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The Dynamics of Central Asian Extremism

In this episode of the Contours podcast, Eugene Chausovsky, senior director of analytical development at the New Lines Institute, and Marie Mach, an independent researcher of Eurasian extremist ideology, discuss the evolution of extremist violence in Central Asia, the factors driving recent attacks, and the outlook for the region.

Eugene Chausovsky:

Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy Contours podcast series. I’m your host for today, Eugene Chausovsky, and I’ll be talking to Marie Mach about extremism in Central Asia and its regional and global implications. Marie is an independent researcher and translator who has worked at various research institutes, including the University of Chicago’s Chicago Project on Security and Threats, and the Center on Terrorism Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. She’s primarily interested in examining extremist ideologies in Eurasia. And Marie, welcome to the show. So just to get us started off, maybe we can get into a brief history of extremism in Central Asia. So what are some of the key elements of the historical background on this topic that you think are important for our listeners to know?

Marie Mach:

Yeah, so I think if we were going to want to understand this topic more in depth, I do think that we need to go way back towards the nascent years of the Soviet Union. So when the Soviet Union was first established, one of the very important themes within it establishing its power was getting rid of any traces of religion. So on the territory of Russian and Eastern Europe, any traces of Orthodox Christianity or just Christianity in general were wiped from the cultural fabric and public life. The same thing more or less happened in Central Asia, which was part of the Soviet Union as well. Soviet power attempted to root out any sense of Islam within public life. However, this was a lot harder than it was in the more western regions of the Soviet Union.

This more or less continued up until the 1940s or around there during World War II when Stalin eased restrictions on Islam, and this ease of restrictions on Islam more or less led to a flourishing underground of Islamic thought and ideology, which continued into the later years of the Soviet Union. This continued up until about the collapse of the Soviet Union in which, especially in Southern Central Asia, so in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as in Uzbekistan for example, there was a vacuum of power that the Communist Party had left after the Soviet Union had collapsed. This led to Islam in a particular, some strains of extremist Islamic ideologies to become very popular. And these ideologies clashed with the old Soviet communist guard, especially during conflicts such as the Tajik Civil War for example. In the nineties, more radical Islamist ideologies, they did clash with the new state-forming that was occurring within the republics of Central Asia. And eventually another element that I forgot to mention about was that the Central Asian republics, they did adopt Islam as kind of like a cultural national identity.

However, as the nineties came to a close in the early 2000s, a lot of these central Asian governments, these governments were headed by people who had originally been within the Communist Party during the Soviet Union, they began to clash with Islamic political groups that had gained popularity. So with regards to the popularity of Islam as well as the more underground, more extremist versions of Islamic extremism, that did gain some sense of popularity among the peoples of Central Asia, the governments of Central Asia did eventually begin to hone in on them as political opponents. And many of the leaders of these Islamic parties were eventually either jailed or persecuted. Political Islam became an ideology that actually started to gain popularity, especially in Tajikistan. Political Islam aimed to fill this ideological vacuum that I had mentioned before that was populated by the communist old guard. And this ideology of political Islam found its home within the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan.

And the Islamic party of Tajikistan, as well as more extremist elements within Tajikistan, they did clash with elements of the old Soviet government. As another example in Uzbekistan, the President Islam Karimov, he also, as I had mentioned previously, had allowed for a small degree of Islamic revivalism. As I had mentioned previously, a lot of the Central Asian republics had adopted Islam kind of as a cultural identity. However, the President Islam Karimov, he also began to see Islamic political groups as threats to his authority, and he began to more or less clamp down on these groups. So while Islam was more or less adopted into the sociocultural fabric, the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and to an extent Turkmenistan, although we don’t really know all that much about Turkmenistan, they did adopt the sense of being Muslim countries. But at the same time, they were very well aware of the fact that these governments had formed within this ideological vacuum, and they were very conscious of the fact that religious parties could occupy and threaten their power.

So at the same time, they also did make great effort to curb religious freedoms. So if we’re going to go take that through line and go more towards the present day, we can see that the governments of Central Asia to a degree have persecuted Islam, whether in its extremist or just as expressed by the general population. For example, the president of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon, he has clamped down on, for example, men who’ve decided to grow their beards as well as women who’ve decided that they would like to wear the hijab. Turkmenistan has limited the amount of applications that people can make for making the Hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca. And in Kyrgyzstan, we see this in 2009, the government of Kyrgyzstan has implemented testing of imams to ensure that they’re religiously compliant with national laws. And mosques and other religious institutions have also been well regulated to ensure compliance with government ideology.

