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4 August 2016

A Blow To The Underbelly

How much of a menace is the spread of ISIS into post-Soviet Asia to Russia?

The events that took place in mid-July at Russia’s southern door - an attempted coup in Turkey, the taking of hostages in Armenia, and the murder of policemen in Kazakhstan - forced the Kremlin to ponder the turbulent events taking place along the perimeter of its borders. Taking into account that the western direction has also long ceased to be an area of tranquility given Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine’s Donbas region, and Moscow’s confrontation with NATO in the region of the Baltic states, the Russian authorities have every reason to be anxious. Moscow has been used to coping with headaches caused by approaches towards Russia from the Caucasus for years. Of course, the Kremlin has no one to blame but itself for its conflict with its western neighbors, and peace is largely dependent on its will.

The situation across the border shared with Kazakhstan – the longest land border in the world – is quite another matter. Moscow has no control over the situation there, just as it has no control over the influx of millions of migrant workers who arrive from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and to a lesser extent Kazakhstan. The increased proneness to conflict in the region, together with a wave of migration, could affect the entire post-Soviet space in the future – be it in the form of acts of terrorism, inter-ethnic, or inter-religious clashes.

The authoritarian regimes in Central Asia (traces of democracy can perhaps be seen only in Kyrgyzstan) are currently finding it difficult to quell the rise in Islamic sentiments among their own populations. Recent terrorist attacks in Aktobe and Almaty serve as a case in point. But it is Kazakhstan which is the most advanced country in the region from a socio-economic perspective, and Nursultan Nazarbayev’s incumbency seemingly remained a certitude until recently.

Some of the former Soviet republics such as Turkmenistan have had to face the military threat coming from Islamists directly. More than a dozen soldiers were killed in the fighting on the border with Afghanistan last year. Ultimately, it was not determined whether it was the Taliban or ISIS who carried out the attack on Turkmen territory. However, it is extremely difficult to determine the true level of danger in this case as Turkmenistan remains entirely off limits to foreign journalists. The number of casualties may well have been far greater.

The zeal of jihadists has been tempered slightly by the presence of the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan whose border with Afghanistan has been considered the most problematic section of the southern perimeter since the Soviet era. Its headquarters are stationed in Dushanbe but combat troops are deployed in Kulob and Qurghonteppa to counter major threats coming from the Afghan border. In response to the statement of the Tajik government about the aggravation of the situation in Afghanistan, Russia bolstered security at the 201st military base by deploying attack helicopters there last year.

Uzbekistan, which has the most efficient army in the region, ensures the protection of its borders independently. The so-called “”Uzbekistan-Afghanistan barrier,” considered the most fortified border in the world (second only to the 38th parallel between North and South Korea), stretches along the entire 137-km-long border with Afghanistan. It consists of two lines of electrified barbed wire fences and minefields. Uzbekistan, incidentally, is separated from Tajikistan by a virtually identical fortification.

And although the post-Soviet republics have thus far managed to prevent the importation of Islamism, the number of their citizens entering the ranks of the Taliban and ISIS continues to grow. Preliminary findings of the investigation into the terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on June 28 this year are particularly telling in this respect: citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are among those being detained on suspicion of involvement and ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack.

It is a well-known fact that ISIS combat units have natives of the countries of Central Asia among their ranks. According to 2014 data, 250 citizens of Kazakhstan, 100 citizens of Kyrgyzstan, 190 citizens of Tajikistan, 500 citizens of Uzbekistan and 360 citizens of Turkmenistan are fighting in Iraq and Syria on the side of the Islamists. Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the commander of a local special-purpose police unit known as OMON, left Tajikistan to join ISIS in 2015 which led to disquiet in Dushanbe. Of course, no one is prepared to cite the true figures today (according to estimates by “The International Crisis Group,” between two and four thousand citizens of the Asian republics of the former USSR were fighting on the side of ISIS as of early 2015). Any estimates should be considered prudent given that militants arriving from the territory of the post-Soviet space form their own ethnic groups within ISIS. The Uzbeks, for example, have formed two jamaats in the Islamic State: “Imam Bukhari” and “Saifuddin Uzbek.” Members are being recruited via the Internet and are mainly entering Syria from Turkey.

