Central Asia risks greater exposure to Islamic extremism

Central Asia risks greater exposure to Islamic extremism
By Kanat Shaku in Almaty May 3, 2017

Moves to outlaw Islamic movements in Central Asia, such as in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, have generally spawned further radicalisation of prohibited religious groups. Thus the mix of incompetence from the authorities, the use of radicalism as a deliberate political tool and rising socio-economic hardship is seen continuing to exacerbate the region’s exposure to Islamic extremism. 

Central Asia has been the subject of negative headlines in the Western and Russia media within in the last few weeks, from an Uzbek attacker in Stockholm, to ethnic-Uzbek Kyrgyzstan-born Russian attackers in St Petersburg and the elimination of an Uzbek Islamic State (IS) agent connected to a bar attack in Turkey. In the latest news to break, Russia arrested 12 Central Asian extremists from a group long present on Uzbekistan’s wanted list.

In the midst of such reports, Central Asia is increasingly gaining a reputation as a hotbed for recruitment into radical extremist groups such as IS. It does not help that the region lacks reliable data to indicate the real number of radicalised individuals. 

An overwhelming proportion of the aforementioned events are in one way or another tied to Uzbekistan, but the most populous Central Asian country is not the largest recruitment den for Islamic radicals. 

“According to open sources, two years ago, [the number of radicalised] fighters was the largest in Tajikistan – 600 people, [followed by] 500 in Uzbekistan, 350 in Turkmenistan, 250 in Kazakhstan and around 100 in Kyrgyzstan,” the director of Central Asia at the Institute for Strategic Studies, Anna Gussarova, tells bne IntelliNews.

The numbers add up to around 1,800 Central Asians, although not all are necessarily linked to IS. According to world estimates, the total number of IS militants stood at around 80,000 in mid-2015, meaning that Central Asia accounts for but a fraction of the Islamic radicals fighting for Daesh. 

Official figures are potentially skewed for most Central Asian countries, however, given that Uzbekistan’s government does not even disclose official figures. In Kazakhstan, for example, “400 people were charged with extremism and terrorism in 2015”, according to Gussarova, though only three of the cases have been tied to Syria, she notes. 

Most extremism in Central Asia does not express itself as IS or any other major terrorist movement activity. There are no large organised terrorist groups in the region, with the exception of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Instead, the post-Soviet governments usually find themselves dealing with disparate cells of radicals. 

The rise of radical Islam in the region has most often been blamed on the regional economic crisis, as well as general poor socio-economic conditions for lower segments of society. However, Gussarova believes this explanation is too simple. 

“The problem runs much deeper and… cannot be calculated in economic terms,” Gussarova says, noting such factors as the number of internet users in each of the five countries, as the internet has grown to be one of the primary recruitment tools, as well as “traditionalist [cultural] value systems”, which may clash with those of the secular world, among multitudes of other causes. Gussarova believes the recruitment process is “deeply personal” for each recruit; as such, attempts to track any trends specific to the region may fall flat. 

Making the worst of a bad situation 

So far, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have attempted to crack down on various elements of Islamic extremism, but their actions have only emboldened radicals. Though crackdowns in Uzbekistan have been violent, Tajikistan has also attacked local Islamic customs. At the same time, the threat of radical Islam has been politically convenient for both countries, but especially for Tajikistan, where the only formidable opposition group, the Islamic Revival Party, was shut down in 2015 under the pretext of its alleged affiliation with extremism. 

The Kazakh authorities have taken their fair share of counterproductive measures against terrorism in the past. Bans on the Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (HUT) group in 2005 and Tablighi Jamaat in 2013 have only moved the movements into prison cells – an unprecedented opportunity for a steady supply of potential recruits. More importantly, following in Rahmon’s footsteps, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev raised the issue of banning Islamic attire and beards associated with extremism at a meeting with Kazakhstan’s Spiritual Board of Muslims in April. 

That, coupled with the proposed ban on Salafism from October, could potentially enhance the oil-rich country’s vulnerability to radicalisation amongst the population. 

“There are approximately 15,000 to 16,000 followers of Salafism in Kazakhstan – they are not all extremists,” Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpayev tells bne IntelliNews. “The number isn’t small considering Kazakhstan’s population, which raises the following questions: Where will most of them go? Will they reject their beliefs or will they develop an underground form of Salafism?”

By failing to tackle these questions, the authorities in Kazakhstan – as in other Central Asian countries – could be storing up problems for the future.