This Month’s Special: ISIL and Central Asia: Potential Risks and Responses.

A.I., Contributor from Kyrgyzstan.

In his September 2014 statement, President Barack Obama designated the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as “Islamic State” and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)[i], a terrorist organization that threatens the world and voiced the U.S. objective to destroy it.[ii] As of October 2014, the U.S. has been joined by 34 states in a broad international coalition that targeted a military operation against the ISIL and humanitarian campaign in the affected areas.[iii] According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates, the ISIL forces comprise about 31,000 fighters.[iv] The authorities of both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have officially confirmed that 150 and 200 of their citizens have respectively joined the ISIL militants since the Syrian crisis started in 2011. According to unofficial sources, there are also about 500 citizens of Uzbekistan, 300 citizens of Turkmenistan and 150 citizens of Kazakhstan, who wage jihad together with the ISIL to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East.[v]

The Central Asian states have not joined the international coalition to fight against the ISIL, nor are they taking sufficient measures to prevent recruitment of their citizens by operating in the region radical and extremist groups. This is despite the fact that the ISIL threat has been put high on the Central Asian security agenda, with incumbent regimes being concerned over potential penetration of the ISIL ideology into the region. One of the reasons for this could be the returning from jihad natives of the Central Asian states. According to Kazakhstani expert Yerlan Karin, the Central Asian fighters are trained and organized into military brigades depending on a country of their origin.[vi] This arrangement provides fighters with an opportunity to establish close relations with each other, which they can exploit upon return to their home countries. Shortly before the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) Summit in September 2013, the Kyrgyzstani security agencies reported preventing a terrorist attack plotted by two citizens of Kyrgyzstan and one citizen of Kazakhstan, who completed a military training in Syria.[vii] Allegedly, they belonged to the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), a terrorist organization splintered from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and based in Pakistan.[viii]

The threat of radical Islamism and terrorism is not new to Central Asia. In 1991, the sharia law was arbitrarily proclaimed in Namangan town of Uzbekistan, where a religiously motivated group led by co-founder of the IMU Tohir Yuldashev demanded establishment of an Islamic state.[ix] Following such violent developments as a civil war in Tajikistan (1992-1997), Tashkent bombings (1999, 2004) and incursion of southern Kyrgyzstan (1999, 2000), the Central Asian governments have taken oppressive measures to counter the threat of radical Islamism and terrorism. The most authoritarian states in the region are reported to have up to several thousands of imprisoned Islamists, who were subject to indiscriminate repressive policies by their respective governments.[x] However, the continuing outflow of the Central Asian citizens to join the ISIL shows that these measures have not proved to be very effective so far. On the contrary, as it was previously noted by International Crisis Group (ICG), repression only intensifies radicalisation of Muslim population.[xi] Apparently, this trend is supported by the increased number of fighters who have joined the ISIL in 2014.[xii]

In addition to state oppression, porous borders, transnational flow of information and geopolitical struggles in the Middle East contribute to an environment that facilitates recruitment of the ISIL militants in Central Asia. In view of a Kyrgyzstani expert on political Islam Kadyr Malikov, the main reason why his fellow citizens are leaving their homes for jihad is ideological.[xiii] Many recruited by the ISIL militants believe they are going to fight for a just cause. From theological perspective, this form of jihad is known as defensive (jihad al-dafa’a).[xiv] According to Islamic theologians, the main idea behind defensive jihad is that Muslims have to defend their faith and territory against invaders. The jihad turns global when Islamists from across the globe join the “holy war” because they believe that it’s their individual obligation to join the struggle, where their fellow Muslims fail to repel aggressors.[xv] Drawing on the example of Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union, when global jihad was proclaimed for the first time, it can be assumed that the conflict on the territory of Iraq and Syria could have long-lasting transnational consequences.

Meanwhile the U.S. led coalition plans to dismantle the ISIL, it is time the Central Asian governments start thinking about the measures that have to be taken in order to avoid negative consequences for the region. The main threat emanates from the returning fighters, who could establish a network of religious extremists and challenge the legitimacy of the Central Asian secular states. Malikov differentiates two groups of potential returnees. The first group would constitute the returnees, who were disillusioned with the ISIL ideology or financial remuneration for joining jihad. The second, on the other hand, would comprise the devoted to the ISIL ideology fighters interested in establishing local cells of the organization.[xvi] The Central Asian governments should not ignore the difference between the two groups when developing the measures to counter this threat.