There is yet another well-developed means of supplying ISIS with new recruits and it affects Russia directly since recruitment is carried out on its territory. For example, last year we learned about Muhammad Abdullaev – a migrant worker from Uzbekistan who went to work in Astrakhan and ended up in the ranks of Islamists in Syria. According to the media, recruitment of migrant workers is carried out in Moscow by several groups of Chechens who conduct agitation in migrants’ hostels. Recruiters also operate in the Urals and Russia’s Far East. They operate everywhere where migrant workers can be found aside from perhaps certain areas in the Far North. The fact that “the great and powerful language” has become one of the most common means of communication within ISIS and is probably second only to Arabic in terms of number of speakers, speaks volumes about the success recruiters have enjoyed in Russia and post-Soviet states.

Moreover, recruiters are not only interested in “cannon fodder,” that is, those who are prepared to fight; specialists are also targeted. According to the Uzbek National Security Service, ISIS requires IT specialists and talented PR specialists to help spread Islamist ideology through propaganda. They are usually invited over along with their entire families and are offered tens of thousands dollars to relocate.

Still, the flight of the Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Tajiks to ISIS is only a small part of the problem. The return of these people, already infected with the virus of jihadism, to their homelands seems far more dangerous. Unless, of course, they are forced to return to face an investigation and trial. After all, the fundamental reasoning of recruiters and those who subsequently lead new recruits into battle is built around the following construct: “when you have earned good money, we will go back to your country together and establish our rule there.” Regardless of the future of ISIS on the territory of Syria and Iraq, citizens of Central Asian post-Soviet states pose a special threat in their homelands since they have money and are equipped with combat skills.

This is true of the most influential countries in the region to a greater extent – Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, since the presidents of both countries are anything but young (Islam Karimov is 78 and Nursultan Nazarbayev is 76) and are expected to vacate their posts in the near future. The shift in power, given that rule is based solely on dictatorial qualities of both leaders, will predictably lead to the redistribution of public resources which in turn will trigger increased instability. Should such a scenario arise, ideas of the caliphate will prove extremely attractive to citizens who are tired of the tyranny and corruption of the authorities. 

And the longer the waging of war against ISIS in Central Asia is postponed, the greater the danger of such a turn of events will be for Russia. After all, no matter how much money is invested in strengthening the base in Dushanbe, Moscow will not manage to build its own “barrier” thousands of kilometers long along the border with Kazakhstan. On the other hand, the number of migrants from Asia will increase in the Russian Federation year after year. Some of them will receive residence permits, will buy properties, and bring relatives with them. Diasporas will grow and socio-economic conditions will be created for an increased number of their members. The situation will evolve according to the French scenario since the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia are Russia’s former colonies just as the countries of Maghreb and Syria are to France. There is nothing wrong with ethnic and religious diversity as such – these are simply the laws of history – however, the take away from the French experience has to be that an effective tool for the fight against religious extremism in the light of such grand scale migration has yet to be invented.

According to forecasts, one in five citizens of Russia will practice Islam by 2030. Actually, even today, according to the CIA, the proportion of Muslims in the Russian Federation is close to this indicator whereas in France, which suffered from several large terrorist attacks carried out by members of ISIS this year, the proportion of Muslims does not exceed 10%. Even though European law allows potential terrorists greater freedom of action, Russia has now reached a point at which it will prove impossible to control the situation should the caliphate wage war against it. Unfortunately, Russians themselves will not see anything new in this scenario – they experienced a similar situation during the First and Second Chechen Wars. Back then, Putin managed to keep his terrible promise and “waste those who deserved it in the outhouse” or use the carrot where necessary as in the case of the current Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, for example, who used to “fight us in the woods” no more than ten years ago. I wonder what methods the Kremlin will employ against those who have experienced plenty of lawlessness and poverty in their homelands or on the construction site in Russia and have gained a wealth of experience in killing under the banner of ISIS?

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