Is the Islamic State group seeking a new stronghold in central Asia?

Is the Islamic State group seeking a new stronghold in central Asia?
8 min read
12 October, 2018
Fighters returning to home nations after the collapse of the IS group's 'caliphate' continue to pose a threat, especially those using Afghanistan as a hub, reports Zam Yusa.
Some experts maintain IS is looking to establish its 'caliphate' in central Asia [Getty]
Experts are divided over claims that the Islamic State group is trying to create a new stronghold in central Asia and activate sleeper cells in the region.

Andrey Novikov, the head of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Anti-Terrorism Center, maintains IS is establishing a new foothold in the region to form a new "caliphate" while planting new sleeper cells and invigorating existing ones.

He said the group is currently recruiting, training and reactivating armed cells in Europe, central Asia, southeast Asia and Russia.

Faran Jeffery, deputy director of the UK-based Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism think-tank, said the concerns of central Asian countries regarding the Islamic State group finding a foothold in the region are valid to a great extent.

"It is true that IS is looking at other areas after facing military defeat in the Middle East," he told The New Arab.

"Jihadists from central Asian countries have been fighting in the Middle East but now many of them are returning back to their home countries. They bring combat and propaganda skills with them.

"However, many of these returning fighters won't stay in their home countries for very long and will eventually move to Afghanistan, where IS already has a strong presence and is looking to establish a new base. An IS base in Afghanistan, a country that neighbours central Asian countries, is bound to keep officials in central Asian capitals awake at night.

"So considering that, I agree with the statement made by Novikov. He's right about IS creating new sleeper cells in this region as well as relocating old sleeper cells."

Ever since IS established its branch in Afghanistan, Jeffery said it has been attracting foreign fighters, including those of central Asian origin, as an alternative to war zones in the Middle East.

The group's "Khorasan Province" franchise, or ISKP, has drawn defectors from the Taliban and was joined by part of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. IS has recruited many Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks since starting its Khorasan affiliate.

"The message of IS has resonated with many Tajiks and Uzbeks in particular who have been humiliated in the past or side-lined in the democratic process in the Pashtun majority country," said Jeffery.

"Ironically, the rival group of IS, the Taliban, is dominated by Pashtuns, which only helps IS messaging. IS, in comparison to other groups like the Taliban, also offer better financial benefits. Despite losing most of their sources of power, IS are still expected to have access to around $200 million."

The threat posed by Central Asian terrorism was brought home to Western officials by the car ramming attack on October 21, 2017, in lower Manhattan, New York. It was carried out by Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, an Uzbek.

Saipov came to US from Uzbekistan in 2010. It was seven years before he carried out the attack, but he succeeded in killing eight people. Similarly, the 2017 New Year's Day attack in Istanbul, which targeted a local nightclub, was carried out by an Uzbek affiliated with IS, going by the alias Ebu Muhammed Horasani.

"And how can we ignore that IS' highest ranking commander in Mosul at one point was a Tajik named Gulmurod Khalimov? He was killed in an airstrike in April 2017," said Jeffery.

Based on 2014 and 2015 data, there were around 1,000 women from central Asia in Iraq and Syria's combat zones

The threat not only comes from IS men but also IS women. Since its rise in the Middle East, Jeffery said IS had recruited many central Asian women - Tajiks, Uzbeks, and others. According to a 2017 report, central Asian IS women were the third largest demographic group in IS at the time.

"Based on 2014 and 2015 data, there were around 1,000 women from central Asia in Iraq and Syria's combat zones," said Indira Dzholdubaeva, prosecutor-general of the Kyrgyz Republic. There were more than 120 Kyrgyz women in Syria and Iraq during the peak years of IS activity there, she added.

Jeffery said similar numbers had travelled from other central Asian nations. "The chairman of the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan, Nurtay Abykaev, has said there were 150 Kazakh women in [IS] ranks in Syria," he said.

"The authorities of Uzbekistan, meanwhile, have said that up to 500 Uzbek women were in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan with various [armed] groups. The Ministry of the Interior of Tajikistan claims that over 200 Tajik women had gone to the war zones in Syria together with their husbands."

There is practically no information about Turkmen women in Syria, added the south and central Asian terrorism expert. This is due to the closed political regime of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan's capital.

"These figures are more than a year old but are still relevant," said Jeffery. "The all-women unit of IS, the Al-Khansaa Brigade, were known to have two central Asian women as members at one point."

Some disillusioned fighters of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), an Al-Qaeda affiliated group, broke away to join IS, most likely because Al-Qaeda is thought to be limiting "external operations" while IS actively promote and finance foreign attacks. Another reason for these defections from TIP is the Syrian Al-Qaeda franchise's attempt to appear "more moderate", said Jeffery.

