Radicalization in Central Asia: A Thorny and Enduring Problem

A traveler on the M41 road (also called Pamir highway), crossing the Pamir plateau in Tajikistan. Photo Credit: Getty Images

By: Christine Bang-Andersen, Columnist

The truck attacks in Stockholm and New York in 2017 and the attack on Western tourists on a bike trip across Tajikistan this summer all served as stark reminders of ongoing issues of radicalization and terrorism recruitment in Central Asia.[i] The issue seems to be growing in scope and scale on the ground in the Central Asian nations, while governments of the former Soviet states struggle to respond. A new set of initiatives with a focus on facilitating dialogue among Central Asia’s population across traditional barriers like ethnicity and financial status seeks to find a solution.

A recent estimate suggests that the Central Asian states have been one of the largest sources of foreign fighters in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, providing more recruits than neighboring countries in the Middle East. By some estimates, more than 4,000 people have left their homes to fight for ISIS, some bringing along spouses and children, despite having no language or cultural ties to the receiving region.[ii] Thousands of radicalized individuals have also opted to stay behind in Central Asia and foment further radicalization at home.[iii]

In response, the past year has seen a surge in regional projects aimed at identifying the key drivers of extremist recruitment in the Central Asian nations. Many of these projects seek to facilitate open dialogue among the population about what they see as the central issues driving radicalization and their solutions. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty launched a three month project in November 2017 that travelled to 16 locations in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in order to interview families from which relatives had joined the fight in Syria and Iraq.[iv] They then presented these interviews to panels of youths in order to foster a discussion of potential solutions to these issues faced by their rural counterparts. The project found that opinions differed greatly between city dwellers and their rural countrymen, but both sides agreed that recruitment was overwhelmingly driven by social issues such as corruption, discrimination, and inequality of opportunity that are not being tackled by regional or national governments.[v] Likewise, in February of 2018 Japan agreed to finance the regional “Strengthening Community Resilience and Regional Cooperation for Prevention of Violent Extremism in Central Asia,” a 30-month program to be implemented by the United Nations Development Program aiming to increase employability among Central Asian youth and facilitate discussion about how to deal with radicalization of their peers.[vi] A third example is the EU-funded “Contributing to Stability and Peace in Central Asia” program, which was launched in May 2018 with a budget of 3.3 million euros. The 18-month program aims “at enhancing and strengthening regional collaboration between journalists, activists and policymakers” in the Central Asian nations.[vii]

The engagement of several public and private international organizations in promoting regional initiatives to counter radicalization is a promising new trend in Central Asia, but how much effect is it likely to have? On one hand, these initiatives are an important move towards facilitating open discussion in a handful of nations where freedom of speech has been systematically limited. RFE/RL reports that its initiative has been met by resistance and suspicion from multiple local governments when trying to set up town hall meetings, highlighting the importance of making such fora and general public involvement in political discussion a norm and not something to be feared.[viii] Furthermore, initiatives like RFE/RL’s act to bring together people from different layers of society, allowing citizens living in rural recruitment hotspots to share their experiences with people in larger cities and giving a voice to parts of the population that experience oppression in everyday life. Finally, engagement of the citizenry is a stepping stone to dealing with regional and local taboos surrounding radicalization and the dissemination of false information. This can only be countered through proper education of the people and an emphasis on the truth.

On the other hand, these regional initiatives only tackle a minuscule portion of the greater issues at hand in the Central Asian countries, which are overwhelmingly structural. The Central Asian nations are corrupt, with high unemployment and poor pay, forcing many to become labor migrants.[ix] For extremist recruiters, this presents an abundance of opportunity to lure people into terrorist organizations with the promise of money to send home to their families.[x] These structural issues will not change until Central Asian governments truly show initiative in tackling corruption and increasing quality of life and equality of opportunity for all people. Another issue is inequality and discrimination based on ethnicity, exemplified by the treatment of the Uzbek minority in the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan. Maltreatment of Uzbeks in Osh resulted in violent clashes in 2010 and have made Osh one of Kyrgyzstan’s recruitment and radicalization hotspots.[xi] Until the Central Asian governments acknowledge the reality of ethnic and economic oppression and make efforts to ameliorate it, the positive outcomes of increased dialogue between ethnicities as facilitated by the new regional initiatives will be unlikely to take root.

