Potential Hot Spots: Mysteriously Stable Stans


June 13, 2019: Islamic terrorism is popular in Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), but the thousands of young men who seek to join Islamic terror don’t do it in Central Asia. The vast majority travel somewhere else to act on their impulse to be an active Islamic terrorist. Many Central Asian men joined ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), but not in Central Asia. With the elimination of the ISIL caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2018, there were lots of documents and survivors (families of ISIL men, some ISIL members and local civilians) who could be questioned and lots of data analyzed. The result were some accurate numbers about Central Asian participation in ISIL through the end of 2018. Over 3,000 (but less than 5,000) Central Asians made it to Syria. Over half survived and got out.

More worrisome was the fact that for every Central Asian who tried to get into Syria, two or three were stopped at the Syrian border (in Turkey) and turned back or, in a few cases, arrested. The Turks collected data on those turned away and some of those were later captured or killed in Syria. Some of those turned back eventually made it in, but few returned home to become active Islamic terrorists. That is the pattern. During the last decade, there were only 19 Islamic terror attacks, which left 140 dead. After each of these, the response was swift and usually led to the capture of those responsible and others who were among the usual suspects but not known to be active. This effective counterterror response motivated many radicalized young men to seek a safer nation in which to defend Islam with extreme violence.

The surge of ISIL veterans coming home has not happened. There have been more arrests of Islamic terrorist suspects who turned out to be Syria veterans, but many seem to have given up on jihad. Those who were still eager to kill for the cause found it was still difficult to do in Central Asia. Hundreds were sent to prison. There the hardcore Islamic terrorists sought to radicalize other prisoners and foster prison uprisings. There were several of these recently in Tajikistan that failed and left nearly a hundred dead, most of them veteran or recently radicalized Islamic terrorists. Central Asian prisons are an even more difficult place to engage in Islamic terrorist behavior and the reminders keep on coming. Some returnees have reconsidered their decision and left, usually to Afghanistan or Pakistan via the 1,400 kilometers long border Tajikistan shares with Afghanistan.

What is it about Central Asia that makes it so difficult to get some serious and sustained Islamic violence going? Blame it on Russian and Chinese communism as well as local traditions that survived communism and the czars. Most of Central Asia consists of the five former republics of the Soviet Union (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). These five nations (or “stans” as the five are collectively called) have produced lots of Islamic terrorists but most of them left Central Asia for other Islamic battlefields because it’s been too dangerous to operate at home. That is not unusual as nations like Saudi Arabia and Algeria are similar in that respect. For the stans that has pundits, eager journalists or nervous politicians constantly raising that issue of whether this may finally be changing, or not. Currently, the stans are the home of over 5,000 suspected Islamic terrorists. Most of these suspects showed up in Islamic terrorist groups outside the stans, usually in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan. While noted for their ferocity outside the stans, these suspects are rarely found misbehaving in Central Asia. They are the eternal threat that never manifests itself. This seems impossible but it is a common situation in countries with a combination of more effective police and few locals willing to even tolerate Islamic terrorist activity. There are examples in the West. Local Islamic terrorists are more likely to be successful in Western Europe than in the United States.

Central Asia, despite the persistence of despotic governments, corruption and crime has not erupted into large scale and sustained warfare (civil, religion based or whatever). The most frequent form of violence is the occasional Islamic terrorism incident or (less frequently) organized crime or ethnic group disputes that get out of hand. Note that the local criminal gangs are better organized, more disciplined, businesslike and successful than any of the local Islamic terror groups.

Occasional Islamic terrorist incidents do occur, but they are similar to those in the West, not the massive death tolls of Islamic terrorist incidents in most Moslem countries. For example, in Tajikistan, there was a mid-2018 incident where five men in a car drove into a group of foreign tourists bicycling in a rural area and all seven of the tourists died. At first, the government described it as an unfortunate vehicle accident. But then a video showed up providing a more accurate account. The vehicle deliberately swerved into the cyclists and then stopped. Four men could be seen exiting the vehicle and stabbing cyclists who were still alive. Later ISIL released a video in which five young men, similar to those in the attack video, said they did it for ISIL. Police quickly found those responsible and while the suspects resisted (and four died), some were captured alive and questioned. They admitted they had been radicalized and followed ISIL advice to use knives and vehicles to kill non-Moslems and put videos on the Internet to prove what they did. This attack and the way it was publicized was unpopular with most locals because Tajikistan, despite its long border with Afghanistan, has a growing tourism industry. This attack slowed tourism growth and the prosperity the tourism was bringing to many locals. That has been a problem for local Islamic terrorists since the 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union created five new nations in Central Asia. The five new nations kept a lot of the Soviet era internal security practices that had prevented Islamic terrorism from thriving in Russia.

