The so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility the following day describing the attacker as “a heroic soldier of the caliphate [who] struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday.” The Turkish Hurriyet Daily News first reported that the perpetrator of the terror attack arrived in Turkey via Syria and that the Turkish police was detaining Uzbek and Kyrgyz citizens living in the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul, providing an indication to the attacker’s national origin.
Conflicting reports have emerged since then regarding the nationality of the attacker, but the possibility that he was of Central Asian descent raises questions about the region’s contribution to filling the so-called Islamic State’s ranks. Figures indicate that at least a thousand fighters from the former Soviet Central Asian Republics have joined the terrorist organization in recent years.
Central Asia does not have a history of being a hotbed for Islamic Radicalism. Despite sharing a border with Afghanistan, the Central Asian republics, at least at the state level, do not promote Islamist agendas and remain secular. Their state bodies are stable and fairly effective, if not heavily restrained by corruption. This region has seen relatively few longstanding armed conflicts and respectable HDI (Human Development Index) scores for emerging economies. Statistically, from 2001-2013, there have been three terror attacks in the entire region which claimed a total of 11 lives. These characteristics ultimately beg the question: why has ISIS been so successful at recruiting fighters from this part of the world?
A Brief History
Radical Islamism in Central Asia first grew into a movement which loosely resembles modern extremism during the Soviet era. Naturally, the state religion of the Soviet Union was Atheism; a policy which was not received well in the majority Sunni Muslim people of what was then called Russian Turkestan. Islam, being well ingrained in the region’s fabric of daily life, began to be summarily repressed by Soviet authorities. While the often brutal religious repression was not unique to followers of Islam, it did have unintended consequences for the future of the region.
With mosques being either shut or destroyed throughout the region, worship had to be adapted to a system where that physical act was prohibited. Figures show that the number of functioning mosques in the region declined from approximately 26,000 in 1912 to about 1,000 by 1941. While these places were being shuttered, well established moderate Muslim leaders were also first to be silenced by being barred from holding political office or any position of power. Particularly influential leaders were also jailed by the security forces. This created a unique dynamic where the most radical Imams and preachers continued to spread their beliefs through makeshift underground mosques, while moderate voices were suppressed.
The end of Soviet rule in the region did not necessarily bring an end to this system. Although Islam was finally allowed to be practiced in the open, the respective governments of Central Asia continued to operate with Soviet style secularism. Many of the new presidents held leadership posts in their respective nations’ communist parties. Instead of using atheism as a reason to suppress dissent, it became common to label any legitimate political opposition as Islamic radicals and terrorists, particularly after the global war on terror commenced in the early 2000s. This was best demonstrated during the events in Andijan, Uzbekistan, where hundreds of protesters were indiscriminately shot at and killed by Uzbek security forces. The protests started in part due to the Government’s arrest of 23 local businessmen on trumped up charges of extremism. The government also blamed the tragedy itself on a nefarious network of extremists known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Ultimately, the threat of extremism is currently being used as justification to keep repressive regimes in power.
As far as actual extremism in the region is concerned, there has been little evidence of extensive well-coordinated terror cells capable of large attacks within Central Asia. However, the widespread availability and use of the internet coupled with the proclamation of the so-called Islamic State as a caliphate by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in 2014 created an outlet for Central Asian extremists to achieve abroad what they could not at home. The terror group’s strong online presence made it possible for loosely coordinated groups and even individuals with jihadi ambitions to coordinate and fall in line under a single banner of extremism.
Another possible avenue for the radicalization of Central Asians by extremists is through the targeting of migrant workers. Twenty percent of the Uzbek population works abroad, mostly in Russia, sending remittances to their families back home. While not uniform across all of Central Asia, it is safe to say that the numbers of migrant workers are proportionally similar across the region. Russia has experienced Islamic extremism in many forms. It fought two wars in Chechnya as well as faced an extremist insurgency in several regions of the Caucasus. Russia has seen about 2,700 fighters leave to fight with ISIS, arguably the largest contributor in Europe. There is clearly a well-developed extremist network operating in Russia. It is not inconceivable to see Central Asian extremists taking advantage of these networks. There have not been many studies looking into this potential dynamic, but it could serve as an important source of additional fighters for the caliphate.
ISIS has even started to crack the surface of government bodies in the region. Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the Tajikistan Interior Ministry’s head of police special forces defected to ISIS in 2015. Mr. Khalimov’s radicalization came as a shock to Tajik authorities who ordered an immediate investigation into his department. This event perhaps came as a bigger shock to the United States State Department, which sponsored Mr. Khalimov in five combat training courses in the US and in Tajikistan, all the while passing the State Department’s vetting procedures. Appearing in an ISIS propaganda video, Khalimov addressed the Tajik authorities, speaking in Russian: "Listen, you dogs, the president and ministers, if only you knew how many boys, our brothers are here, waiting and yearning to return to reestablish sharia law there."
Beyond the Caliphate
Despite a sophisticated recruitment network, ISIS is currently fighting an increasingly defensive war. The terrorist group is losing territory on all fronts to Turkish backed Syrian rebels, to Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah backed Syrian government forces, and to coalition backed Iraqi government forces and militias. Its once plentiful source of oil wealth has recently started to dry up and thus, the appeal to join arms with the terror organization from extremists worldwide has decreased. Should the situation on the ground continue to deteriorate for ISIS, the world should prepare for what may come after the group’s likely defeat.
The group’s strategy is already changing and adapting. Like the abovementioned attack on Istanbul and attacks on European cities like Paris, Nice, and Berlin, it seems that the group appears to be encouraging attacks against softer targets. These attacks are usually either done by naturalized extremists in their respective countries or by taking advantage of mass refugee migration to send fighters across borders. Not only does this present a challenge to European security forces, but it also points to what may happen should defeated fighters return home.
Despite the propaganda nature of Gulmurod Khalimov’s video, his threats are not empty. Central Asia must prepare for a reality where thousands of battle hardened extremists return home radicalized with a violent version of Islam. The region must decide how to treat returning extremists. Should they treat them with typical Soviet style heavy-handedness or find a way to reintegrate them into society? Should Central Asian nations cooperate with each other to attempt to prevent their return altogether? Either way, decisions have to be made because it is clear that the region’s current attitude towards radicalism is not adequate considering what may be on the horizon.