June 2, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Most Dangerous Recruits

• The Islamic State gained another highly trained member when Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, former commander of Tajikistan’s special police unit, left his country to join the terrorist group in Syria

• Khalimov, who received U.S. counterterrorism training both in Tajikistan and the United States, is just one of hundreds of people from Central Asia who have traveled to fight for the Islamic State

• Central Asia and other Turkic regions are prime recruiting zones for the Islamic State; some of the group’s most capable military commanders and fighters are of Turkic background

• With so many foreign fighters coming from Russia and its former Soviet republics, Moscow faces a significant counterterrorism challenge, as does China with its Turkic Uighur population in the far northwest province of Xinjiang.


While the Islamic State seeks recruits and volunteers from all corners of the globe, some of its most valuable and dangerous new members are coming from Central Asia and other ethnic Turkic regions. From the Republic of Georgia to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan to western China, hundreds of committed fighters, many with valuable military experience or training, are either traveling to Syria or Iraq to fight with the Islamic State or pledging allegiance to the group in their home countries.

When Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the head of Tajikistan’s special police (OMON, Otryad Mobilny Osobogo Naznacheniya, or Special Purpose Mobile Police), announced last week on the Internet that he had joined the Islamic State, much of the attention was understandably on the fact that Khalimov had received U.S. counterterrorism (CT) training in both Tajikistan and the United States. Such an individual, trained in how to fight terrorist groups and now fighting for the Islamic State, is a double loss in the effort to disrupt and diminish violent extremism. Yet it is the fact that Khalimov is hardly alone that is most troubling. According to the Office of the Prosecutor-General in Tajikistan, 417 people have been identified and charged with fighting for groups like the Islamic State. With a two-year compulsory military service for males between 16-55, most or all of these foreign fighters would bring military training along with their embrace of violence.

Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia also have some level of compulsory military service and long histories of nationals traveling to conflict zones to fight for extremist causes. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have long been a magnet for such fighters, and now Syria is proving likewise. There are reports that up to 200 Georgian nationals have joined the Islamic State in Syria, as well as at least 1,700 Russian nationals. These numbers are likely low, as there are many more from across the region who have joined the Islamic State and either traveled to Syria or remained in place to fight.

The Uzbeks in particular have carved out a space for themselves as foreign fighters in Syria. Some have semi-autonomous groups aligned with the Islamic State, which maintain their own guest houses and schooling. Long established in Afghanistan and Pakistan under the name Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a number of Uzbeks have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and traveled to Raqqa to fight. All numbers from Uzbekistan and other central Asian countries are suspect given that the ruling regimes have a vested interest in inflating numbers, but even conservative estimates show there is a real problem.

Some of the most senior and capable military commanders in the Islamic State have Turkic backgrounds. The once number-two leader of the group, Fadil Ahmad Abdallah al-Hayyali aka Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, was an ethnic Turkmen from the Tal Afar region of northern Iraq. The current number two, Abu Ali al-Anbari, is actually a Turkmen from the Mosul area, despite his kunya. Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili aka Abu Omar al-Shishani, perhaps the most capable and infamous of the group’s military commanders, is from the Pankisi Gorge area of Georgia—ground zero for skilled foreign fighters. Al-Shishani was formerly a sergeant in the Georgian army, and helped lead some of the Islamic State’s most sweeping and successful military campaigns last summer and fall.

Not all the fighters traveling from Turkic-influenced countries to the Syrian conflict end up joining the Islamic State. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda Syrian affiliate, has a sizable Turkic component that focuses on fighting the Assad regime and tends to avoid playing a big role in battles with the Islamic State. In the newest, and quite effective, rebel coalition group, Jaysh al-Fatah, there are more than a dozen strictly ethnic Turkic groups fighting against Assad that have nothing to do with the Islamic State.

Adding to the challenge is that most of the fighters traveling from Turkic regions don’t need visas to enter Turkey, the country used as a gateway into Syria and territory controlled by the Islamic State. Even when there are visa requirements in place, it is difficult enough for countries to coordinate CT efforts aimed at detecting and disrupting foreign fighter travel of known suspects. With so many fighters leaving countries such as Georgia and Tajikistan undetected and with no visa requirement to enter Turkey, the Islamic State is having little difficulty obtaining some of the most dangerous terrorist recruits in the world.

Both Russia and China are aware of the threat posed by extremists when returning from Syria or those determined to act in their respective home countries. China’s far northwestern province of Xinjiang is home to the ethnic-Turkic Uighurs, some of whom have trained or fought in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and now Syria. China is highly sensitive to the threat—both real and perceived—by the Uighurs, which will only increase the longer the conflicts in Syria and Iraq drag on. Likewise, Russia has a substantial problem with its nationals joining the Islamic State to fight; in addition to the 1,700 estimated by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Chechen governor Magomed Daudov said earlier this year that 3,000 “of our youth” had gone to fight for extremists in Syria, though it was unclear if he meant only Chechens—from Russia but also from across the globe—or Russian fighters overall.

Unfortunately, the problem will not be easily addressed so long as conditions on the ground in central Asian countries give rise to pockets of intense militancy and conditions on the ground in Syria draw fighters to the region.


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