Interview: Radical Islam from Kyrgyzstan is nothing new

  • Petr Boháček
  • 6.4.2017 09:27

On 7 April, at least four people were killed by a 39-year-old Uzbek national in a lorry-ramming attack on Drottninggatan in Sweden. On April 3, a 22-year old suicide bomber of Kyrgyz origin Akbarjon Djalilov killed 14 people in St. Petersburg metro. What is the form of radical Islam in Central Asia We talked about terrorism in Central Asia with Pavlína Bláhová, the research fellow at the Center for Security Policy in IPS FSV of Charles University, who specialises on the region.

What does the country of origin of the suicide bomber from St. Petersburg say about Kyrgyzstan?

Firstly, it should be emphasised that the attacker was of Kyrgyz origin, but had a Russian citizenship. The media also speculate about his possible Kyrgyz-Chechen roots, which is not yet confirmed, but it would not be anything unusual since many Chechen families were displaced to Central Asia after the World War II. The fact that the attacker was of Kyrgyz origin is not good news for Kyrgyzstan, which aims for closer military and economic cooperation with Russia, and as Russia could implement additional security measures towards Kyrgyz citizens. The attacker's origin also draws attention to security threats and risks brought about by the current situation in Central Asia. This concerns mostly the existence of terrorist and extremist organisations, often led by former warlords, who take advantage of the instability in the region to spread their ideologies and to gain additional funds. Local terrorist groups benefit from organised crime and especially from opium smuggling from Afghanistan.

 

"In the past two decades, we have seen a religious boom [in Central Asia]"

 

How did Wahhabi radical Islam get to Kyrgyzstan?

The majority of Kyrgyz population are Sunni Muslims that are not conservative believers and whose faith has its own specifics. The exception is residents in the Fergana Valley, who are rather radical. However, Wahhabism is a relatively new movement in Kyrgyzstan. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many young Kyrgyz took the chance to study in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where they were introduced to Wahhabism they could spread after their return. In the past two decades, we have seen a religious boom (which could be seen as a reaction to secularism promoted by Moscow) that was associated with the construction of new mosques, many of them sponsored by funds from Saudi Arabia. Another issue is the lack of local imams that creates the influx of new clerics from abroad. The American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was essential for the spread of Wahhabism as some Taliban members sought refuge in Central Asia. The next wave of Wahhabism's spread occurred in Central Asia after the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan.

 

"More than 500 Kyrgyz nationals fight in Syria."

 

Is radical Islam from Central Asia a threat for Russia? Or is it still in the shadow of the terrorist threat from Chechnya and Dagestan?

Although radicalism in Central Asia is more anti-Western than anti-Russian, Russia is a more accessible enemy. There are for example no visa requirements for citizens of the Central Asian states. Russia is also a target of Central Asian Islamist radicals due to its military operations against the Islamic State in Syria, where more than 500 Kyrgyz nationals fight. Terrorist attacks are expected to multiply in Kyrgyzstan territory and neighbouring countries upon their return. However, terrorist attacks of local separatist groups remain the major threat for Russia's internal security.

Over the past few months, several Islamists from groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad or the Islamic state were arrested in Kyrgyzstan. What radical groups are the most active in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia in general?

One group worth mentioning is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is a branch of the Islamic Movement of Central Asia – an organisation responsible for many attacks in the region. Some of its members fought against the allied forces in Afghanistan, but many of its members also operated in Kyrgyzstan, where they were responsible for a series of attacks that occurred in Osh in 1999. The current major threat are especially Kyrgyz radicals, who fight alongside the Islamic State and who will want to establish new terrorist organisations, spread the Islamic State's ideology among existing groups and encourage their radicalisation upon their return. Another group operating in Kyrgyzstan territory is Jama'at Kyrgyzstan Jaish al-Mahdi, which was established in 2010. Many young Kyrgyz are also radicalised via the Internet without belonging to any particular group.

 

"In 2016, there were several thousands of police operations. [but] one of the main problems Kyrgyzstan faces is the lack of control over its own territory, particularly in the border areas"

 

There are harsh authoritarian regimes in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan that fight against Islamism, but what is the situation in Kyrgyzstan?

Kyrgyzstan, being a parliamentary democracy, is different from neighbouring states by its political system, however, some principles and mechanisms of functioning are identical with other Central Asian countries. The fight against terrorism and extremism is among priorities of the Kyrgyz government. In recent years, there have been frequent security operations against radical groups during which many members were arrested and sentenced. In 2016, several thousands of police operations resulted mostly in seizure of extremist and propaganda literature. In the past two years, the Kyrgyz government seek to reduce the number of citizens, who decide to leave the country with the intention to join the Islamic State. However, like other Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan deals with the lack of effective tools to enforce its security goals. One of the main problems Kyrgyzstan faces is the lack of control over its own territory, particularly in the border areas in the south or in the cities the smuggling routes lead across and which are de facto controlled by drug cartels.

 

"The fight against radicalisation and terrorism could easily become the pretext for the elimination of the opposition"

 

The political opposition in Kyrgyzstan is quite active, there were recently several anti-government protests. Does the internal political situation have any impact on the fight against radicalism?

In recent years, Islam expanded significantly in Kyrgyzstan and it naturally impacts national politics as well. The moderate Islamic opposition is very strong in Kyrgyzstan, and often clashes with the secular government. Government policy against opposition groups in Kyrgyzstan is as uncompromising as in neighbouring countries. The problematic aspect is especially the distinction between radicals, who pose a threat to national security, and the opposition, which only criticizes the government without e.g. seeking to implement Sharia law. The fight against radicalisation and terrorism could therefore easily become the pretext for the elimination of the opposition, that has nothing to do with radical Islamism. At the same time, there is a danger that if the government completely alienates the moderate Islamic opposition, it will stop supporting the government in the fight against radicals - worsening the overall situation in the country.

 

About author: Petr Boháček

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