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Thousands from Central Asia joining 'Islamic State': Report

At least 2,000 Central Asians are believed to have joined "Islamic State," a new report found. Marked by poverty and radicalization, the region has become a growing source of foreign fighters, as Deirdre Tynan tells DW.

The fallout from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq has become a major security concern for Central Asian governments. Crippled by corruption, the five former Soviet Central Asian countries - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - are seen as having done little to address the issue of radical Islam.

In a recently released report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) says that "Islamic State" (IS) is attracting Central Asians to Syria and fostering new links among radicals within the region. Between 2,000 and 4,000 of their citizens have left for IS-held territory to fight or otherwise support the Islamic State cause, the report notes.

The briefing titled "Syria Calling: Radicalization in Central Asia" examines the socio-political context behind growing radicalism in the region and argues that a comprehensive solution requires not only better coordination of security services, but also a liberalization of religious laws and greater economic opportunities to and for young people, including women.

In a DW interview, Deirdre Tynan, the ICG's Central Asia Project Director, says that it is easier for "IS" to gain recruits in Central Asia than in nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan, adding that the group's appeal in the region is rooted in an unfulfilled desire for political and social change and will eventually pose a serious threat to the region.

DW: Where do these "Islamic State" supporters come from?

Deirdre Tynan: Official Central Asian governments' estimates of several hundred fighters are conservative. Western officials suggest the number is 2,000, and it may be as many as 4,000.

Tschetschenien Muslime Moschee Archiv 2011

Tynan: 'Recruitment to the extremist cause is happening in mosques and prayer rooms across the region'

The largest single group is reportedly Uzbek, both citizens of Uzbekistan and ethnic Uzbeks from the Ferghana Valley, including Osh, Kyrgyzstan's southern city. The number of the former in Syria is not the estimated 500 or so cited by Tashkent and may exceed 2,500.

Perhaps 1,000 men and women, including 500 ethnic Kyrgyz and others from Osh, have left the Ferghana Valley to fight for or provide humanitarian assistance to IS.

How would you describe a typical "IS" supporter from this region?

There is no single profile of an "IS" supporter. Central Asian governments often fail to recognise that "IS" appeals to a cross-section of citizens. There are seventeen-year-old hairdressers, established businessmen, women abandoned by their husbands, families who believe their children will have better prospects in a caliphate, young men, school dropouts and university students.

All are inspired by the belief that an Islamic state is a meaningful alternative to post-Soviet life. It is easier for "IS" to gain recruits in Central Asia than in nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What are their reasons for leaving their countries behind and supporting "IS?"

They are prompted in part by marginalization and bleak economic prospects. "IS" appeals not only to those who seek combat experience, but also to those who envision a more devout, purposeful, fundamentalist religious life.

The radicalization of women is often a response to the lack of social, religious, economic and political opportunities afforded to them in Central Asia. Economic reward is not a motivation for those drawn to "IS"-controlled territory. For some, it is a personal adventure; for others it is a call to arms.

"IS" sympathizers in Central Asia are motivated by an extremist religious ideology. The growth of radical tendencies is exacerbated by poor religious education and grievances against the region's secular governments. Even though socio-economic factors play a role, ideological commitment to jihad - the idea of holy struggle to advance Islam - is for many the main reason Central Asians are drawn to
"IS."

How are these supporters being recruited?

Recruitment to the extremist cause is happening in mosques and namazkhana (prayer rooms) across the region. The Internet and social media play a critical but not definitive role.

Some are recruited at home; others are radicalized abroad, often as migrant workers. Recruitment happens mainly in Central Asia, Russia and Turkey, but also from among young men who travel to religious schools in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Bangladesh.

In Russia, migrants who are marginalized - often doing illegal and badly paid jobs - seek solace, a sense of identity and community in religion. They may fall in with Caucasian networks, Dagestani or Chechen, that blur the lines between religion and organized crime, while offering a degree of protection against other criminal groups and difficulties.

Word of mouth is one of the most powerful tools of recruitment in Central Asia; one family member or friend leaves for "IS"-controlled territory, then several more follow. Social media maintains communication between those in Syria and those at home thinking about joining. Recruitment cells in Central Asia are small, secretive and sometimes extensions of prayer groups.

In which ways do these recruits support "IS?"

Some fight, others provide support services to more experienced fighters from the Caucasus or Arab states. "IS" says it wants teachers, nurses and engineers, not just fighters - this appeals to educated men and women.

What problems does this pose to Central Asian governments and the region as a whole?

The number of Central Asians receiving combat training and progressing through "IS" command structures is increasing, as are the jihadi networks of which they are a part. Although most Central Asians find themselves in jamaats (factions) organized loosely along ethnic and linguistic lines, these form larger regional battalions of cooperating fighters from across the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China's Xinjiang region.

The risk is rising that these connections will gather pace and purpose in Central Asia, and governments are ill-prepared to respond to a security threat of this type.

What are Central Asian governments doing about this?

Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have introduced laws criminalizing fighting abroad, the former coming into effect in July 2014, the latter on January 2015. Uzbekistan banned terrorism training without reference to location in January 2014, but the law was widely interpreted as directed against foreign-trained fighters.

IS Kämpfer Archivbild 2013

'The number of Central Asians receiving combat training and progressing through 'IS' command structures is increasing,' says Tynan

The Kyrgyz parliament approved criminal code amendments suggesting sentences of 8 to 15 years for taking part in conflicts, military operations or terrorist- or extremist training in a foreign state in September 2014, but these have yet to be signed into law.

Rehabilitation programs could have potential, but Central Asian governments lack the resources and apparently the political will to implement them. The governments, though, aware of the dangers fighters could pose upon return from Syria, have done little to address the reasons why such a diverse cross-section of their citizens seek to participate in IS.

Prevention of extremism and rehabilitation of jihadis are not yet high on the agenda, and female radicalization is largely ignored by religious leaders, while the lack of economic and political opportunities for young people compounds radicalism. Poorly educated imams struggle to compete with the Islamic State's glamorization of jihad.

Deirdre Tynan is Central Asia Project Director at the International Crisis Group.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.