Within the stans, the center of Islamic radicalism remains the Ferghana Valley (which runs through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.) This fertile area has, for centuries, been a regional center of population, commerce and culture. But the three governments have kept the pressure on to the extent that exiled terrorists continue to show up in other parts of the world. Counter-terrorism forces in Central Asia spend most of their time tracking down Afghan drug smugglers. The heroin trade is where the money is, and money buys guns and manpower. The Islamic terrorists have few sources of funding, and eager young men on a mission from God are not, by itself, sufficient to make much happen.

In part, because of the shared interests in the Ferghana Valley, the Central Asian states have found ways of cooperating in their battle against Islamic radicals. The primary vehicle for this is the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization). This organization consists of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and India. There are also several other nearby states who are associate members, or "observers". These include Afghanistan, Iran, Mongolia and Belarus. The SCO, unofficially, exists to keep the peace between China and Russia over economic activities in Central Asia. At the moment, China is winning the race to develop large oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. China needs energy and is willing to pay whatever it takes. Since the Central Asian nations are run by corrupt leaders, often dictators, the Chinese have an easy, though expensive, way to gaining control of natural resources. At the moment, Russia is more concerned with halting, or much reducing, the flow of opium, hashish and heroin from Afghanistan to Russia. These drugs have created millions of addicts and major social problems. Russia is trying to get more cooperation from Central Asian governments. But in many of these countries, senior officials are on the drug gang payrolls. That, however, is changing as the dictators realize that the Islamic radicals are also getting into the drug business. This is what keeps the Afghan Taliban going, as well as the North African branch of al Qaeda. The drug gangs are all about business.

So while the Russians are pressuring the Central Asian government to help keep the Afghan opium and heroin out of Russia, the Central Asian rulers are even more intent on preventing local Islamic radicals from using drug money to finance more terrorism and revolution. In many ways (corruption, addiction, breakdown of society) the drugs are a more formidable threat than the Islamic radicals. But the governments can, after a fashion, do business with the drug gangs. No such deals with the Islamic radicals, who are on a mission from God, and not negotiating acceptable deals with unbelievers.

One benefit of the SCO for China was crippling the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement). This outfit began in northwest China, in areas where the population is largely Turkic and Moslem. ETIM was formed in the late 1990s and the Chinese government soon came down hard on the group. Many of the most active ETIM members fled the country. About a hundred were killed or captured in Afghanistan right after September 11, 2001. Although still active, ETIM has not been able to carry out many attacks since then and survives in exile (Pakistan, Middle East). But there have been lots of threats, plots and arrests. There are still believed to be a hundred or so ETIM members active in places like Tajikistan and the Fergana Valley. There are similar Islamic terror groups in other Central Asian states. The SCO has an active counter-terrorism program which includes sharing information and joint military exercises.

The former Soviet republics have more pressing problems than Islamic terrorism. When they became independent in 1991 all sought to become democracies and held elections. While technically democracies these five new nations all, to one degree or another, reverted back to the Russian autocracy they lived under for over a century. First, it was the monarchy and then came seven decades of communists but to the 68 million people of the “stans”, it was pretty much all the same. Democracy was widely seen as a better way to go.

Getting from autocracy to democracy proved more difficult than expected. Turkmenistan is still technically a democracy but is ruled like an autocracy with a police state more oppressive than anything the czars or communists ever imposed. Tajikistan had to endure several bouts of civil war in the 1990s before becoming a somewhat less oppressive autocracy than the other stans ended up with. Even so, a large number (nearly a third) of the Turkmenistan population fled the country in the last decade.