The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) at King’s College London has followed the issue of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria since the beginning of the conflict. By 2014, the ICSR has published several reports and created a database of Western foreign fighters from their social media accounts. Based on its findings, the ICSR provided recommendations to the British government on the issues that have to be addressed in order to prevent any repercussions for the British society. Among the measures that have been neglected so far by all Central Asian states are “soft measures” to de-radicalize and re-integrate the fighters, who returned as a result of disillusionment with the ISIL, before they turn back to old practices and become a threat to their home countries. Though, the effectiveness of de-radicalization programmes is difficult to measure, they have been widely implemented in countries witnessing the threat of violent extremism and radicalism leading to terrorism. Among them are Germany, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and many others.[xvii] According to Steffen Nielsen, who oversees implementation of a rehabilitation programme in Denmark, the disillusioned foreign fighters are desperate for an escape route and professional assistance in order to get their lives back on track without the threat of prosecution.[xviii]

Following the reports on the Central Asian citizens who joined the ISIL, Kyrgyzstan has launched multiple initiatives to improve state policies and instruments to prevent spread of religious radicalism and extremism among its population. In February 2014, the Defence Council meeting chaired by President Almazbek Atambayev has identified a working group that has to develop a new concept on the state policy regulating religious affairs. Besides the new state policy, the working group is supposed to amend the existing legislation and reform relevant agencies such as the State Commission on Religious Affairs and the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan.[xix] The working group has not considered any “soft measures” on de-radicalisation of returning fighters. On the contrary, Members of Parliament have recently initiated a draft bill that foresees toughening of criminal liability for participation in military activities on the territory of a foreign state. Similar approach aimed at prosecution of returning fighters has been implemented in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Local media is abundant with reports on the court decisions to sentence the citizens of neighbouring states for participation in military activities in Iraq and Syria.[xx] The measures that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan allegedly implement in order to counter religious extremism are even more repressive, especially after the IMU has officially declared its support to the ISIL and six soldiers died in the clashes on Turkmen-Afghan border.[xxi]

This one-sided approach of state oppression poses a threat of triggering further radicalisation of the Central Asian Muslim population. For this reason, Malikov underscores the importance of proclaiming amnesty towards the returning fighters, who are disillusioned by the ISIL and willing to re-integrate into society.[xxii] His opinion coincides with a view of the ICSR Director Peter Neumann, who urged the British authorities to introduce programmes on de-radicalisation of disillusioned fighters who want to return to the UK.[xxiii] While politically and economically vulnerable Central Asian governments such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could opt for adoption of “soft measures”, this scenario is very unlikely in the countries with traditionally strong-arm policies towards Islamist movements. Tajikistan is the only country that has officially assured its citizens fighting for ISIL of amnesty if they decide to return home and voluntarily surrender to authorities.[xxiv] However, according to the reports in local media, this initiative so far has not paid off as expected. One of the reasons for this could be the lack of trust between Tajikistani fighters and government, which has never abstained from using force to suppress the Islamist opposition.

That said there are alternative views on the issue of returning ISIL fighters. Drawing on the previous conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, some Western analysts consider the potential threat of returning ISIL fighters, regardless of their intentions, exaggerated and manageable.[xxv] Though largely applied to the Western states, these reports highlight the measures that can also be implemented in Central Asia. Thus, apart from de-radicalisation programmes, further efforts are needed to disrupt the main routes used to transit the recruited fighters to Iraq and Syria. According to Azattyk report, the main transit route passes through Turkey, while most fighters are recruited from the Central Asian labour migrants working in Russia.[xxvi] In order to address these problems, the Central Asian governments could benefit from existing regional organisations, where they share membership with Russia (Collective Security Treaty Organisation, SCO) and Turkey (Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States).