"IS are eager to see defected TIP members in its ranks, which could enable these fighters to target central Asian or Chinese interests abroad in the name of IS," said Jeffery.

IS has also used central Asians as suicide bombers to carry out attacks in the Middle East as well as in Afghanistan. The 28 December 2017 suicide bombing in Kabul targeting the Tebyan Cultural and Social Center was carried out by a child Uzbek bomber of IS.

Similarly, one of the two suicide bombers who carried out the 25 August 2017 attack in Kabul targeting the Shia Imam-i Zaman Mosque was also an Uzbek. A July 2016 video released by IS from Afghanistan featured a Tajik fighter.

IS has also used central Asian children, dubbed the "Cubs of the Caliphate", as executioners in several propaganda videos, it has been reported.

"IS has chosen Afghanistan... as a new base to carry out operations in the surrounding countries because Afghanistan has everything that IS need, and more. Fifty to 60 percent of Afghanistan is controlled by the Taliban and the rest is not fully in the government's control," said Jeffery.

"That allows IS to very easily present itself as an alternative to the government as well as the Taliban. Unlike the Middle East, where there are mostly deserts, Afghanistan offers excellent hiding spots in the mountains, where it is extremely difficult to navigate and in some locations it is literally impossible to carry out ground operations, while air operations produce no results because of the many Afghan jihad-era caves that can be used to hide."  

Today, Afghanistan has too much foreign involvement and too little local interest in its stability. Almost all the regional countries as well others are pursuing their own interests in Afghanistan, and in all the geopolitics, IS has seen an opening

Recruitment in Afghanistan is also relatively easy since disillusionment is rife as the longest US war in history drags on, said Jeffery. IS needs chaos to survive - and Afghanistan provides plenty of that.

"Today, Afghanistan has too much foreign involvement and too little local interest in its stability. Almost all the regional countries as well others are pursuing their own interests in Afghanistan, and in all the geopolitics, IS has seen an opening which they have tried to exploit, successfully to most extents."

The concerns of central Asian states are valid, Jeffery maintains. But it must not be forgotten that most of these countries are not exactly beacons of democracy and human rights themselves.

"In these states, corruption is at a peak and their human rights record is shameful. So we shouldn't be too surprised to see some of these repressive governments try to use IS as an excuse to introduce harsher measures at home to strengthen their own hold on power," he said.

Nevertheless, he urged central Asian countries to see returning IS fighters as an opportunity instead of a security risk.

"These returning fighters can give central Asian security officials a unique insight into the IS group and their inner workings, thanks to the experience these fighters bring with them," he said. "If de-radicalised and rehabilitated, they can aid security agencies in tracking other IS militants as well as other intelligence operations."

Raffaello Pantucci, the director of International Security Studies at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, has a different opinion.

"I think [Novikov] slightly overstates the threat, though the question is how he would define central Asia. If the definition of central Asia includes Afghanistan, there is certainly some evidence that IS has established a fairly substantial affiliate in Afghanistan," he told The New Arab.

"I still need to be convinced whether this could become the standard-carrier for the global movement, as at the moment, while it has had some success, it is not clear to me that it is vastly distinct from the various warring factions in Afghanistan.

"As for what we might classically call central Asia, the five '-stan' countries, while they have seen some worrying developments recently, it would be premature to call it the new cradle of jihad."

Pantucci said IS had long been a concern in terms of acting as a hub of international terrorism.

Among many nations where governments are not representative of their people, and there is relative deprivation and inequality, there are elements in place which might provide fertile ground for recruitment and radicalisation.

"Yet, it has never really materialised in the way that is expected," he said. "Certainly the trends now are more negative than they have been in the past. From the IS perspective, I think they have generally always been more interested in their Levantine bases than anything else, and wait for things to develop organically.

"I think the IS group remain focused on the Levant. However, look out for affiliate or aspirant groups around the world who might choose to advance campaigns of great danger - this is primarily an issue in south-east Asia, Afghanistan and parts of Africa."

Governments have expressed concerns that IS fighters are returning home following the fall of their so-called caliphate and strongholds in Raqqa in Syria and Iraq's Mosul.

Some of these fighters and their families are being detained by Kurdish rebel forces, who said they are no longer capable of keeping them in their prisons and detention camps and have called on countries to take back their citizens.

Zam Yusa is a Malaysian journalist reporting on Southeast Asian security, terrorism, defence and conflict.

Follow him on Twitter @SecurityJourno