Mar 14

Islamic State in Central Asia? Assessing the threat of terrorism

By Saipira Furstenberg
This article was first published in Foreign Policy Centre, 11 March 2019.  [This article was edited on 29 April]

As Islamic State faces its demise as a territorial unit in the Middle East, it is worth considering why it was so attractive to so many Central Asians.

The spate of attacks by Central Asians overseas in 2017 and the spectre of ISIS emerging in the region after the attack on four foreign cyclists in Tajikistan in July 2018, have generated alarm about Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) and other jihadist groups in a region with historically very low levels of terrorist attacks. Analysts have sought to identify ‘root causes’ in the region such as the rise of radical or non-traditional Islam, increasing poverty since the end of the Soviet Union coupled with domestic authoritarianism and repression. However, such observations although important need be to unpacked as the reality is more complex.

Conditions for radicalization: routes not roots

A report from the International Crisis Group in 2015 argued that state repression alongside poverty leads to radicalisation.[1] While these factors may offer a foil for explaining why many of Central Asia’s extremists have left the region for Iraq and Syria, they fail to take into account a range of other conditions that explain radicalisation, both psychological and social.

Assessing the psychological processes of the individual might help to shed light on their motivations to terrorist involvements. As seen in the terror attacks in Stockholm and New York, the perpetrators left the country a decade ago.[2] None of them showed tendencies towards extremist or religious behaviours in their home countries. It appears, instead, that they developed such views whilst being abroad. Available research suggests that the large majority of fighters who decide to travel to Syria are labour migrants in Russia and have often been recruited by Chechens in Moscow.[3]

This means that we need to look beyond domestic political and economic grievances and look more in-depth into the personal stories of the individuals to understand why Central Asians become terrorists. In Central Asia local and regional identities are more important than national identities. As pointed out by many experts such as Ed Lemon and Noah Tucker, when individuals leave their local communities to travel to Russia for work purposes, they are often cut-off from their familiar communities and network. Disassociated to some degree from home their transcendent identity as Muslims comes to the fore,[4] and may be hardened by the experience of discrimination.[5]

When Central Asian migrants move to Russia, they are often faced with socio-economic struggles such as poor living conditions, exploitation, uncertainty regarding their documentation, and physical and racial abuse. Faced with these difficulties, some individuals experience personal crisis and are drawn to the margins of society, becoming more vulnerable to the external influences of terrorist recruiters. Extremist groups recognised this opportunity. As Noah Tuckers highlights, “it is clear that both AQ-affiliated groups and ISIS devoted specific recruiting resources to ethnic Uzbeks working in Russia, both online and in real life”.

The role of Islam: more complex than one might think

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 hugely accelerated an ongoing process of the revival of Islam in the region. The reinvention and restriction of Islam in the late Soviet period, also meant that in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the level of Islamic literacy in the region was very low. The switch from Arabic script in 1926 made Central Asian scholars lose their ability to read the Arabic religious scripts and isolated the region from the Muslim world.

The rebirth of Islam in the region offers new opportunities, but also creates new risks. The new connections with the Islamic world brought more extreme interpretations of the faith from abroad, such as Salafism from the Middle East and the North Caucasus. Moreover, Islam has often been viewed as an important social mobilising force challenging the region’s authoritarian leadership. In this regard, radical Islamist activism is perceived as a serious threat to the internal stability of these countries and to the survival of Central Asian secular regimes.

The Soviet legacy of atheism means that the new generation of Central Asians didn’t grow up with strong religious traditional education that could form a counterweight to extremism. Yet as argued by Heathershaw and Montgomery there is little evidence that socially conservative Muslims are more likely to be politically radical than more secularised Muslims.[6] As the profile of Akbarjon Jalilov, the suspect in the St Petersburg terrorist attack demonstrates, few Central Asian terrorists are pious or followed a religious education. Most of the Central Asian perpetrators adopted religion (discovered Islam) while being abroad often in a very short period of time.

Such observations point out that religion perhaps has little to do with the suicidal attacks but rather is the specific narrative framework within which the recruits could identify and fulfil their aspirations that matter. In this sense, as observed by Oliver Roy, while reflecting in the case of the European jihadists recruits to Islamic State, ‘terrorism does not arise from the radicalisation of Islam, but from the Islamisation of radicalisation’, religious ideology plays very little role here.[7]

The response from state authorities: potential cure or proximate cause?

In response to terrorist threats, Central Asian governments adopted a series of counterterrorism programs and laws to combat terrorism and religious extremism, often curtailing human rights and the rule of law. Central Asian governments have also been taking advantage of the perceived security threats posed by Muslim radicals to enforce repressive policies domestically. States have repeatedly played the ‘Islamic terrorism’ card to reinforce and legitimate their repressive measures against actors presumed to be a terrorist menace.

In Tajikistan the regime banned the only legal Islamic political party (IRPT), in Central Asia in September 2015, naming them as a ‘terrorist organization’. Similarly, in Kazakhstan the regime has designated Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, a political opposition movement led by former regime insider, Mukhtar Ablyazov, as an extremist organization.[8] Further as the Central Asia Political Exiles Database demonstrates, the regimes target political enemies by labelling them as ‘terrorists’.[9] A similar rationale is applied in the regime’s abuse of the Interpol’s notice system to persecute national human rights defenders, moderate Islamic believers, civil society activists and critical journalists.

Under the pretext of religious extremism, states have further portrayed violence linked to local political struggles as ‘terrorists’ attacks. The incidents in Aktobe, in the Western oil rich part of Kazakhstan in 2011 and 2016 have revealed the rising socioeconomic grievances among the population against the government.[10]Both incidents targeted law enforcement agencies. As the incidents demonstrate, the government’s failure to respond to political and economic injustices have affected citizens’ inclination to commit violent acts as protests against the government’s policies. The START Database further validates these observations.[11] As the data below illustrates, most of the attacks in Central Asia are targeting government and law enforcement agencies.

START Database 2000–2017 Central Asian Terrorist target attacks (in %)[12]

The terrorist threat in Central Asia needs to be taken seriously and demands broader engagement in the region. However, as the article illustrates, in Central Asia the ‘threat’ has often been manipulated and exaggerated by state actors to pursue strategic domestic policies and increase regime’s legitimacy. We need to reflect more in-depth on the contested and political nature of terrorism in Central Asia.

[1] International Crisis Group, Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia, January 2015,

[2] David Gauthier-Villars and Drew Hinshaw, Stockholm Attack Puts Focus on Terrorists From Central Asia, Wall Street Journal, April 2017, and BBC, New York truck attack: Sayfullo Saipov pleads not guilty, November 2017,

[3] Daniil Turovsky, How Isis is recruiting migrant workers in Moscow to join the fighting in Syria, Guardian, May 2015,

[4] Noah Tucker, What Happens When Your Town Becomes an ISIS Recruiting Ground?, Central Asia Program, July 2018,

[5] Arne Seifert, The problems of Central Asian migration to Russia, January 2018,

[6] John Heathershaw and David W Montgomery, The Myth of Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization in the Central Asian Republics, Chatham House, November 2014,

[7] Olivier Roy, Who are the new jihadis?, The Guardian, April 2017,

[8] Eurasianet, Kazakhstan: Court Dubs Opposition Movement Extremist, March 2013,

[9] For more on the Central Asian Political Exiles Database see here:

[10] United States Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 – Kazakhstan, July 2017,

[11] The Global Terrorism Database (START)

[12] Based on author’s own calculation