Another thing I would like to mention in relation to all of this is the threat that Islamic extremist terror has made on the societies of Central Asia, especially on the background of the global war on terror. Central Asian governments have often used a threat of Islamic extremism, which does exist in the region, to curb religious liberties and entrench their authority. And they’ve often actually used this threat to further enforce state repression. So while we do see to an extent extremist ideologies flourishing, that same flourishing of extremist ideologies has also encouraged governments to further their own agendas and further entrenched state repressions.

Eugene Chausovsky:

Right. Well, thanks very much, Marie. That’s a very comprehensive breakdown. So one thing that you mentioned, you brought up the global war on terror right around the time of the September 11th attacks in the US. I know that this was a time of some pretty significant activity of different militant groups and extremist groups within Central Asia, both leading up to 2001, and then sort of a dispersal of some of these groups in the later stages of that intervention by the US and its allies. So I was wondering if you could maybe speak to that a little bit and how that shaped this overall trend of extremism in Central Asia?

Marie Mach:

Yeah, so if we’re going to go more back onto the early years of the global war on terror, a few groups that did flourish around this general timeframe, for example, were the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan. And then a little bit earlier in that the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which did eventually lose out on power after the end of the Tajik Civil War. But going back to the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, they actually did lead armed incursions from Tajikistan into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. They eventually did flee into a zero stand after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Support for this group eventually fizzled out around the time of the early days of the global war on terror.

I would say that would be one example. I will point out, however, that while in groups such as this did gain some semblance of popularity in Central Asia, the popularity of extremist groups in comparison to other regions in the world, actually, it wasn’t that large. Islamic extremism, I think was more or less, at least if we’re talking about violent acts of terror, they were mostly confined to individuals up until, let’s say, the mid to late 2010s, which is when we start to see more people join, for example, the Islamic state and then later going towards present times the Islamic State Khorasan.

Yeah, I think it’s really important to divide trends and extremism to both within Central Asia as well as abroad, because I do think we see two parallel trends that eventually do kind of diverge in terms of the effects that they do have. So I can start out with what the trends are in Central Asia in this general timeframe from the early 2000s up until about now. So as I alluded to previously, a lot of attacks carried out by Central Asians in Central Asia were actually more or less confined to individual acts of terror. Joining groups, for example, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that didn’t attract too much support, although the group did have some popularity. And as I mentioned earlier also, in Tajikistan, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan also did clash with the old Soviet guard that had eventually taken power into Tajikistan.

But I would say overall violence or violent terror attacks within Central Asia, they take on a more isolated and I would say nebulous character. By nebulous, I mean, yes, they were motivated, many of them were motivated by Islamic extremist ideologies, but a lot of the attacks that I have seen documented have also had ties to a more local political nature. So for example, between 2008 and 2018, there were about 19 terror attacks that were conducted in Central Asia. However, most of the targets, they weren’t civilians, they were actually government officials or military members or members of the police, for example. And many of these attacks were actually tied to members of the political establishment you say, that were disgruntled about their place in life. So for example, in 2015, Tajik Deputy Defense Minister, he led violent attacks in Dushanbe, Tajikistan after Emomali Rahmon, the President of Tajikistan attempted to remove him from office.

There was another attack in 2016 in Almaty, and I was actually there when that happened. It was initially believed to have been tied to Islamic extremism, but the perpetrator of the attack, Ruslan Kulikbayev, he shot three police officers and he perpetrated this attack as revenge for the brutality that he had suffered against at the hand of law enforcement officials. Another example that I would also like to mention is that in 2011, a Kazakh man blew himself up in front of a security services office in Aktobe, Kazakhstan, protesting the country’s restrictive religious laws and abuse of prisoners. Especially in this last example that I wanted to mention here, there is a strain of religious thought or religious underpinnings to these attacks, especially in the last example that I brought up. But it’s also intermixed with other motivations as well.

As for attacks that are more or less inspired by Islamic extremist ideologies, I can mention a few of those as well. And this comes a little bit later towards the end of the last half of the 2010s. So there was a June 2016 attack in Aktobe, Kazakhstan, where 16 men, they robbed a gun shop and attacked an army base. In this particular case, the perpetrators were inspired by senior ISIS member Abu Mohammad al-Adnani’s call for jihad. And then one the more famous attacks that actually got some news coverage in the United States was a July 2018 attack on cyclists who were tourists in Tajikistan. These tourists were from the United States, Netherlands, and Switzerland.

