ISIL in Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyz in ISIL: Is the threat real?

This image, taken from one of the government news reports on religious regulation in Kyrgyzstan, shows one of the main mosques in Jalal-Abad Oblast, KG. The government has been cracking down on unregistered mosques as part of its anti-terrorism campaign.

This image, taken from a government news report on religious regulation in Kyrgyzstan, shows one of the main mosques in Jalal-Abad Oblast, KG. The government has cracked down on unregistered mosques as part of its anti-terrorism campaign. This news report reminds religious authorities of the importance of making sure their documentation is in order.

So far, more than 200 Kyrgyzstani citizens have joined the fight in Syria and Iraq, including some 30 women. Roughly 150 of these fighters are ethnic Uzbeks, according to the Kyrgyz government. To put that in perspective: that’s 0.003% of the Kyrgyzstani population. Even if the number of Kyrgyzstani foreign fighters is 2,000 — the highest estimate out there — that rises to 0.03% of the population. It is a crime to join a terrorist organisation or to send others to the front in Syria and, in 2014, 7 people were arrested for this in Kyrgyzstan.

On the other hand, ISIL is reportedly dedicating some $70 million to destabilise the Ferghana Valley, an area that spans parts of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The International Crisis Group hypothesises that the Ferghana Valley is fertile ground for finding and radicalising recruits: its alienated ethnic minorities (namely Uzbeks) face few economic opportunities and have little connection to overall Kyrgyz society, which is for the most part prejudiced against them. ISIL may be using a similar logic — i.e. to search for more soldiers among Central Asia’s most disaffected groups — though in one video, ISIL members threaten to kill the “heathens” of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Indeed, Islam as practiced by many Central Asians is certainly not what ISIL would call the true faith.

Kyrgyz TV is full of programs, infomercials and news reports extolling the virtues of moderate Islam. Many of these discuss when jihad is doctrinally permitted and when not, under what circumstances the killing of other Muslims is allowed, and individuals’ duties to attend to their own families rather than joining far-off fights. Much of this programming is government-sponsored and aired on KTRK (Kyrgyz Television and Radio Corporation), the official government news channel.

The Kyrgyz government keeps a close eye on all religious activity — a left-over from Soviet times — and mosques, churches and synagogues are required to register. Unregistered mosques and religious reading groups are now under intense scrutiny. Yet the Kyrgyz government is also using terrorism as an excuse for almost every type of new regulation: mandatory registration of phone numbers, requiring citizens to provide biometric data as a prerequisite for voting, shutting down money exchange bureaus (which allegedly can be used to help finance terrorist activities but, more pertinently, have given the Kyrgyz National Bank a run for its money by providing better exchange rates on the ever strengthening dollar). For most of these regulations, terrorism prevention seems to be far from the primary reason to implement new oversight.

Moreover, many Kyrgyzstanis seem to be radicalised not at home but abroad. In this article, six people arrested for religious extremism in Kyrgyzstan recount how they were attracted to terrorism; several note that they were introduced to radical Islam as migrants abroad. The main recruitment cities appear to be Moscow, Istanbul and Almaty (Kazakhstan). Though recruitment is heavily foreign-based for now, many of these men stated that they returned home with the goal of recruiting individuals directly from Kyrgyzstan. This would suggest either a new strategy or simply an every expanding need for bodies on the Syrian-Iraqi front. [Side note: the fact that they are admitting to crimes to a public newspaper prior to any trial is disturbing. Any marginally competent lawyer would advise them not to talk. Their self-exposure suggests that they are being denied adequate legal defence, in contravention of Kyrgyz law.]

Central Asian governments are of course worried that such individuals will spark domestic civil wars and revolutions. At least for now, that seems like a remote prospect. In Kyrgyzstan, the vast majority of citizens — both religiously devout and not — are ideologically opposed to ISIL and to its claim to have established a new caliphate. The present problem would seem to me to be much more the risk of domestic, isolated terrorist acts — bombings, for example. So far, local extremists have had little interest in attacking their fellow citizens within Central Asia. The future is less clear.

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