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Does IS Pose A Threat To Central Asia?

The flag of Islamic Statem is pictured hanging from a bridge in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, on August 28.
The flag of Islamic Statem is pictured hanging from a bridge in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, on August 28.

The recent announcement of support for Islamic State (IS) by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has given rise to media speculation in Central Asia over the threat of IS to the region.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on October 2 that it had received a statement and earlier audio recording from IMU leader Usmon Ghazi, in which the group commented on Syria.

In the wake of that report, RIA Novosti cited an Uzbek security source as saying that Tashkent authorities had "operational video and audio information about IMU's support and participation in joint military actions on the side of IS units." The source said that IMU had stepped up its recruitment and training in the Afghanistan and Pakistan regions.

On October 9, Almaty-based news site cited the chairman of the Union of Veterans of Afghanistan and Local Wars of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Sharipbay Utegenov, as saying that the "idea of IS" could never take root in Kazakhstan, though the extremist group posed a threat to other Central Asian former Soviet republics, such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

"I believe that IS is a real threat for such countries as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where even in Soviet times the population strongly adhered to orthodox Islam and where the idea of IS, without a doubt, is falling on fertile soil. Add to that the tense social situation and youth unemployment, and the explosive mixture is ready!" quoted Utegenov as saying.

Utegenov said that IS was not a threat to Kazakhstan because the Kazakh people are "freedom-loving and independent" and "did not like it when an alien power and ideology is imposed on them."

While the issue of the extent to which the Islamic State's extremist ideology can or will gain a foothold in Kazakhstan may be a matter of debate, it is incontrovertible that Kazakh foreign fighters are fighting IS in Syria. The Islamic State has a Kazakh jamaat (fighting unit, usually comprised of a particular ethno-linguistic group).

In August, the Islamic State's Kazakh jamaat released a video address in which the faction's leader, Abu Muaz, called on Kazakhs to leave their homeland and come to Syria to join the jihad. In October 2013, footage of several Kazakh families in Syria was shared on pro-jihad social media (the video has since been removed).

At least a handful of Kazakh jihadis have returned from Syria to Kazakhstan. In May, an Almaty court sentenced a young Kazakh man, Kamil Abdulin, to seven years in prison for fighting in a "terrorist group" in Syria.

Uzbek jihadis are also present in Syria, and like their Kazakh counterparts are fighting with the Islamic State. In March, the main Uzbek group in Syria, named Sabri's jamaat after its first Emir (leader), swore a bay'ah, an oath of allegiance, to IS and to IS military Emir, ethnic Chechen Umar Shishani. As well as ethnic Uzbeks, the group also contains Tajiks, Daghestanis, and Chechens.

Video Of The Uzbek Sabri's Jamaat Pledging Bay'ah to IS:

-- Joanna Paraszczuk