A new documentary by RFE/RL provides an opportunity to reflect on the complexities of the recruitment of Central Asians to violent extremism and the limitations of research and policy-making on the topic
On Monday 6 November, I had the privilege of attending the UK premiere at Chatham House of the new RFE/RL documentary Not In Our Name, a film which explores how and why many Central Asians were drawn to militant groups in Syria. The screening was of the 40-minute English language version rather than the whole 10-part series (the first episode of the Russian language version is here).
It is impossible to know exactly how many Post-Soviet Central Asians have been recruited by militant groups but early estimates of 2,000-4,000 (which some of us criticised as ‘guesswork‘, when they were made four years ago) now appear to be correct. By October 2017, the Former Soviet Union was estimated by the Soufan Group as the highest regional contributor of recruits with Central Asia and the North Caucasus each supplying around 3,000-4,000 foreign fighters. This parallel to the North Caucasus, which remains beset by structural and physical violence long after Russian counter-insurgency generals declared victory, ought to worry all those who care for Central Asia.
However, where the North Caucasus and Central Asia differ is that this rise in recruitment is not proportionate to the incidence of terrorism in the region. In fact, the number of terrorist attacks in Central Asia remains very low and even decreased in the period where recruitment by Daesh (ISIL/ISIS) and al-Nusra were at their height. The 2017 Heat Map from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) of the University of Maryland (original here) illustrates this situation. While there is a very high intensity of terrorism immediately to the south of Post-Soviet Central Asia (in Afghanistan and Pakistan), there is almost nothing in the five republics to the north.
National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). (2018). Global Terrorism Database [Data file]. Retrieved from https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd
Central Asia’s population is roughly 1% of the worlds total, but in the period 2008-2012, according to GTD, just 0.36% of the world’s confirmed and successful terrorist attacks (83 out of 22,787) took place in Central Asia. In the period 2013-2017, this was even lower at 0.07% of the world’s terrorist attacks (31 out of 46,817).
In other words, as the volume of terrorism increased in the world, it dropped dramatically in Central Asia. However, with a number of prominent attacks committed by individuals originating from Central Asians in 2017 – including in Stockholm, St Petersburg, Istanbul and New York – the worrying impression has arisen that Central Asia ‘exports’ terrorism rather than suffering its consequences in its territories.
Not In Our Name takes such a simplistic narrative as a foil which it then problematises and goes far beyond. One of the ways it does so is by demonstrating that there are tremendous costs to the recruitment of individuals to violent extremism, both in terms of broken families, and in the simple fact that most recruits and their accompanying family members die overseas or are simply lost and never return.
Produced by Noah Tucker, Sirojiddin Tolibov, Asel Murzakulova, Lola Olimova and Zhuldyz Tuleuova, with discussions moderated by the sociologist Serik Beissembayev, Not In Our Name is not a work of academic research. However, it draws upon substantial research, both academic and journalistic, undertaken by many of the team members. The documentary provides an interpretation which is all the more insightful for the complexity and potential contradictions of the multiple portraits of how individuals are drawn to violent groups. It will be a tremendous aid to teaching the topic as well as stimulating improved policy in the area of countering violent extremism (CVE).
The film offers no single cause of recruitment but a series of possible causes. Together these constitute a list of conditions which generate increased vulnerability. When multiple conditions interact we may see a heightened risk of recruitment. The exact combination of conditions which matter may differ from region to region and even individual to individual. Such a complex account belies those explanations which seek to simplify it as mainly about particular political-religious ideas, on the one hand, or violence by the state against minorities, on the other.
Policy-focused and academic ‘radicalization’ research is improving in this respect, as some research on Central Asia by Anna Matveeva (for example, here) demonstrates. However, it remains within the framework of counter-terrorism research which privileges the state as the security provider which responds to extremism. It is therefore little surprise when this research is heavily reliant on official sources – where non-state sources appear as decoration to corroborate arguments derived from information gathered from informants in the security services.
Not In Our Name avoids this misstep by approaching the problem from the bottom up, by speaking to relatives of recruits and members of the general population who fear the ‘radicalization’ of their societies. Although many of the members of the public reproduce state narratives of parental responsibility and militant secularism, these ideas are subject to deliberation in ‘town hall meetings’ organised by RFE/RL where they meet the relatives of recruits.
This approach is non-academic but may be considered within the tradition of peace research whose practitioners retain their independence from official sources and focus on the lived experience of violence and peace. The biographical and relational approach also opens up the prospect of a more process-based and sociological explanation for how recruitment occurs than is offered by most radicalization research.
In the on-the-record conversation following the film, producers Noah Tucker and Sirojiddin Tolibov offered analysis of some of the stages through which their cases of recruitment proceeded. Tucker recognised a root cause of particularly intense structural violence such as that found in the migration-dependent communities of Tajikistan’s Khatlon, the declining Kazakh industrial cities of Jezkagan and Satpaev, and the ethnic Uzbek communities of Osh region in Kyrgyzstan. Yet such structural violence is commonplace in Central Asia and therefore not sufficient as a root cause.
A second stage identified by Tucker and Tolibov is the presence of conflict where those subject to structural violence have sought to resist this in some way through criminal gangs, youth groups, organised labour or civil defence. Heavy-handed state action against such groups leads to a security dilemma where defensive actions may be interpreted as offensive and lead to escalation – a process known to some as ‘mutual radicalization’. Officials, rather than being respondents and analysts, are in fact parties to this conflict. Massive implications for research and policy-making in this area flow from this one basic insight.
The third stage may be that of flight or fight where there may be an industrial conflict (as Tucker reported in Jezkagan) or outward migration (as there have been of Tajiks and Uzbeks). It is here where physical violence becomes a possibility that a clearly gendered dimension reveals itself where young males, who still make it up the vast majority of recruits, position themselves as protectors. Consequently, they suffer the shame of ‘running away’ from trouble or the fleeting pride that is offered by lashing out. In an off-hand but revealing comment, Tolibov noted that strongman Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and mixed martial arts champion Habib Nurmagomedov provide the most-cited role models for many young Central Asian men.
The three-stage generic framework which may be inferred from Not In Our Name can aid our understanding, particularly as we recognise that these three stages may be repeated as Central Asians flee to Russia or move on within the insecure conditions of the Russian labour market. A vicious circle may emerge where individuals spiral down to a point where they are ripe for recruitment.
This is a promising framework of analysis but the film is all the better for not offering and not seeking a general theory of radicalization. Gender, ethnicity, and, of course, religious ideas all matter in certain circumstances. Political economy may matter too as the fact that a ‘hotspot’ for recruitment is found in a town dominated by Kazakhmys, a company with a record of financial secrecy and clientelistic ties to President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Pathways may emerge from harrowing experiences of immigration, labour migration or direct physical violence and these may differ by region. Western Europeans have been subject to adverse experiences of immigration, Central Asians to abuse as migrants, and those from Middle Eastern countries at war have experienced harrowing violence.
Exposure to jihadi messaging and, perhaps most importantly, links to other recruits may matter. It is the latter which explains something emphasised by Tucker: the geographic variation evident in these recruitment ‘hotspots’. In one town there will be no recruits, whereas in a very similar place there may be two dozen because it was the first group of 3 or 4 that made the subsequent 20 much more likely to go.
Not In Our Name belies simplistic explanations while chiming with much of the best recent radicalization research (many hyperlinks could be added to the above!). Further research and filming in Russia (from which most Central Asians are recruited) is necessary to advance the project. But, more immediately, it calls all of us who have contributed to research and policy in this area to reflect on the limitations of our understanding and the inadequacies of our responses.