And ISIS actually posted a video of the attacks in which the perpetrators did pledge their allegiance to ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This probably is one of the more prominent examples of an extremist attack in Central Asia, the last few that I mentioned, being concretely inspired by extremist groups, ISIS being the inspiration for these attacks. One thing that you won’t see however in these attacks is that were any of these perpetrators, actually members of the Islamic state, for example. They were more or less inspired, but they weren’t part of the group.

Eugene Chausovsky:

Yeah, that’s an interesting point. And it sounds like what you’re saying, Marie, is when you go back, for example, in that the early days of the global war on terror, and you mentioned the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the IMU, and some of those major attacks that were happening both kind of in the lead up to that, but also a little bit following the 9/11 attacks. It seems like there was a big dispersal of any kind of concentrated militant groups like the IMU within Central Asia and really over the ensuing years. And particularly over the last really couple of decades, that these attacks have become much more sort of piecemeal, as you mentioned, either inspired by IS or that they may have different motivations, whether it be political or even individual revenge factors. But that real concentration of militant activity seems to have been highly dispersed since those early days, if I understand you correctly.

Marie Mach:

Right, definitely. No, you’re correct. Highly dispersed. And one thing I’ve seen in my research is that especially in the early 2000s, Central Asia was kind of seen as a potentially dangerous zone where extremist groups would gather, but this actually was largely proven not to be the case. In Central Asia, whenever we see flareups of attacks committed by Islamic extremist groups, for example, like ISIS, Central Asia is commonly pointed to as an example of a region that could experience a flareup of these types of attacks. But actually we don’t typically see that. Only 19 attacks, which is a terrible number, but only 19 attacks have occurred very, very sporadically. Committed, usually just by one or two individuals at the most. So it’s kind of proven to be an unpredictable region, which I would find to be more surprising. But actually what you do see in terms of Central Asians actually participating in extremist activity, you actually see that occurring more or less abroad and not within Central Asia itself.

I talked a lot actually about the trends of violent terrorist activity within Central Asia, however, that’s just one parallel I would like to explore in conjunction with the parallel that you’ll see of extremists committing attacks abroad. So it should be mentioned that a lot of people from Central Asia, they actually either will migrate to Russia to work or to Turkey where they can earn money and send it back to their families in Central Asia. So trends regarding terror attacks carried out by Central Asians are actually more heavily inspired or influenced by groups such as the Islamic State Khorasan, then you would actually see in Central Asia itself. And so you can see a few factors at play here. So as I mentioned, migrant labor abroad in Turkey and Russia, which engenders among a population of men who are separated from their homes and dealing with the political conditions in their host country, whether or not it’s in Turkey or Russia. This kind of more or less engenders a sense of injustice or impoverishment among certain segments of this population.

We also do see cultural ties to terror groups that Central Asians may have, for example Central Asians having cultural ties to participants or members of the Islamic State Khorasan. So before I go into terror attacks committed by Central Asians abroad, I thought I should mention because I want to backtrack here, that during the heyday of Islamic State activity in Syria and Iraq, Russian speakers were actually one of the largest group of foreign fighters within that group. So I’ll just mention a few examples. So a few Central Asians did actually rise to prominence within ISIS such as Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, I think I pronounced that right.

He was trained by the US and he actually defected to ISIS in 2015 and became their minister of war. And ISIS did actually recruit in southern Tajikistan as well as with Uzbek communities in the Fergana Valley. So during the heyday of the Islamic State, one quote that I actually read by the scholar Joseph Long said that the travel of radicalized citizens from Central Asia to Syria and Iraq acted kind of as a release valve helping to avoid the problem of Islamic terrorism by transferring it to outside of the region.

So when I’m saying this, I’m more or less referring to Central Asians migrating out of Central Asia to join the Islamic state during the 2010s. And I would say that this is actually a pretty interesting quote because it does illustrate the fact that despite there being extremist attacks within Central Asia, many of the would-be perpetrators, I believe, actually just joined the Islamic State in the Middle East instead. However, since they’ve lost territory, especially after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, we’re seeing different trends now that involves Islamic extremism abroad, especially as perpetrated by Central Asians.

