Writing Armageddon

Writing Armageddon
Furious writing or writing furiously?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Does Central Asia face an ISIS threat?

After recent ISIS attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Sharm el-Sheikh, a more visible presence in Afghanistan, and the arrest or killing of alleged members in Uzbekistan and the North Caucasus, some are raising the question of whether Central Asia - a neighbor to much of the instability - is at risk from ISIS or an ISIS-type rebellion. The question is an important one given the rapid pace of ISIS expansion and the inability of the international community to dislodge ISIS from countries where it operates.

Nevertheless, I argue first that there is no short-term ISIS threat to Central Asia, a view supported by a well-researched study on the subject. Second, that the question misidentifies the causes of ISIS expansion - which is anarchy, not proximity. Third, that much of the information about ISIS and Islamism in Central Asia is of dubious quality and propagated by governments who have both an incentive and a history of manufacturing foreign threats. Lastly, I argue that Central Asia does face a long-term threat from an ISIS-type insurgency. However, that threat arises from the very actions the Central Asian governments use to combat the alleged Islamist threat today.

Obtained from NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/06/17/world/middleeast/map-isis-attacks-around-the-world.html

Absence of Short-Term Threat 

To put it simply, Central Asia has avoided large-scale terrorist attacks. The region has been relatively safe despite being surrounded by some of the worst-hit areas of the world and being the birthplace of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which recently pledged allegiance to ISIS. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace's Global Terrorism Index, Central Asia faced only a handful of minor terrorist attacks in 2014, and hasn't faced significant terrorist violence since the Islamic Jihad Union, an IMU splinter group, carried out a series of attacks in Uzbekistan in 2004.

Obtained from Institute for Economics and Peace 2014 Global Terrorism Index

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the main contender for carrying out an ISIS-style uprising, operates predominantly in Afghanistan, not Central Asia. By publicly backing ISIS in parts of Afghanistan with a strong Taliban presence, IMU likely signed its own death warrant, as evidenced from recent attacks against it in Zabul province of that country. While IMU is able to draw supporters from Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, it has repeatedly failed to set up shop in Central Asia, likely due to a combination of weak (or non-existent) public support and severe government repression.

Overview of ISIS Expansion

ISIS, with its origin as the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, has a long history of terrorist attacks, but these attacks are not what brought ISIS its current notoriety. Neither was its old emphasis on large-scale attacks targeting Iraqi civilians. Rather, ISIS jumped to the top of the international agenda by simultaneously operating as a successful rebel army and terrorist group. The threat of ISIS is thus not the threat of isolated acts of terror; it's the threat of an insurgency relying on terrorist tactics.

What has allowed ISIS to establish dominance or at least a foothold in countries as varied as Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen? The one constant was the absence of political authority - a political vacuum. ISIS makes use of grievances against the authorities or other sectarian groups to generate passive support, but has been less successful at its more ambitious state-building projects, which would generate loyalty on the basis of public service provision. Its austere and hypocritical implementation of Islam doesn't lend itself well to creating long-term goodwill, which means that ISIS can only survive where no other powerful political and military actor challenges it.

Except for Tajikistan in the 1990s and Kyrgyzstan for a brief period in 2010, the Central Asian countries remained relatively stable. According to the Center for Systemic Peace's State Fragility Index - which estimates each government's level of effectiveness and legitimacy in the political, economic, security, and social spheres - none of the Central Asian countries are on the verge of state failure. Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen - the countries with the biggest ISIS presence - average a fragility score of 17 out of 25, with a higher score indicating higher fragility. The Central Asian states average a fragility score of 10.5. The worst of the five - Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan - each has a score of 12.

Obtained from Center for Systemic Peace 2014 State Fragility Index

Strategic Use of Islamist Threat

If there is one thing that the Central Asian regimes have mastered in the years since their independence, it's how to manipulate threats to obtain domestic and international support. Muslim political parties have been outright banned, mosques are closely monitored, and dissidents, including those living abroad are harassed or killed. Secular elites have been co-opted, harassed, or forced into exile. Even, Kyrgyzstan, by far the most democratic of the Central Asian states, has turned to harassing and banning human rights groups. In most of these cases, the political opponents have been called Islamists; this includes legitimate opposition parties. More recently, the Central Asian regimes have turned to calling those same opponents ISIS supporters, knowing that the designation has a higher resonance than the generic Islamist one. This designation is even applied to bandits or Shiites, the latter being particularly suspect.

Furthermore, by claiming to be fighting against Islamists or ISIS, the rulers of Central Asia get to simultaneously minimize Western criticism of their human rights abuses and obtain economic and political support, which allows them to solidify their grasp on power. With the Afghan War winding down for the US, these rulers lost their ability to threaten non-cooperation vis-a-vis Afghanistan for harsh human rights criticism. The emergence of ISIS created a new common foe, whose threat can and is used to justify repressive policies that aim to stifle dissent more than they do to eliminate Islamist terrorists. It can also be used to obtain generous foreign aid packages, to the tune of billions of dollars from Russia alone.

Long Term Threat from Repression of Pious Muslims and Political Opponents

If there is no realistic short-term threat from ISIS or a similar group, does that mean that there is no threat at all? The answer here is more ambiguous. ISIS arose in areas where state authority collapsed, coupled with weak contenders for political/military control, and a lack of popular legitimacy for ancien regime. While some of the Central Asian states face problems with establishing legitimacy, all have the capacity to control their territories and can always turn to Russia if the need arises.

However, the repressive political policies (Kyrgyzstan being the only partial exception) and poorly executed economic policies have the potential to undermine what ever legitimacy the Central Asian governments currently enjoy. By severely curtailing the ability of people and groups to voice their grievances in public and making it difficult for moderate opposition groups to organize, there is a real potential that the only opposition will be an underground extremist one. The inability to improve the standard of living of most people in the region, prevents the Central Asian governments from using the "Chinese" model of development, which sacrifices rights for prosperity. Given the choice between a loathed government and an extremist opposition, some of the people might calculate that the latter is preferable to the former, as they have in Syria and Iraq. If that is to occur, then a spark, like a massacre in Andijan or political indifference to riots in Osh, can spiral out of control and create exactly the scenario that the repressive government policies are intended to prevent.


To conclude, there is no realistic possibility of an Islamist uprising in Central Asia in the near future. While individual Central Asians have joined ISIS, IMU, and other Islamist groups, they have been either unable or unwilling to carry out large-scale attacks at home. The constant reports of ISIS arrests are not well-supported by any openly released evidence and fit the pattern of Central Asian regimes exaggerating or imagining threats to maintain domestic and international support. The only prospect of an ISIS-type rebellion in Central Asia is as a consequence of repressive and economically unsuccessful government policy. Tajikistan in particular seems to be moving in that direction by banning a political party that previously waged a civil war against the government. It would take a collapse in the authority of the state for hardline Islamists to step in and take advantage of the situation, something that Russia, with its military bases in Tajikistan, would seek to avoid at all costs.

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