A Poisonous Smokescreen: Da'esh and Central Asia

Katherine Crofts-Gibbons

On the 15th of September, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russian-dominated military alliance, held a summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. In the wake of major alleged terror plots in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Da'esh, the organisation terming itself "Islamic State", loomed large. The threat of radical Islam has been used across the region to justify increased border security and harsher repression, particularly of religious groups. The five Central Asian Republics (CARs) do face a threat from Da'esh and radical Islam more broadly, but the danger is not as grave as the heads of state suggested at the CSTO summit. Increasing authoritarianism dressed up as defence against terrorism poses a more immediate threat to Central Asia than Da'esh itself.

On 16th July in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, special forces stormed a house, killing four men, and arresting seven. According to the official account, the men were part of an Da'esh cell plotting attacks in Bishkek and a Russian air force base in Kant. The authorities allege that Tariel Djumagulov, a notorious crime boss, was involved in the plot. Evidence that the men had anything to do with Da'esh is very thin on the ground, and Djumagulov is not known for radical Islamism. 

On 4th September in Tajikistan, at least 22 people were killed in gun attacks in Dushanbe and the nearby city of Vahdat. The militants appear to have been led by a sacked deputy defence minister, General Abdukhalim Nazarzoda. President Rakhmon told citizens that the perpetrators were ‘terrorists’ who ‘pursued the same goals as Islamic State.’ As with the Kyrgyz case, this has not been independently verified. 

Neither incident has been conclusively, or even convincingly, linked to Da'esh. The involvement of individuals who have long been prominent for reasons other than radicalism, suggests that they are iterations of the sort of political and criminal conflicts (the line between the two is very hard to draw) that have plagued Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan since the 1990s, rather than evidence of a new and immediate threat. That the authorities have been so keen to tie the attacks to radical Islam indicates how useful it can be to them. Across the region, presidents use authoritarian methods to keep the opposition at bay. Rakhmon in particular has been cracking down, and Kyrgyzstan has recently escalated pressure against religious groups. Harsh methods are increasingly being justified by the need to keep radical Islam at bay. Debate can be shut down by labelling opponents Islamic terrorists.

There is a threat from Da'esh. Central Asians are travelling to Syria. Estimates range from a few hundred to several thousand. The recruits include the occasional high profile defector, like the commander of Tajikistan’s elite police force, Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov. Tatyana Dronzina, a Bulgarian terrorism expert, argues that returning militants pose a particular threat in the CARs because their governments lack programmes to tackle the issue and, given the permeability of their borders, there is little they could do to prevent their return or keep tabs on them. 

However, the numbers are much lower than those for many Western countries. 1 in 40,000 Tajiks have joined IS, compared to 1 in 23,800 Belgians. Tajikistan is 90 per cent Muslim, whilst Belgium is only 6 per cent Muslim. A report by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), one of the only substantial studies on the issue, found that, despite fears of widespread radicalisation, support for Da'esh was generally low in the CARs.  

Central Asia does not appear to be very high on Da'esh’s agenda. The central command rarely mentions the region. Although the CAR’s governments portray Da'esh as an imminent security threat, the PISM study found that the organisation is simply not very interested in the CARs, having largely ignored the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s declaration of support. That said, Central Asia is on Da'esh's radar. Recruitment videos have been released in local languages. The first such video was in November 2014 in Kazakh. A recently released Kyrgyz language video bears the Da'esh logo, but John Heathershaw, a British Academic, thinks that it was probably conceived and created by Kyrgyz radicals, rather than under the direction of the top brass, suggesting a limited interest in Kyrgyzstan on their part.

Da'esh receives little support in Central Asia, and Central Asia receives little attention from Da'esh. The threat posed by returning militants and radicalisation at home must be tackled, but, for the people of Central Asia, overreaction is just as threatening, as the official stories woven around the shootings in Bishkek and Dushanbe demonstrate. Central Asia is being pulled deeper into authoritarianism under the cover of defence against radical Islam.