Eugene Chausovsky:

So yeah, that’s really interesting, and I think that maybe now would be a good time to go over a couple of examples of extremist attack linked to Central Asian militants. I think we’ve seen a few actually most recently in the past few months, pretty significant attacks. So can you speak to some of those attacks that really stand out to you, Marie?

Marie Mach:

Maybe many of you have seen that in Moscow, the concert venue, Crocus City Hall was attacked by four perpetrators who actually turned out to be Tajik nationals who were actually part of the Tajik migrant community that had lived in Moscow. So this happened on March 22nd, 2024, and the attacks were immediately claimed by the Islamic State who released videos showing the violence that did occur at the concert venue. There are two important themes within this attack that I would like to explore. So one of them is the radicalization of Central Asian migrant communities in Russia. Radicalization among the central Asian migrant community in Russia is actually a very important factor that we should examine here. Because migrant workers within Russia from Central Asia, a lot of them are exposed to pro-Russian nationalism, which often targets migrant workers from Central Asia. And a lot of this time this Russian nationalist sentiment, it often drives people within these communities who are more susceptible to radicalization efforts into the arms of groups such as the Islamic State Khorasan, for example.

Another factor that I think is also important to look into here is Islamic State Khorasan’s targeting of Russia, viewing it as an enemy state. Russia has made inroads in normalizing relations with the Taliban, which the Islamic State sees as an enemy, and also these Russia as an enemy state due to longstanding historical factors such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as well as Russia military actions, Syria, as well as the war than Chechnya that occurred at the beginning of this century. The conditions that migrant workers and Russia experience as well as the views of Russia as held by the Islamic State Khorasan are definitely really important factors that we need to consider here.

And another very unfortunate outcome that we’re going to see of these attacks as well is that I do believe if they haven’t already, they’re likely to spark anti-migrant workers sentiment, especially among these Russian nationalist groups that have begun to flourish during the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine. And I do think we’re going to see further pressure within these migrant communities, which may possibly lead to more recruitment into Islamic extremist groups, especially Islamic State Khorasan, which has recruited heavily among Central Asian populations.

Eugene Chausovsky:

Yeah, absolutely. I think that we’re actually already seeing some elements of that trend currently with some crackdowns on migrants from Tajikistan and from other Central Asian countries within Russia. So that’s definitely something to watch both internally within Russia, but also perhaps fueling further extremist activity. Would there be another example that you think is reflective of some of the more recent trends of extremism in Central Asia?

Marie Mach:

So I actually wanted to mention this in relation to the treatment of migrant workers at the hands of Russian nationalists and Russian nationalist sentiment. So this attack in Istanbul, actually more towards the beginning of the year on January 28th, and this is when an Italian church in Istanbul was targeted by Islamic State Khorasan, and the perpetrators of the attack were actually nationals of Tajikistan as well as a national, well, from the Russian North Caucasus. Of about 34 people were eventually arrested on the attack on this Italian church and then collaborated as part of the Islamic states and kill them wherever you can find them campaign which aimed to target Jews as well as Christians as a response to Israel’s military actions in Gaza. So kind of like how I mentioned with the previous Crocus City Hall attack, this particular attack on the Italian church, again has two to three big areas that do serve as a context as well as provide future perspectives, you might say, on the future of Islamic state attacks in Turkey as well as in Russia.

So I’ll start with the migrant worker angle here, since we did talk about that with regards to the Crocus City Hall attacks. So as I mentioned, a lot of Central Asian migrants, they do experience a lot of oppression in Russia at the hands of nationalists, and a lot of them have actually been forcibly conscripted to fight in the war in Ukraine. So they actually do view Turkey as a more viable option to work and make money for their families back home. At the same time, because of this large Central Asian population in Turkey, this does make them prime targets, you would say, among recruiters from the Islamic State as well as other extremist groups.

Another area that would also be of note here is that just like Russia, the Islamic state also views Turkey as an enemy and unlike Russia, views Turkey as an apostate nation, the Islamic State Khorasan has called on Turks to dismantle the rule of Erdoğan and views Turkey as an idolatrous nation and sees that their Ottoman heritage never did deserve the title of being Islamic or having been called the caliphate because of their, this is extra in historical knowledge, but because of their focus on Sufi Islam.

