January 22, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Evolving Threats From Central Asian Militants In Syria
The governments in Central Asia, whose security and intelligence agencies still evoke their Soviet-era past, have largely eradicated insurgent groups from the region. The primary extremist jihadi group that carried out attacks in Central Asia and continues to threaten to “return” to Central Asia is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The government of Islam Karimov drove most of the IMU from Uzbekistan in the late 1990s, and many members found sanctuary in northern Afghanistan. After the US invasion in 2001, they retreated to Pakistan’s tribal areas and acquired haven with the Pakistani Taliban. The IMU’s leadership is still in Pakistan and most of it attacks are carried out in conjunction with Tehreek-e-Taliban (Pakistani Taliban). International security forces have reported a steadily expanding IMU presence—many of whom are Afghan Uzbeks—in northern Afghanistan along the Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen borders since 2010.
Only Central Asia’s two weakest states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, still have militant cells operating in their countries in significant numbers. Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) was founded by diaspora Palestinians in the Middle East in 1952, and its core philosophy is the obligation for every Muslim to work toward the reestablishment of the Islamic Caliphate—but through preaching, not fighting (HuT’s leader called HuT the “herbalist” and IMU the “surgeon,” in describing respective strategies). HuT spread to Uzbekistan and the Fergana Valley after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, but HuT has since been suppressed to near extinction in Uzbekistan and neighboring Kazakhstan. In contrast, in Kyrgyzstan, HuT’s numbers have increased to an estimated 20,000 to 70,000, especially in Osh and Jalalabad.
Tajikistan has not only HuT cells operating within its territory, but extremist jihadi groups as well. One group, Jamaat Ansarullah (JA), has connections to the IMU from the 1990s, when JA’s leaders fought alongside the IMU. Now JA distinguishes itself from IMU and says its only goal is to transform Tajikistan into an Islamic state and eliminate the Russian bases in the country, which, according to a deal struck between Moscow and Dushanbe in 2013, are set to remain until 2044. The JA’s current membership numbers are unknown, but it managed to launch several attacks in Tajikistan since 2010, mostly targeting Tajik troops.
For more than a decade, militancy within Central Asia has been on the decline as the security forces of the region pushed militants into Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they received harbor and fought against US and NATO troops. The main concern of Central Asian security forces has been tracking the militants groups’ operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, however, Central Asians are increasingly traveling to Syria and joining al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
In contrast to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Uzbeks compose the majority of fighters, in Syria, Kazakhs appear to be the most common Central Asian nationality. In July 2013, a Kazakh named “Brother Abu-Mu'adh al-Muhajir” appeared in a video with Syrian rebels introducing the "mujahidin from Kazakhstan" and called on “those who live in tyranny” to “emigrate from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or any other country” and engage in jihad. In October 2013, Kazakhs with ISIS issued a video depicting approximately 100 militants and their families. In the video titled “Letters from Epic Battlefields: The Hospitality of a Jihadist Family,” the fighters said they were there to “fulfill their duties as set out by the precepts of Islam” and to “die as martyr[s].” Weeks after the video’s release, the families of some of the militants confirmed their identities and explained they left Kazakhstan to escape low paying jobs, unemployment, and inability to afford a home.
In addition to Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyzs have also been reported to be fighting in Syria. Uzbek media relayed, for example, that Tajikistan’s Islamic Renaissance Party was sending youths to fight alongside Syrian jihadists. International media organizations have interviewed Turkish jihadist smugglers who say they frequently send Uzbeks into Syria. Kyrgyz officials maintain that as many as 20 of its citizens are in Syria and have detained several aspiring jihadists in the airport in Bishkek on their way to Turkey for transit into Syria.
One of the more unexpected groups in Syria is the Uighurs of Xinjiang, China. The anti-Chinese, Pakistan-based and Uighur-led Turkistan Islamic Party has been the most frequent of Central Asian jihadist groups to advocate for a “humanitarian” role in Syria. Videos from Syria have shown Uighurs as well as Han Chinese among the rebels.
Less surprising are the hundreds of Chechens in Syria, particularly in the Muhajirin Battalion, led by Chechen Umar al-Shishani, who fights in support of ISIS. Since Kazakhs and other Central Asians are also fighting in the North Caucasus, it is likely that some Central Asians in Syria were recruited in Russia or are veterans of fighting in the North Caucasus.
• Central Asian intelligence and security forces will pay attention to the movements of Central Asians—not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Syria—in order to track whether they are establishing networks in their home countries to launch attacks
• If Central Asians are able to return to their home countries and launch attacks, this will stunt the political development in the region and discourage leaders from taking democratic reforms that could be perceived as providing an opening for Islamists and extremists
• The presence of Central Asian jihadists in Syria, as well as indications of a growing alliance between HuT and ISIS—despite philosophical differences—could lead to rapprochement between Central Asia-based HuT cells and Central Asian jihadists groups in Afghanistan, and risks fostering greater ideological and operational unity between anti-government actors in the region.
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