By Lee Clark
The Islamic State (IS) is a radical Islamic militant group that controls large areas in both Iraq and Syria. The goal of IS is to form a ‘caliphate’ in the Middle East governed by strict fundamentalist interpretations of Sharia Law. The group has drawn international attention for brutal tactics, including public beheadings, sexual slavery, and suicide bombings. Over the past two years, IS has become the primary focus of US counter-terrorism measures. This is due to the murder of American journalists and successful recruiting tactics that draw American citizens.
IS has been forming a stable base in Iraq and Syria, and is expanding its focus. Nearby Muslim areas, including Central Asia are at high risk. For the purposes of this article, the term ‘Central Asia’ will refer to five nations east of the Caspian Sea: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. All five of these nations are majority Muslim and have important energy reserves.
Because of these energy resources and strategic location, both China and Russia have a vested interest in the region. Before the 1990s, all five countries were part of the Soviet Union. All five are still closely tied to Russia by economics, culture, and politics. Russia has publicly voiced concern over increased IS activity in the region, and is increasing its influence in terms of military presence and economic aid.
Several recent events indicate that IS-linked recruiting and violence has increased in the past year. These include:
- On July 16, 2015, in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan’s capital) armed militants and police exchanged gunfire. Kyrgyzstan’s state security service, the GKNB, has since linked the attack to IS.
- On July 17, Kyrgyz authorities prevented an attack on a Russian-controlled airport by a group believed to be connected to IS.
- On September 16, 2015, militants attacked the police headquarters in Dushanbe (Tajikistan’s capital), resulting in the deaths of 27 people. Tajik authorities connected the attack to Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda, who is believed to support IS.
- IS released its first recruiting video for Kyrgyzstan in July 2015. In the video, an IS fighter quotes both the Koran and Kyrgyz proverbs to connect with recruits. The video is the first recruiting tool with the logo of Furat Media, which claims to be the Russian-language media producer for IS.
- Reports of Central Asian residents fighting for IS have been released by both governments and NGOs:
- The International Crisis Group states that between 2,000 and 4,000 Central Asians have travelled to Syria to join IS.
- Tajikistan reports that about 400 Tajik citizens fight for IS.
- Kyrgyzstan reports 300-350.
- Kazakhstan reports 250
- Turkmenistan reports about 300.
Some international groups claim the threat posed by IS has been distorted because oppressive regimes in the region seek to restrict dissent and public discourse. While this is partially true, it does not mean that IS is inactive in Central Asia. One of the problems with assessing this situation is that both the international human rights groups and the Central Asian regimes are correct: civil society is being oppressed, and the threat from IS is serious.
The important takeaways from the situation in Central Asia are:
- IS is likely to expand its territory in the coming year. Central Asia is especially vulnerable to IS attacks because:
- All five regimes are unpopular with general populations because of human rights abuse.
- The region is very close to IS-controlled areas.
- Energy resources in the region are lucrative.
- The US is not well-positioned to act against IS in the region because:
- US military bases that were opened in the region after 9/11 are now closed due to the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
- US policy in Central Asia focuses on using the region to operate militarily in the Middle East and neglects the region’s issues and complexities.
- Other nations are far more active in the region:
- Japan just concluded deals offering the region $18 billion in trade agreements.
- China recently pledged $50 billion in infrastructure and energy investments.
- Russia recently pledged $1.2 billion to Tajikistan. Russia also operates the Eurasian Economic Union, which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.
- The US has only invested $1.7 billion in the region over the past 10 years.
- Russia has the most coherent policy towards the region:
- Base leases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were extended to 2042 and 2032, respectively.
- Russian troop levels in Tajikistan will be raised to 9,000 by 2020.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken publicly about Russia’s commitment to protect the region from terror.
- Despite these disadvantages, the region could be open to US involvement because:
- Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the Arctic caused regimes to become concerned about re-annexation by Russia.
- Recent tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan demonstrate the fragile state of relations in the region.
- Central Asia’s poor human rights record makes it vulnerable to extremist recruiting that can be reduced by US-based NGOs such as Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch.
Better intelligence is needed to improve understanding of the situation. Intelligence resources in Central Asia have been neglected for the past decade, and as a result, important evidence is missing or suspect. Areas of uncertainty include:
- Accuracy of official recruiting figures.
- IS goals for the region.
- Sympathy for IS goals among population.
- Accuracy of Central Asian intelligence services
- Ability of regimes to combat IS activity
- Effects of widespread corruption on:
- IS recruiting
- Counter-terror effectivenes
Central Asia is extremely vulnerable to both IS attacks and recruiting efforts. Violent events will continue as the group gains popularity. Corruption and oppression actively harm the region’s ability to combat IS. Regimes need to make major changes to civil policy and domestic security.
The US must develop a focused strategy for counter-terrorism in Central Asia. Intelligence agencies should encourage better collection and analysis. Preventing IS expansion into the region is vital to containing the group.
Lee Clark is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School for Diplomacy and International Commerce. His professional interests include diplomacy, security, and humanitarian work. He is currently interested in study abroad and internship opportunities. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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