BACKGROUND: ISIS is casting an increasingly long shadow over Central Asia, a trend which started in 2014. In May of that year, a group of fighters in Syria from former Soviet states, including those in Central Asia, swore allegiance to ISIS. In September last year, Taliban forces linked to ISIS attacked an Afghan Local Police outpost in Ajristan, allegedly beheading several people and raising the black flag of ISIS. Also in September, the anonymous hanging of the ISIS flag in Tashkent was tied to declarations that the group had selected an emir for Uzbekistan. A video that surfaced in January 2015 featuring Tajik ISIS militants called for jihad against Tajikistan’s central government; less than one month earlier, 50 men in the country had been arrested for trying to travel to Syria to fight.
Coupled with this trend are Central Asia’s underlying weaknesses, which many point to as providing a fertile ground for a larger ISIS presence. Authoritarianism and political volatility are common concerns in the region. High unemployment is another issue, since potential recruits can be lured by the promise of a paycheck – leaflets found in Tajikistan have offered fighters US$ 5,000 a month, far above the average wage level. Islamic militancy also persists in the region, with the Al-Qaeda- and Taliban-allied Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Taliban both maintaining their conflict against local authorities.
IMPLICATIONS: Despite what the above warnings would have one believe, the fact remains that very little ISIS activity has been conducted or spotted in the region. There is scant ISIS rhetoric so far that mentions Central Asia, instead mostly targeting countries in the Middle East or the West. Additionally, in Afghanistan, where an alliance between the group and the Taliban may pose a threat, the reality today is that there are deep political and ideological divides between the two organizations that prevent meaningful coordination. In the absence of confirmed numbers of regional ISIS recruits, 1,000 fighters may be a more feasible total – still a figure for concern but far less of a dire threat to the region.
Why would these countries play up the ISIS threat? The answer lies in the domestic priorities of the Central Asian countries themselves. This newest iteration simply means that ISIS is a convenient bogeyman in the region, with governments using the group as a political tool for removing threats and winning support.
Governments in Central Asia are also eager to receive assistance from foreign powers, and drumming up the threat of ISIS is an effective way to get their attention. Kyrgyzstan, which has moved closer to Russia in recent years, has latched onto that country’s fear of U.S. domination; the Kyrgyz Russian-language media outlet has suggested that American forces could use ISIS as an excuse to send more NATO forces to the region and dent Russian influence. The Tajik government has been quite successful in its appeals to Russia, which has recently granted the country upwards of US$ 1.2 billion in military equipment to combat ISIS via its border with Afghanistan.
The success of Central Asian governments in playing the ISIS card with Russia stems from a long-standing Russian fear of and history with Islamic extremism. The country’s military presence in Tajikistan is thus tied to the presence of Islamic extremists in the region, including the Taliban. There is also a strategic concern for Russia’s involvement with the region: Moscow can use ISIS as a tool to retain influence in Central Asia, which has been moving towards China in recent years. Paying out large sums to willing recipients such as Tajikistan is simply a way to utilize the situation and maintain influence.
China’s rising influence in the region has given it a larger stake when it comes to ISIS. A Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece explicitly links the ISIS threat with instability and challenges to Chinese authority in Xinjiang, proposing greater intelligence and military cooperation with Central Asian states as a solution. Conveniently, such a response would increase China’s strategic position in the region.
Unrest in the wider Central Asia region has also been a lingering concern for Beijing, largely because of the possibility of Islamist regimes coming to power and undermining China’s authority in Xinjiang. Additionally, the Chinese are sourcing a larger proportion of their energy resources from the region, and so securing them against ISIS and other threats is a priority.
What of other foreign actors in the region? The U.S. has responded to the ISIS threat in Central Asia with little vigor for a new fight. The Pentagon has called ISIS in the region “nascent at best” and “aspirational,” despite periodic statements from elected U.S. officials that play up the ISIS threat for Central Asia. As another regional player, Iran has been happy to blame its enemies in the Persian Gulf and the West for the rise of ISIS, but has reserved its focus on the group for operations in the Middle East. The European Union, making a recent push towards influence in Central Asia but largely minor in comparative influence, has likewise been absent from the ISIS conversation.
CONCLUSION: ISIS may, in reality, pose a bigger opportunity than threat for Central Asia, whose states have already secured foreign support and implicit approval for continued domestic control as a result of the militant group’s ominous, if shallow, regional growth. As such, ISIS in Central Asia today represents more of a political point rather than a real concern for the region’s countries, and a mix of the two for outside players.
ISIS may become to be a more tangible concern in the region someday, but the evidence at this point is limited. While Central Asia is often thrown into the conversation about the expansion of ISIS, doing so ignores a more complicated reality.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Charlie Smith is a specialist on emerging and frontier markets, with a focus on political risk and private sector development, and is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons & Boris Ajeganov