BACKGROUND: On February 19, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that a cell of militants from southern Kyrgyzstan’s Osh Province who returned from Syria were arrested while preparing to “commit several acts of terrorism” in Kyrgyzstan. According to the report, the militants planned to finance their operations by using funds “remitted” from Syria and robbing wealthy citizens in Kyrgyzstan. They also hoped to use their funding to recruit up to 150 other militants to “combat the local authorities.”
Reports like this are becoming increasingly common in Kyrgyzstan. In September 2013, Kyrgyzstan announced that it arrested a cell of returnees from the Syrian civil war in Osh in the Fergana Valley. This cell was planning to attack Kyrgyzstan’s Independence Day celebrations on August 31 and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Bishkek on September 11. In addition, the authorities reported that this cell included one Kazakh and two Kyrgyz nationals, who were members of the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). The IJU is mostly active in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the North Caucasus as well as in Turkey, and it may play a role in funneling in Central Asians to Syria.
On February 10, 2014, Kyrgyzstan’s State National Security Committee (known by its Russian acronym, GKNB) confirmed that at least five Kyrgyz men have already been killed fighting in Syria and that more than 50 Kyrgyz citizens may be fighting in Syria with the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Kyrgyz authorities have also acknowledged that Kyrgyz families, including single mothers with children, are part of the Central Asian “family jihad” trend. One Kyrgyz lady from Osh, Nargiza Kadyraliyeva, “disappeared” from Kyrgyzstan with her three young sons in 2013 and reportedly texted her husband, “We've left for the jihad in Syria. Don't look for us.”
In some cases, Kyrgyz families may seek to escape unemployment in Kyrgyzstan and receive “welfare” in the forms of housing, food and stipends from militant leaders in Syria. In other cases entire families may be motivated by the chance for an adventure in Syria and to support what they perceive as the just cause of rebels. The religious appeal of a “jihad” is likely also a factor, with many Kyrgyz who have a low level of religious education believing it is their obligation – or becoming convinced by local imams – to fight in Syria.
IMPLICATIONS: Unlike Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, which have since the break-up of the Soviet Union seen the rise of violent extremist jihadist groups in their countries, such as the IMU in Uzbekistan and Jamaat Ansarullah in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan has avoided that trend. Even Kazakhstan suffered terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, by the Afghanistan-based Jund al-Khilafah in 2011, while Xinjiang, China saw more than 100 people killed in violence since 2012, often involving perpetrators who are influenced by jihadist ideology. Jihadism in Kyrgyzstan has always been minimal, which may be because Kyrgyzstan’s reforms since 2005 have allowed a more open environment for Muslims to practice their religion and because traditional Islamic practice in Kyrgyzstan is characterized by moderation and tolerance.
However, Kyrgyzstan cannot avoid being affected by regional geopolitics. During the U.S. war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, the U.S and NATO pressured Kyrgyz and other Central Asian militants in the IMU to such an extent that they were forced to find a base in Pakistan’s tribal areas. They had insufficient mobility to return to Kyrgyzstan and radicalize locals or carry out attacks.
Syria is a different case, however, because the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) controls increasing large swathes of territory in its neo-Caliphate in northwest Syria and northeast Iraq. ISIS allows Kyrgyz and other Central Asian militants to train, fundraise, and recruit back home. It also easier for Kyrgyz militants who trained or fought in Syria to transit Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Iran or other countries to return to Kyrgyzstan than it has been for Kyrgyz fighters in Pakistan or Afghanistan. As a result, the first signs that Kyrgyz Syrian war veterans were operating the Fergana Valley began to emerge in late 2013 and 2014.
Finally, there is increasing distrust in Kyrgyzstani society between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks. Some Uzbeks who feel they are excluded and marginalized from power and opportunity in the country may be inclined to join groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose notion of a pan-Central Asian Islamic State is more preferable to them than Kyrgyzstan. Hizb ut-Tahrir may also serve as a conduit for their travel to Syria or entrance into more violent jihadist groups in Central Asia.
Poverty in Kyrgyzstan, coupled with few government programs to help individuals find jobs is also a problem that is connected to the jihadist current. Groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir often provide services to families – and particularly women whose husbands are labor migrants in Russia – as long as they accept to Hizb ut-Tahrir’s extremist ideology. Hizb ut-Tahrir can also focus asymmetrically on rural or marginalized communities, which may be vulnerable to their ideology, while the Kyrgyz government has the more difficult task of being responsible to serve the entire country.
With growing domestic influence of extremist groups and increasing opportunities for Kyrgyz to train in Syria, Kyrgyzstan is likely going to be less insulated from jihadist violence in upcoming years than any time since 2001.
CONCLUSIONS: There are two likely scenarios in Kyrgyzstan’s security environment in the upcoming years. First, Kyrgyzstan may host extremists and jihadist groups connected to both Syria and Afghanistan and to groups operating locally like Hizb ut-Tahrir, but these groups may prefer Kyrgyzstan as a safe haven for attacks or operations to proselytize in neighboring countries. Alternatively, these groups may use Kyrgyzstan as a base because of the country’s relatively weak internal security, but carry out attacks on “enemy” targets in the country, which could include Chinese or Western interests or government offices or security forces personnel.
The notion that Kyrgyzstan will remain impervious from jihadist trends in Central Asia is becoming less viable. President Atamabayev’s administration is aware of impending threats and may seek to emulate the more authoritarian controls on religion of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. This may reduce the likelihood of jihadist operations and proselytization, but also alienate some non-violent Islamists and force them underground and then into the hands of more violent actors.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn is an analyst of Eurasian and African Affairs for the Jamestown Foundation and non-resident research fellow of the Center of Shanghai Cooperation Studies (COSCOS) in Shanghai. He testified before the U.S. Congress on Islamist Militant Threats to Central Asia in February 2013.