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Islamic State Not Yet Seeking Central Asia Expansion, Report Says

A purported file photo of Tajik Islamic State militant named Abu Kholidi Kulobi.
A purported file photo of Tajik Islamic State militant named Abu Kholidi Kulobi.

The militant group Islamic State does not currently see Central Asia as an area of interest for expansion, a new report by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) says.

Islamic State (IS) has "devoted a far from overwhelming amount of attention" to the region -- which comprises the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- in terms of territorial expansion, the report says.

IS has "largely ignored" a pledge of allegiance from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in September 2014, and Central Asians have been featured relatively infrequently in IS propaganda materials, it says.

The report's assertion stands in contrast to the flood of news reports and analyses warning that IS is seeking to establish a foothold in Central Asia.

And Central Asian governments themselves have increasingly sounded the alarm about an IS threat to domestic security, particularly following reports earlier this year that the group has an emerging presence in Afghanistan, which borders three of the five countries.

Has the "IS threat" in Central Asia been overstated, and to what degree does the extremist group pose a danger to the region?

Wilayat Khorasan

PISM's report notes that IS has announced the creation of Wilayat Khorasan, its "province" in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- which shares a border with Tajikistan, Central Asia's poorest nation, as well as with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. That development has rung alarm bells in Tajikistan, with Sherali Khairulloyev, the Tajik president's national security adviser, warning last week about the threat this development could pose.

But PISM argues that, in IS's wider schemes, Wilayat Khorasan "plays a very distant fiddle to mentions of the struggle with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and also different Western or European countries in [the militant group] ISIS’ strategic communications and its geopolitical interests."

Regardless of how important Wilayat Khorasan is to IS, or of the group's plans (or lack thereof) to expand into Tajikistan, its presence in Afghanistan could affect the region, some analysts believe.

"If IS gained a credible foothold in Afghanistan this would alarm the Central Asian states," says Deirdre Tynan, International Crisis Group's Central Asia project director.

"The risk then is that Central Asian governments, particularly Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, would respond with knee-jerk security and political measures which ultimately undermine security and stability in their already brittle states."

Meanwhile, Russia, which has voiced deep concern about the threat it says IS poses to domestic security, has argued that the presence of IS in Afghanistan should be addressed by a "collective" approach via regional security and military alliances -- in particular the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which comprises Tajikistan, Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Low Interest?

Beyond Afghanistan, what about IS's presence -- or lack of it -- in the Central Asian states themselves?

PISM's report argues that interest in IS among Central Asians "remains low."

This conclusion is drawn in part from a comparison between the per capita outflow of nationals from Central Asian countries to IS compared with those from Western European and Arab states.

The report notes that, "surprisingly, some of the top European source states" for IS recruits, including Belgium and France, have higher per capita numbers of citizens joining IS than do Central Asian states.

This is an intriguing finding. But important to note that the number people who have traveled from Central Asia to Syria or Iraq to join IS militants is very hard to pin down.

Figures provided by security authorities and politicians in Central Asian states have varied, sometimes considerably.

For some Central Asian states, the presence of their nationals in Syria is a highly sensitive issue that has likely affected how recruitment figures are reported.

In Kyrgyzstan, for example, security authorities have downplayed the presence of Kyrgyz citizens in IS, even blaming the country's ethnic Uzbek population for the Kyrgyz presence in Syria.


Kacper Rekawek, who co-authored the report, told RFE/RL that he had sought to put into context the "old 'truth' in terrorism studies that poverty and political repression lead to terrorism."

The report argues that poverty is not the only factor driving those Central Asians who do travel to IS-controlled territories in Syria and Iraq.

Other push factors such as social exclusion and poor religious education are also at play, it says.

These findings are in line with those from other analysts.

There are other factors, as well.

Edward Lemon of the University of Exeter, who tracks Tajik militants in Syria, told RFE/FL that while poverty, marginalization, and poor education may influence radicalization, so, too, does Tajikistan's repression of Islam.

"Analysts have also underestimated the pull factors that lead some Tajiks into IS," said Lemon. "The idea of brotherhood, that a paradise is being built in Syria and Iraq, and the notion that this is where 'true Islam' is being practiced, all feature heavily in Tajik recruitment videos."

'Blowback' Threat?

While IS is not prioritizing expansion to Central Asia, Central Asians fighting alongside IS in Syria will likely "return home and act as jihadist force multipliers in their native countries," PISM argues.

Such a development would be used by repressive regimes to crack down further on civil liberties, it adds.

Just how serious is the threat of "blowback" to Central Asia?

Certainly, the fear of blowback from Syria is a top security concern in Central Asia.

But some research suggests that -- at least for some states -- the threat may not be so severe as feared.

Most Tajik militants "show little or no interest in returning home," and those appearing in videos rarely threaten attacks in Tajikistan, says Lemon.

And many Tajik militants are being killed in battle in Syria or Iraq.

"Ultimately, the few Tajiks who travel to the Islamic State are becoming entrenched there and it is unlikely that they will return home in large numbers any time soon," Lemon added.

Tajik militants also reported that they had asked IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for permission to return to Tajikistan and fight there, but had been refused.

Joanna Paraszczuk