Whereas, it’s commendable that local media and expert community bring this issue to attention of the Central Asian governments, further analysis would be helpful in assessing a real threat posed by the returning ISIL fighters. Based on the estimates made by Western analysts, on average, one-in-three of foreign fighters die in the ISIL initiated armed conflict. The same ratio of the remaining fighters, most of whom return to their home countries, continues involvement in violent extremist activities.[xxvii] Accordingly, it can be assumed that Central Asia seriously risks becoming a playground for spread of the ISIL ideology. With this regard, it is crucial for the Central Asian governments to develop comprehensive approaches to deal with the problem of returning fighters – both who want to return back to normal life and who intend to continue supporting religious extremism. While the costs of such complex approaches could put on hold their implementation, the balance between prosecution and rehabilitation of returning fighters would secure the region in the long-term perspective from the spreading ISIL syndrome.

[i] The variety of acronyms used to name this militant group has caused confusion among media and expert community. These acronyms range from Arabic Da’ish (al’Dawla al’Islamiya fi Iraq and wa al-Sham or Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham) to English equivalents of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Though the militant group claims to represent an Islamic State, this article uses the UN preferred name of ISIL. For more information about the meaning of different names see

[ii] The White House, Statement by the President on ISIL,

[iii] Aljazeera, Interactive: Countries countering ISIL,

[iv] BBC, Islamic State crisis: ‘3,000 European jihadists join fight’,

[v] Azattyk, “Islamskoe gosudarstvo” – realnaya ugroza Tsentralnoi Azii,

[vi] Tengrinews, Nasledniki “Al-Kaidy”, ili Kto podhvatil chernoe znamya djihada,

[vii], V Kirgizii predotvratili terakt s siriiskim sledom,

[viii] For more information about these two terrorist organisations see

[ix] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Central Asian Jihadists Head to Syria to Join Islamic State Militants,

[x] Bakker, E., 2006. 17 Helsinki Monitor 108,

[xi] International Crisis Group Asia Report No.21, file:///E:/Readings/Central%20Asia%20Uzbekistan%20at%20Ten%20Repression%20and%20Instability.pdf.

[xii] Interview with Kadyr Malikov, a Kyrgyzstani expert on political Islam. According to Malikov, the number of Kyrgyzstani fighters joining the ISIL has raised by several times in 2014.

[xiii], Kadyr Malikov o Sirii, kotoruyu gotovyat dlya Kyrgyzstana,

[xiv] Wiktorowicz, Q., 2005. A Genealogy of Radical Islam, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 28 (2),

[xv] Wiktorowicz, Q., 2005. A Genealogy of Radical Islam, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 28 (2),

[xvi], Kadyr Malikov o Sirii, kotoruyu gotovyat dlya Kyrgyzstana,

[xvii] On de-radicalisation and re-integration programmes implemented by different states see Horgan, J. and Braddock, K., 2010. Rehabilitating the Terrorists? Challenges in Assessing the Effectiveness of De-radicalization Programs. Terrorism and Political Violence, 22,

[xviii] Aljazeera, Denmark Introduces rehab for Syrian fighters,

[xix] Vecherniy Bishkek, Chem protivostoyat ekstremizmu?,

[xx] Tengrinews, Voevavshiy v Sirii kazakhstanets osujden na 7 let,; Tengrinews, Voevavshih v Sirii kazakhstantsev osudili v Pavlodare,; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, In Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Rumors of Instability Abound As Fears Of IS Grow,

[xxi] Silk Road Reporters, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan Flirts with ISIS,; Alternativnye Novosti Turkmenistana, General Saad Muhammad: “Rvom granitsa ne ohranyaetsya”,

[xxii] Interview with Kadyr Malikov, a Kyrgyzstani expert on political Islam.

[xxiii] Aljazeera, A soft approach to returning British fighters,

[xxiv] ASIA-Plus, Glava MVD: 50 tadjikistantsev ubity v Sirii,

[xxv] Foreign Affairs, Homeward Bound? Don’t Hype the Threat of Returning Jihadists,

[xxvi] Azattyk, Orusiyadagy Siriya azgyrygy,,,

[xxvii] Foreign Affairs, They’re Coming: Measuring the Threat from Returning Jihadists,