Event Summary: Central Asian Fighters in Syria

Kate Baughman (MAERES ’18) attended an event hosted by the Central Asia Program at George Washington University entitled “Central Asian Fighters in Syria: Classification, Factors, Scale Assessment” on Monday, September 19. 

On September 19th, Yerlan Karin, Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan, spoke about his organization’s findings on Central Asian fighters in radical Islamist groups in Syria at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He began by outlining the sources of information used in the investigation, namely official data disseminated by Central Asian governments, foreign research, radical Islamist groups’ websites and social media, and most intriguingly, interviews with Kazakh fighters who had been imprisoned for terrorism upon their return from Syria. Official data can be suspect, Karin said, as authorities in countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are reluctant to admit the presence of their citizens among these groups in Syria, while leaders in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan tend to exaggerate figures in order to emphasize the need for increased defensive measures.

Compared to past conflicts in Afghanistan, Karin argued, the radical Islamist cause in Syria is much more conducive to Central Asian involvement. Logistical factors such as sophisticated weapon supply structures, organized training systems and relatively quick and simple travel to the Syrian border have attracted unprecedented levels of Central Asian would-be jihadists. What’s more, many Central Asian governments have debated the merits of restricting the movements of these fighters, preferring that potential terrorists perish abroad rather than create problems at home. Karin argued that these authorities are mistaken in their thinking, as the absence of radicals in Central Asia does not preclude the potential of their presence in Syria to inspire terrorist acts at home.

According to Karin, there are marked differences between the presence and role of Central Asians and those of other ethnic and national origins within radical Islamist groups in Syria. ISIS and Al-Qaeda view Central Asia as recruiting grounds, not as a theater for jihad itself. Central Asians are often more ideologically invested than other groups, and as such are promoted to higher positions in greater proportions. Many Central Asians also attempt to create ethnic substructures within ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The exclusively Uzbek “Jamaat of Imam Bukhari” is one example of this type of subgroup. Lastly, unlike fighters from other regions, Central Asians often bring their wives, children and other family members with them to Syria. This last trend creates a unique set of problems, as the death of fighters in battle leaves many of these family members stranded abroad. Many of the Central Asian women and children left widowed or fatherless by the conflict are then funneled into Islamist training camps in order to become the next generation of fighters.

Interviews with former fighters in Kazakh prisons shed light on the varying motivations and circumstances that lead Central Asian men to leave for Syria to fight. Karin identified three categories of Central Asian men that go on to join ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria. The first two, which he terms “hostages” and “deceived believers,” are the most common types of Central Asian fighters within radical Islamist groups in Syria. Hostages are driven abroad due to monetary or legal troubles, most often falling under the influence of radical groups while working in Russia as migrant laborers. Deceived believers are those who flee to Syria expecting to find a fully-developed and unified Islamic society. This is often followed by disillusionment with infighting among Islamist groups in Syria, and many deceived believers attempt to leave for home within weeks or months of their arrival. The last category of fighters, “fanatics,” are well aware of the circumstances of the war in Syria and are committed to participation in the cause regardless of these factors. With very little resources dedicated to the rehabilitation and reintegration of returning fighters and their families, the increasing numbers of desperate and disillusioned former extremists attempting to return home to Central Asia are already posing problems for governments in the region.

In its unique, multi-vector approach, the investigation outlined by Yerlan Karin provides an important perspective on the motivations, experiences and characteristics of Central Asian fighters within radical Islamist groups in Syria.

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