Tajikistan, for example, the country’s only real opposition party, the Islamic Revival Party (IRPT), was banned and its leaders charged with terrorism offences in September 2015. And then in January 2016, the IRPT’s exiled leader travelled to Iran and met with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. At first glance, this supposed connection with violent extremism and move to associate with the regime in Iran, widely condemned as a state sponsor of terror groups, may seem like evidence of radicalisation – but in reality, the IRPT (very moderate Sunni) and Khameini (a highly conservative Shia) don’t share much religious common ground.

Even so, it is bad news for Central Asia that political and religious opposition can only exist in exile, and with foreign support. Central Asia’s counter-radicalisation policies may end up being a greater threat to democracy than IS-inspired radicalisation itself.