It is too early to judge these new regional initiatives. Although a permanent solution requires government buy-in and an effort to deal with the structural issues at hand, giving the Central Asian people a political voice is an important first step.













[i] “Terrordådet i Stockholm – detta vet vi just nu”, Aftonbladet, April 7th, 2017, https://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/a/QvdBV/terrordadet-i-stockholm–detta-vet-vi-just-nu.

[ii] “Not In Our Name – The Trailer”, RFE/RL, October 9th, 2018, https://pressroom.rferl.org/a/not-in-our-name-the-trailer/29534247.html-; “Not In Our Name – About the Project”, RFE/RL, September 10th, 2018, https://docs.rferl.org/en-Press/2018/10/09/703cf8d7-6098-4908-aa9d-1a253c7c3ecf.pdf.

[iii] Odil Ruzaliev, “ICG Warns of Growing Radicalization in Central Asia”, VOANews, February 11th, 2015, https://www.voanews.com/a/international-crisis-group-radicalization-central-asia/2639355.html.

[iv] “Not In Our Name – About the Project”, RFE/RL, September 10th, 2018, https://docs.rferl.org/en-Press/2018/10/09/703cf8d7-6098-4908-aa9d-1a253c7c3ecf.pdf.

[v] Bruce Pannier, “Central Asia’s Militants In The Middle East: Why Did They Go? What Can Be Done To Stop Others From Going?”, RFE/RL, October 12th, 2018, https://pressroom.rferl.org/a/central-asias-militants-in-the-middle-east/29539823.html.

[vi] “The United Nations Development Programme commences a regional initiative on prevention of violent extremism in Central Asia, funded by the Government of Japan”, Website of the United Nations Development Project Mission to Kazakhstan, February 22nd, 2018, http://www.kz.undp.org/content/kazakhstan/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/2018/02/22/the-united-nations-development-programme-commences-a-regional-initiative-on-prevention-of-violent-extremism-in-central-asia-funded-by-the-government-of-japan.html.

[vii] “Central Asian journalists join efforts to prevent the spread of violent extremism”, Website of the Delegation of the European Union to the Kyrgyz Republic, October 1st, 2018, https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/kyrgyz-republic/51377/central-asian-journalists-join-efforts-prevent-spread-violent-extremism_en.

[viii] “Not In Our Name” Documentary, RFE/RL, October 2018, https://pressroom.rferl.org/p/6831.html.

[ix] Abel et. al., “EUROPE AND CENTRAL ASIA: AN OVERALL STAGNATION”, Transparency International, January 25th, 2017, https://www.transparency.org/news/feature/europe_and_central_asia_an_overall_stagnation; Yelena Sadovskaya, “Labour Migration in Central Asia”, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2016, https://www.osce.org/magazine/250386.

[x] Mohammed Elshimi et.al., “Understanding the Factors Contributing to Radicalisation Among Central Asian Labour Migrants in Russia”, RUSI, April 2018, https://www.sfcg.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/RUSI-report_Central-Asia-Radicalisation_ENG_24042018.pdf.

[xi] Maxton Maxton, “Kyrgyzstan: the scars of ethnic conflict run deep”, The Guardian, June 10th, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/10/kyrgyzstan-ethnic-conflict-osh-uzbekistan; Jacob Zenn & Kathleen Kuehnast, “Preventing Violent Extremism in Kyrgyzstan”, United States Institute of Peace, October 2014, https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/SR355_Preventing-Violent-Extremism-in-Kyrgyzstan.pdf.

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