The Changing Face of Terrorism: Central Asia’s Growing Concerns

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Terrorism tendencies in Central Asian Republics suggest that the region is moving from primarily an exporter of foreign soldiers to one where domestic and regional terrorist episodes may become increasingly more common. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are the lands that have produced the most significant number of foreign fighters per capita: 1,500 and 1,300, respectively. Yet, the region has primarily been limited from terrorist episodes, and instead, religious extremists travel elsewhere. The diaspora has staged several attacks with deadly outcomes: the Stockholm and New York truck aggression, the St. Petersburg Metro bombing, and the New Year’s Istanbul nightclub shooting are but a few illustrations of attacks perpetrated by foreign fighters from Central Asia. Authorities and security services worldwide are afraid of similar attacks in the future.

The days of the region being somewhat resistant to terrorist attacks may, however, be numbered. The re-capturing of the region in Iraq and Syria from the so-called Islamic State, the terrorist aggression in Tajikistan that claimed the lives of four foreign citizens, including two Americans, and the increasing status of violence in neighbouring Afghanistan are all elements that, taken together, could signal a re-focusing by Salafi-jihadist clusters on Central Asia, long home to a vast patchwork of militants with regional and global connections. 

Analysts have marked that IS is re-locating much of its operational space to Afghanistan through its fellow ISKP, or the Islamic State Khorasan Province. The IS franchise is already demonstrating attractiveness for many of the Central Asian foreign fighters, particularly given the presence of bodies, including Jamaat Ansarullah and Islamic Jihad Union, primarily or exclusively made up of Central Asian nationals. In addition, the permeable border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which is already utilised for drug trafficking and other types of illicit smuggling, associated with the ability to obtain fraudulent identity documents and arms in the region quickly, raises the likelihood of foreign fighters replacing to set up operational cells inside Central Asian states, particularly in the ungoverned Fergana Valley part of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Central Asian governments’ blueprint for eliminating domestic terrorism is also the main driver of radicalisation. Rigid state control of religious practices, poor socio-economic projections, discrimination against minority populations, and restraining political opposition in the name of terrorism have long been significant elements driving radicalisation and extremism in Central Asia. The trends have combined to produce large numbers of foreign fighters from the region. 

By creating a close relationship with China, Central Asian states are attempting to solve the issue of providing more socio-economic prospects for their domestic populations. Thousands of Central Asians voyage abroad in search of employment and become radicalised while living elsewhere, including in Russia, where they direct lives of isolation and difficulty while toiling as economic migrants. The region expects to experience much-needed economic revitalisation through investments from Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing’s track record of using the threats of terrorism, religious extremism, and separatism to silence political opposition could demonstrate counterproductive to the Sino-Central Asian connection.

As the Central Asian states evolve closer to China, increasingly draconian techniques are being embraced and diffused, presented by the extradition treaty between China and states in the region, which must be cautious not to adopt similar general practices as China has with its Uighur population. In northwest China, Muslims have been sent to detention centres for ‘re-education,’ while many others have simply faded. The remaining population has been subjected to extreme surveillance by the Chinese security services. 

Instead, states should build resilience in vulnerable communities to mitigate the chance of returning foreign fighters finding safe havens in the region. Otherwise, it may only be a subject of time before the Central Asian states locate themselves with a terrorism danger they have never encountered before and an inability to contain spillover violence or prevent the spread of terrorism throughout the broader region.

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