Some 3,000 to 5,000 citizens, perhaps as many as 10,000, from post-Soviet Central Asia were recruited to fight in Syria and Iraq. How and why were they radicalized?
Individual pathways into violent extremism have differed across the region. Generally, researchers working on radicalization in Central Asia have reached a consensus that poverty, unemployment and high levels of religious knowledge are not underlying causes of radicalization in the region. Many recruits have come from relatively prosperous backgrounds and been university-educated. Very few have had any formal religious training.
Researchers have identified at least two drivers that seem to play a role in most cases. First, with limited knowledge of religion, the simplistic takfiri ideology of “good versus “evil” seems to appeal to some angry young Central Asians who have a sense of personal injustice. Feelings of marginalization, personal failure and loss of identity are often early catalysts in the radicalization process. Second, many recruits have been radicalized through family and friendship networks both online and offline. Abu Usama Noraki, the nom de guerre of 31-year-old Tojiddin Nazarov, has reportedly recruited dozens of Tajiks and been involved in planning attacks in Stockholm and Moscow. In the district of Isfara, 20 people from the same village left for Syria. Aravan district, which constitutes less than 2% of the total population of Kyrgyzstan, has supplied around one third of all Kyrgyzstani fighters to Syria and Iraq.
How many have returned to Central Asia and what threat do they pose?
With Islamic State having lost its territory in Iraq and almost all of its territory in Syria, the media and Central Asia’s governments have raised concerns about returning foreign fighters. But a mass return remains unlikely. Over one thousand Central Asians were killed in the fighting in Syria and Iraq. Some have become disillusioned with the idea of violent jihad. An unknown number are in prisons and camps in Syria and Iraq. Others have moved to join terrorist groups in Afghanistan, where perhaps as many as 2,000 Central Asian citizens are fighting with the Taliban, Islamic State of Khurasan Province and other groups.
According to official statistics from the Central Asian governments, at least 300 men have returned. Governments in the region have adopted varied approaches. Tajikistan has offered returnees an amnesty if they repent. Over 100 have been allowed to return home, under the close scrutiny of the security services. Kazakhstan has favored a more punitive approach, prosecuting 57 returnees in 2017 alone. So far returnees not been proven to have conducted any attacks.