Islamic State in Kyrgyzstan: a real or imagined threat?

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (openDemocracy) – On 16 July, Bishkek was quiet. A dense cloud of smoke gathering on the outskirts of the city was the only indication that something unusual was going on. Taking it for a fire in a remote location, the city’s inhabitants went about their business as usual. No-one knew that the cloud was actually the result of a heavy exchange of fire between Kyrgyz special forces, the police and a number of armed men hidden in a suburban house.

The shootings left four gunmen dead. Two more had reportedly been killed earlier that day, and five men were detained. Some of the members of the special forces had also been wounded, but no civilians were hurt. The dead included both Kyrgyz and Kazakh nationals. Not long after, it was reported that the clash had been an anti-terrorist operation, undertaken against a Central Asian cell of Islamic State (IS). The group had reportedly been planning a terrorist attack in Kyrgyzstan to coincide with the end of Ramadan prayers on 17 July.

Theories and unanswered questions

As soon as the news reached the media, rumour and various conspiracy theories started circulating. Some thought the US was behind it, others – Russia. For the majority of people, the IS narrative didn’t ring true: many believed it had been deliberately fabricated by the authorities.

With its popularity in tethers and parliamentary elections coming up, the government has been in desperate need of a success story: uncovering an ISIS plot and apprehending a terrorist attack was just what the doctor ordered. It all seemed too convenient. The fact that neither the faces nor the names of the alleged terrorists were shown on TV only increased suspicion among the general public.

With the government failing to provide any evidence that IS was behind the plot and with the perpetrators’ relatives vehemently maintaining their innocence, many questions remain unanswered, most pertinently: has IS really been expanding into Kyrgyzstan and, if so, how serious is the threat?

According to Tatyana Dronzina, a specialist in terrorism studies at the University of Sofia, despite IS’ growing interest in Central Asia (the group allegedly planned to spend $70m in 2015 to help bolster its position in the region), it hasn’t proven easy for the group to establish itself there.

‘First of all, it is geographically difficult for ISIS to get into Central Asia,’ says Dronzina. ‘There are no shared borders or overland routes through which the group can easily penetrate the region. There are two countries that could in theory facilitate ISIS’ entry into the region – Pakistan and Iran – but neither of them is interested in such a deal.’ That being said, however, it is highly possible that local extremist groups can and will be operating on behalf of ISIS.

Who is joining ISIS?

At present, the number of Kyrgyzstan citizens ‘associated’ with ISIS stands at approximately 500: the number of EU and Russian citizens involved with ISIS is considerably higher. And it would be impossible to create a single, clear-cut profile of a Central Asian IS member. People from a cross-section of society have been joining the ranks of the organisation: men and women, educated and uneducated, poor and well-off.

But it is interesting to note that there are a growing number of women deciding to join the fight with IS. As explained by one investigative journalist from Osh, many women see the trip to Syria as the last resort: having been left by their husbands, with their families not willing or unable to provide for them and with little or no maintenance, they take their children and leave in the hope that they will find good religious husbands and a godly life.

As Dronzina explains, ‘reduced opportunities for political participation, censorship and restriction of certain freedoms, low quality of social services especially out of the capital, uncontrolled corruption and clan dependencies, and high rates of unemployment – all these factors contribute to radicalisation.’

Why are they joining ISIS?

According to Dronzina, there are three main reasons why Kyrgyz citizens join IS. Firstly, there are ideological motivations related to religion, which include the quest to defend other Muslims, fight unbelievers, become martyrs (shahids) or lead a godly life free from sin, drugs and extramarital sex.

Secondly, there are ideological motives related to politics. As Dronzina explains, people join IS to contribute to the fight against the regime of Bashar al Assad and against mass injustices, but also in revenge for the suffering of the Ummah and to take part in the building of an Islamic State regulated by sharia law. Finally, Dronzina argues, that there are personal reasons driving people to join the fight, which include the desire to lead an exciting life, romanticism, adventure, but also economic motives.

The recruitment methods used by IS to encourage Kyrgyz people to join the fight vary, and, despite conventional wisdom, are not limited to social network sites (such as Odnoklasniki.ru), though these have undeniably been important tools.

A significant portion of recruitment efforts take place in Russia, where thousands of Kyrgyz citizens have found employment. Mistreated by their employers, isolated from their communities, often working illegally in poorly paid jobs, Kyrgyz migrants look for a sense of belonging, and therefore often turn to mosques where they can become exposed to radical ideas and ISIS recruitment nets.

According to the International Crisis Group, word of mouth is also an important recruitment tool for IS, with many people first hearing about the fight in the ranks of IS from their relatives or friends who have already left for Syria. In addition to this, the discrimination of ethnic Uzbeks in the south of Kyrgyzstanhas been readily exploited by IS as a recruitment tactic. Uzbeks are often denied opportunities when it comes to jobs and education which breeds frustration within the community, which sometimes leads to radicalisation.

Moreover, the government in Bishkek has been involved in a consistent fight against religiosity. As Shakhnoza, a religious Muslim of Uzbek-Uyghur origin from Jalalabad, explains: ‘The government sees diversity in Islam as a threat to its security. Although Kyrgyzstan is still relatively liberal, the policy on religion is becoming harsh, as the government tries to promote just one national model. The mixture of Islamic tradition with Kyrgyz ethnic tradition does not seem attractive to universalists, who prefer not to choose between a “Kyrgyz Islam” and a “non-Kyrgyz” Islam, but instead want to adhere to the fundamentals of faith as taught by the Prophet.’

Dressed in black from head to toes, Shakhnoza acknowledges that she is often seen as a radical and targeted – even by imams – for not praying in the ‘correct way’. The harassment of religious groups, especially those not following the state-promoted ethnic version of Islam, has arguably led to a growth in radicalism.

Despite the fact that more Kyrgyz citizens have been joining IS, the ‘Islamist threat’ in Kyrgyzstan should not be exaggerated. A recent survey conducted by John Heathershaw and David Montgomery suggests that there has been little Islamist mobilisation in Kyrgyzstan.

Courtesy of TRAJAN 117But this hasn’t stopped the state using the threat to its own advantage. July’s alleged anti-terrorist action has provided justification for increased control and harassment of religious groups and anti-religious rhetoric has increased. Such measures should be condemned as not only harmful but also counter-productive. Far from successfully nullifying IS, such tactics only further alienate religious communities in Kyrgyzstan, thus improving the chances of recruiting in the future.

Prepared by AGNIESZKA PIKULICKA-WILCZEWSKA  for openDemocracy.