Another interesting part of this attack that I would also mention, and this kind of leads into another incident that happened in the US that I’m going to be talking about, but one of the suspected accomplices in the attack was a man of Uzbek origin. And before this attack actually happened, he had originally planned on organizing weapons training near Istanbul and then sending the attendees of this training to conduct an attack on the US soil in July 2023. This didn’t work out. So he was given leeway actually to conduct or help assist in conducting this attack on the Italian church. So this attack also kind of points to not just regional issues or regional problems or issues that you might say that Islamic State Khorasan has had with both Russia and Turkey, but within the attack on Turkey in particular, you kind of see the Islamic State Khorasan’s more like transnational future views on the attacks that they could conduct worldwide, not just within the neighborhood of Central Asia that Russia and Turkey occupy.

Eugene Chausovsky:

Yeah, quite interesting there. And I think that what you bring up with these different examples, I think it’s important to keep in mind the broader context behind these attacks. And I think you’ve mentioned a lot of these points already, but one, as you’ve talked about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 and the emergence of the Taliban, I mean, not only US having less of that footprint, but that also decreases things like intel gathering, operations of different groups in this region. And then of course we have a year later Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine, which has obviously brought a lot of Moscow’s focus on its western front, so to speak, which could then leave it vulnerable to attacks within the country from groups like some of these extremists hailing from Central Asia. But even the crackdowns that it has on just regular migrants can fuel that activity even more.

And whether it may not be kind of in that organized way that we saw in Central Asia in the early 2000s, but still it can lead to the inspiration for lone actors or for smaller groups to be inspired to conduct attacks. So I think there’s a lot of different interesting things at play here. And so maybe to wrap up, I’m curious to get your thoughts on what your outlook is for extremism in Central Asia as well as the regional and global implications that you’ve already mentioned. We’ve seen quite an evolution over the last 20 years or so. So how do you see things playing out to the extent that you can make a prediction for it?

Marie Mach:

I’ll speak more to the outlook outside of Central Asia. I do believe that attacks within Central Asia, I do think that they will continue to happen, hopefully not, but unfortunately they may continue to happen. But I would say at a more sporadic basis. Within Central Asia, I do still think we’re going to see recruitment conducted by the Islamic State Khorasan among more vulnerable populations in Central Asia, especially in the Fergana Valley, as well as Tajikistan. And Islamic State Khorasan is actually a recruiter heavily among the local populations of Central Asia. So I do still think we’re going to see this happen, especially I’m considering the backdrop of what’s happened in the past, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine, Afghanistan, where Islamic State Khorasan is operating, as well as in Pakistan, has become more or less a zone that is less penetrable to US intelligence gathering due to our national interests as well.

So this is going to continue to happen. I will say abroad in Russia as well as in Turkey, I still think we’re going to see migrant communities being especially susceptible to radicalization. One thing that I could consider to be of benefit to these populations that are more vulnerable in Russia and Turkey, for example, would be policies that would encourage the integration of workers into their host countries. I haven’t done research on this, but I’m not quite sure that this would be especially likely to happen, especially considering at least in Russia, that Central Asian migrant workers are seen as a population that can be forcibly conscripted into the Russian army. I didn’t mention this previously, but there was an incident that happened this month actually, in which about eight Tajik nationals were arrested after entering through the United States southern border.

They had expressed extremist rhetoric in their messages and in their communications and were arrested after they had entered the country. So I would say abroad when it comes to issues relating to immigration and migration, I do think in relation to this, we’re going to see a lot of countries focus a lot more on their border security, especially when it comes to people entering from countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, countries that are in the southern parts of Central Asia. And I would say also, if we’re just going to go back to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, because this region was primarily under part of the former Soviet control, this is part of the… You’d say part of Russia’s sphere of influence. We’re likely to see future terror plots happening within Russia, especially with Russia’s military apparatus being spread thin. So overall, I do think we are going to see if not a huge uptick in attacks. It’s something that we’re going to need to monitor.

Eugene Chausovsky:

Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a lot that will need to be watched very closely here, and there’s so much more that we can unpack, but unfortunately we’re going to have to wrap it up here. I just wanted to conclude by thanking you, Marie, for joining us, and I wanted to also thank you all for listening. If you want to get more analysis on Central Asia, on terrorism, counter-terrorism and extremism, as well as the outlook for the future on these topics, please visit newlinesinstitute.org. Thanks once again, and everyone take care.

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