Terrorism is one the rising, nagging problems in Central Asia, which consists of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, due to the presence of al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan along borders stretching around 1,000 miles. The Islamist resistance dates back to Tsarist Russia (1721-1917).
After World War II, resistance movements grew following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. ISIS represents the second phase of radical Islamism in the region.
Roots of radicalism in Central Asia
The Islamist opposition in the region turned into radical groups following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It joined forces with al-Qaeda organization, which called for jihad and recruited many fighters from Central Asia.
The withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989, and its collapse later on, has inspired the Islamist movements in Central Asia to clone the Afghani model in their homeland.
The concept of jihad
Terrorism in Central Asia is highly linked to Islamist movements, which have different and even contradictory concepts of jihad. Some movements consider jihad as a mere military action.
Islamists believe that Muslims should have recourse to the era of Prophet Mohamed (PBUH). They believe that the deterioration has been a result of disdaining from Sharia, or Islamic law.
Top takfiri groups
The ‘Adolat’ movement is one of the oldest groups. It was founded in Uzbekistan. The movement carried out a number of terrorist attacks against the government, which is secular. The movement considered the government infidel for not observing Sharia.
It relocated to Tajikistan in the wake of Uzbek government crackdown, and took part in the Tajik war (1992-1997).
A number of groups seceded from Adolat such as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which attempted to topple the Uzbek regime in 1999.
Jund al-Khilafah (JaK) Army of the Caliphate) and ETIM also seceded from IMU.
Drivers of Islamist groups
The radical Islamist groups grew in Central Asia due to a number of reasons as follows:
- Central Asia is located near Kabul, home of al-Qaeda. A number of citizens from Central Asia took part in terrorist attacks launched by al-Qaeda against the Soviet Union. Veteran fighters returned to their homelands with agendas contradictory to the Russian interests.
- Ideological vacuum which followed the end of communism. The people of the region were more and more interested in their Islamic heritage. The deteriorated social and economic conditions have nourished an extremist religious sentiment.
- Social and economic pressures, i.e. poverty ethnic tensions and weak regime have ushered in violence.
- The political vision that calls for the return to early Islam eras was the only way to overcome the economic crises. It called for the Islamization of the society.
ISIS in Central Asia
After the Islamic State emerged in Syria and Iraq and the terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan pledged allegiance to Abu Bark al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, it recruited fighters from all over the world, including Central Asia. It recruited many fighters from Central Asia.
There have been no jihadist groups in Central Asia, unlike Abu Omar al-Shishani in Caucasia, a number of Central Asian takfiris took part in terrorist attacks in Turkey and Russia. An Uzbek took part in an attack on a nightclub in Turkey on New Year’s Eve in 2016.
A Kyrgyz takfiri carried out a suicide bombing in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in April 2017. The Russia security authorities have also foiled a number of attacks carried out by terrorists from Central Asia.
The return of ISIS fighters to Central Asia raises much concern in the wake of ISIS defeat in Syria and Iraq. ISIS intensified such worries after it launched the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province in 2015.
The political and economic crises in Central Asia have gnawed at the legitimacy of the ruling regimes and strengthened the terrorist groups, which took advantage of the social weakness to attack governments. As a result of Russia’s strict measures in the face of immigrants from Central Asia, terrorist attacks targeted Russia in retaliation.
Central Asia is a good environment for the return of ISIS, especially at the borders, which provide terrorist with a haven from the economic crises and lawlessness. Disgruntled citizens in Central Asia grudge all the political regimes, which are aligned with the superpowers and do not improve the basic services for their people.