Central Asia at center of radicalism debates after recent terror attacks
by Cihangir Yıldırım
ISTANBULMay 13, 2017 - 12:00 am GMT+3
by Cihangir Yıldırım
May 13, 2017 12:00 am
After the surprising revelation that recent terror attacks were perpetrated by Central Asian nationals, the world's attention has now turned to that region.
On April 7, 2017, five people were killed and 15 others were wounded in a truck attack in central Stockholm, Sweden's capital. The assailant was an Uzbek national, and according to Swedish and Uzbek officials, the attacker had joined Daesh before the attack.
On April 3, 2017, 14 people were killed and 51 others were injured in a metro attack in St. Petersburg. The perpetrator was an ethnic Uzbek from southern Kyrgyzstan.
On Jan. 1, 2017, 39 people were killed and at least 70 were injured in an incident at an Istanbul nightclub where hundreds of people were celebrating the New Year. The attack's perpetrator was an Uzbek national.
On June 28, 2016, 45 people were killed and more than 230 people were injured in a terror attack at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul. The attackers were from the Russian North Caucasus region, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Like nationals from approximately 80 other countries, it is obvious that fighters from Central Asian countries have also started joining Daesh. According to the International Crisis Group, approximately 2,000-4,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria from Central Asian countries, though studies have shown that these figures are still not equal to the members originating from North African and European countries.
According to the Soufan Group, 27,000-31,000 people have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh and other terrorist groups in the region, whose members originate from at least 86 countries.
Central Asia's five former Soviet republics are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, home to about 66 million, with 55 million of them Muslim. Ferghana Valley, divided into three former-Soviet republics spread across eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyryzstan and northern Tajikistan, is a region producing the majority of hopeful Daesh fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq.
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) estimates that about 500 Uzbek nationals have traveled to Syria to fight for Daesh.
About 500 ethnic Kyrgyz and others from Osh have left the Ferghana Valley to fight for or to provide humanitarian assistance to Daesh. However, the exact number of Kyrgyz fighters is unknown due to the fact that varying sources often estimate differently, but the most reliable estimates say that around 500 have joined, so far.
The official number of Tajik fighters loyal to Daesh hovers around 200, however, the Tajik government has claimed that the number is much higher, possibly closer to 1,000.
According to Chinese media, about 300 Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic group, are fighting with Daesh in Iraq and Syria. However, this number is 114, according to the New America, a think tank in Washington D.C.
Daily Sabah spoke to Edward James Lemon from Columbia University's Harriman Institute and Ömer Behram Özdemir from Sakarya University's Middle East Institute on Daesh's recruitment from Central Asia and its reasons.
Lemon underlined that most of the fighters are coming from outside the region, saying: "There is no single cause that can explain why Central Asians have joined terrorist movements. Some are religious, but most are not. Many are educated. Recruits are from rural and urban areas, and are both rich and poor. I have found that most Central Asians are recruited from outside of the region, mostly while living in Russia as migrants. Far from home, many recruits have lost connections with their home, experienced trauma and discrimination. This makes them more vulnerable."
Özdemir touched on the need for political and social reform in Central Asian governments, explaining, "The attackers' nationality in all of these incidences demonstrates the need for social and political reforms in Central Asian governments."
"It is not surprising that radical movements find support among Central Asian countries, like Uzbekistan, where the politicians are under political pressure in their countries. The process of radicalization depends on the policies of the Central Asian governments in the region. Uzbek figures especially give us clues as to who the ‘responsible' actor of the problems are in the region," Özdemir asserted.
Mentioning the reasons for recruitment, Burhan Kavuncu, the chairman of the International Turkistanis Solidarity Association, said the repressive policies of the Central Asian governments cause immigration, and it provides an advantage for extremist groups. "Uzbek and Tajik people have been oppressed for the 25 years since their independence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, political parties, such as Erk and Nahda, were shut down in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan due to their members being arrested. Repressive policies in these countries triggered immigration, as nearly 10 million went to countries like Russia and Turkey, and this situation created a suitable human resource for the extremist groups in Afghanistan and Syria," Kavuncu said.
According to the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, the number of Muslims in Europe totals about 44 million, excluding Turkey. There are approximately 6,000 Daesh fighters from Europe, with the most originating from France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The number of foreign fighters from Western Europe has more than doubled since June 2014, the Soufan Group reported. Due to undependable sources, an exact number of fighters is hard to determine, but between 2,000-4,000 foreign fighters are believed to have traveled to Syria from Central Asian countries.
Studies show that the recruitment ratio from the Central Asian region, where 55 million Muslims live, is much lower than its European counterpart, where about 44 million Muslim live. "There are 55 million ‘Muslim' people living in Central Asia. This means one in 13,750 or one in 27,500, depending on the estimate, is fighting in Syria and Iraq. This is lower than the recruitment of the Muslim populations in Europe. In Belgium, for example, one in 1,200 of the Muslim population is in Iraq or Syria and in Britain, the figure one in 3,000. So the figures are much lower," Lemon added.