Kyrgyzstan also began with democracy but because of ethnic clashes and popular protests against the corrupt government, it has become a somewhat unstable autocracy. That changed in early 2019 when the “president for life” unexpectedly resigned and free (compared to earlier efforts) elections and a new president was in power by June. So far, so sort of good. Kazakhstan is the largest (2.7 million square kilometers), second most populous (18 million), wealthiest (oil and gas translate to a per capita GDP of $27,000) and most diverse (over a hundred ethnic groups, although Kazakhs are 63 percent of the 19 million population) of the stans. It is also a democracy in name and an autocracy (dominated by Kazakhs) in practice.

One thing all the stans have in common is becoming an economic and political battleground between China and Russia. The more dynamic Chinese economy floods the five nations with cheap and popular goods. But the stans fear Chinese economic and political domination and turn to Russia for diplomatic support in keeping the Chinese at bay. This Chinese influence has grown enormously since the 1990s. By 2009 Central Asian trade with China exceeded that with long-time trading partner Russia and the gap keeps growing. The Central Asian states are particularly afraid of how the Chinese are buying farmland and bringing in Chinese to do most of the work for economic development projects. The Central Asians, like their Russian neighbor, fear an invasion from the east. But the Chinese are already moving in, and the Central Asian states can't keep them away without suffering enormous economic losses. While Russia is more familiar and less threatening, Russia is not a market for Central Asian exports. In fact, Russia is, like Central Asia, a major exporter of oil and natural gas. Thus the Central Asian states fear China, as they become more dependent on their eastern neighbor.

Central Asian rulers fear China, but constantly find the Chinese too useful to resist. For example, China, like the Central Asian nations, is a dictatorship. Thus Chinese experience in controlling the Internet is very much in demand by Central Asian rulers. The same with all manner of security capabilities the Chinese possess. The Chinese were eager to show the stans how to create a more effective police state and deal more effectively with Islamic terrorists.

Some aspects of the Soviet era culture survived that also made life hard for Islamic terrorists. Central Asia's relationship with Russia included an existing, and growing, flow of heroin and opium coming out of Afghanistan. When the Soviet Union collapsed there were already Central Asian drug gangs that move it into Russia and beyond. While China is a growing market for these drugs, it's easier to ship them there via Pakistan and the sea (to the Chinese coastal areas, where most of the money, and demand, is). Russia is the highway to large drug markets in Europe. The Russian gangs have long had connections with Central Asia, making it easier to establish and maintain these smuggling networks. These drug cartels are well-financed, heavily armed and offer "gold or lead" (bribes or violence) to Central Asian officials. Most choose the bribes and ignore the growing number of local addicts. It's these corrupt politicians that provide Islamic radicals with supporters. But while there have been more Islamic terrorism incidents, the number is still very small, and some of them have to be investigated a bit to make sure the violence wasn't just gangsters (who also use terror attacks). Thus there are a lot more gangsters (especially drug smugglers and distributors) than Islamic terrorists in the region. The Islamic radicals also find that most of the criminal gangs are hostile to Islamic radicals, and this further limits the growth of Islamic radical groups in the region.

Turkey and Iran have tried to establish stronger relations with Central Asia because of ethnic affinity (Turkey is mostly Turk and Iran is 25 percent Turk), but this pales in the face of China's huge economic clout. Turkey offers the example of a Turkic Moslem nation modernizing and reducing corruption. Iran offers Islamic radicalism, which is not well received in Central Asia.

Most of the people in the region are at least nominally Moslem. During seven decades of communist rule, Islamic practices were strictly regulated and often curbed. Since 1991 the dictators that took control of most of the region have brought bad government and corruption. People looking for something better have found Islam a potential solution. Nothing else seems to be working. Although some Central Asian states have pledged to fight corruption, the results are largely cosmetic. Despite this Islamic terrorism remains more of a potential threat than a reality in the region.

Local Islamic terrorists find it more productive to leave the region for more accommodating battlefields. Initially, Afghanistan and Pakistan were the favorite destinations for many radical Central Asians but by 2013 it was obvious that many had moved on to Syria to be with ISIL. Central Asian Islamic terrorists have a reputation for being fearless and fierce. But they still bleed and their bold behavior often gets them killed quickly. Some tried to settle down in Pakistan and Afghanistan by joining local tribes and marrying local women. Central Asians have been doing that for thousands of years, but that has not increased the overall number of Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan much. Often the aggressiveness of the Central Asian Islamic terrorists gets them involved with local feuds and that rarely ends well for the foreigners.


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