Since the American and Northern Alliance defeat of the Taleban and their Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) allies in northern Afghanistan in late 2001, the arrival of would-be fighters from the former Soviet countries of Central Asia to Afghanistan has been a very small trickle. And yet, over the last year, the number of Central Asians travelling to far-off Syria to join insurgent groups has been a comparative flood. The study of this phenomenon is just beginning, and massive gaps in the available information exist. However, while the reasons for Central Asians favouring the war in Syria over the war in Afghanistan are debatable, the obvious trend is not. In this dispatch, AAN guest analyst Christian Bleuer discusses the possible reasons for Central Asian jihadis neglecting to join an insurgency in a neighbouring country in favour of going to a distant battle in Arab lands.Central Asian jihadis for Syria. Photo: screen shot from a video on the website "From Chechnya to Syria: News and Analysis of Russian-speaking Foreign Fighters in Syria."
Over the last decade, numerous analysts, government officials and journalists in Central Asia, Afghanistan and the West have made claims of significant contributions by Central Asian fighters to the insurgency in Afghanistan. These claims have been discounted by many analysts, including by AAN. In reality, very few fighters make the trip from the countries of Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) to join the fight in Afghanistan. The dead insurgents identified by Afghan police and military as being from Central Asia are eventually identified as local Afghans of Tajik, Uzbek or Turkmen ethnicity. At the same time, very few Central Asians have been individually named or identified while fighting in Afghanistan. (1)
In comparison, recent events have made it very clear that many from Central Asia have travelled to Syria to join insurgent forces, notable IS (‘The Islamic State,’ also known as ISIS or ISIL or by its Arabic acronym, Da’ash). One year ago, Kazakhstan was shocked by the video testimonial of a group of 150 Kazakhs inside Syria who declared their commitment to jihad under the IS banner. More recently, a citizen of Tajikistan was promoted to IS ‘Amir’ for the strategic Syrian city of Raqqa. In between these two news items, there have been numerous instances of proof provided of Central Asians fighting and dying in Syria (for a small selection, see here and here; for specific local case studies from Tajikistan, see here (in Russian) and here). Furthermore, numerous videos showing Central Asians in Syria can be found online (Uzbeks, for example: here, here, here and here).
There is some disagreement over the exact number of Central Asians fighting in Syria and Iraq, with a low conservative estimate by Radio Free Europe of approximately 400 and the higher range of estimates by Russian analysts of 1000 to 5000. In the highly authoritarian and paranoid environment of Central Asia, it is very difficult to research this phenomenon and find information on the ground – including just simply confirming numbers. However, the government of Tajikistan is using the conflict as a warning against joining Islamist movements and is not stopping journalists from visiting villages that have been especially affected by the departure of young men to the war in Syria.
In one village in northern Tajikistan where 20 men have departed to Syria and where two have been killed, opinions are divided. Some consider the young men to be “true Muslims and heroes” and one father considers his son’s death while fighting in Syria as righteous ‘martyrdom’, while others label them misguided young men whose susceptibility to “ignorance and bigotry” led them astray. Almost all the men were recruited while working in Russia, and some intend to stay in Syria long term as indicated by one incident where a local man attempted to get his pregnant wife to come to Syria, along with their two children (here, (in Russian) and here).
The reasons why Central Asian Muslims are flocking to Syria while neglecting Afghanistan is an extremely difficult research question. Most of the fighters are still in Syria and Iraq and will remain or die there. The ones who have returned and who have spoken with authorities and journalists are not a good sample group, as their opinions and reasons reflect the motivations of those who have returned, not those who have stayed.
This type of research is hard enough in open societies in Europe; it is much harder in Central Asia where returnees and their families, if they are made available by authorities, often just repeat government talking points condemning the excesses of IS and renouncing violence, while others claim they were deceived by unscrupulous jihadi recruiters. One Kyrgyz who was arrested in Turkey after spending time in Syria claimed he had been tricked into going to Syria with the false offer of a job in Turkey. After arriving in Turkey, according to his story reported by a US military-funded website (here), he was sent into Syria where, he said, “militants, some from the northern Caucasus, trained us for a few days. I didn’t want to fight, but they forced us. A month later, we ended up near the Syrian town of Al-Bab. I escaped with difficulty to Turkey.” Even if his version of the story is not true, as he could very well have been trying to avoid a long prison sentence for willingly and knowingly joining the fight in Syria, it does show one of the ways in which local government attempts to frame the issue (note: the American website linked above consistently repeats viewpoints of the Central Asian governments and their security services).
Even those who may not be giving interviews at the behest of local authorities represent, at best, the Central Asians who were disillusioned or scared by the fighting and returned home (for example this anonymous Kazakh interviewed in Kazakhstan; warning: gory photo at link). Meanwhile, the video testimonies of Central Asians in Syria are not particularly enlightening as they are often just standard jihadi messages, the content of which can be guessed before watching the videos.
With no serious independent analysis on the reasons why Central Asians travel to Syria (where Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens from Central Asia have no co-ethnic populations) while neglecting the ‘jihad’ in neighbouring Afghanistan (where Central Asians do have co-ethnic populations), it is only possible at this point to offer some speculation. The possible reasons for the Syria preference over Afghanistan include the following:
1. IS and other rebel groups in Syria and Iraq are seen to be winning, at least currently: Over the past year, rebels groups in Syria and Iraq, especially IS, have made quick and spectacular gains. These well-publicised battlefield victories in Syria could be juxtaposed by the potential Central Asian jihadi to the Taleban’s 20 year long struggle in Afghanistan with no end in sight. At the moment, IS controls significant territories; the Taleban do not. This may change with the combined American, European and Arab assault on IS and with any resurgence of the Taleban in Afghanistan, but, for now, it is safe to say that the fight in Syria benefits from a ‘bandwagon’ effect, (2) while the long-running fight in Afghanistan continues to be neglected by international jihadis, apart from Pakistanis.
2. Prestige of the Arab World: Central Asians assign more prestige and positive opinions towards the Arab countries. In comparison, Afghanistan is most usually denigrated and disliked by Central Asians. In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, for example, it is rare to hear any empathy expressed for Afghans. Instead, negative and demeaning descriptions of Afghanistan dominate. (3) For those more religious Central Asians, Arabs are considered more authentically Muslim, and the Arab world is considered as a desired destination for study, visits and, or course, pilgrimage. (4) Helping fellow Muslims in the Arab world, from Palestinians to Syrian Sunnis, or at least sympathising with them, has always been more worthy an endeavour for Central Asians. On the other hand, the suffering of Uyghurs, Chechens, Dagestanis, Afghans and other Muslims in their own region at the hands of non-Muslims are mostly invisible issues in Central Asia (5).
3. IS is a new brand: IS can appeal to Central Asians in a way the Taleban can not. The Taleban ‘brand’ in Central Asia is stained by over a decade and a half of relentless criticism by Central Asian journalists, Muslim leaders, citizens and government officials. The Taleban are considered ‘backwards’, ‘dirty’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘fanatical’ and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, equally disliked, has been near comatose for some time. (6) IS, for many, is something new and unknown. The first introduction to IS could very well be a positive online portrayal or a recruiting pitch in person from another Central Asian. However, as disillusioned Central Asians (7) return with their horror stories, IS may soon come to be considered similar to the Taleban by potential recruits.
4. Recruitment and travel to Syria is easier: Using Turkey as a gateway is quite easy for Central Asians (see here and here), due to language familiarity for some and ease of travel (eg, the visa regime allows Kazakhs to easily visit Turkey). From Turkey, the crossing into Syria was, until recently, very easy (see here, here and here). Furthermore, one of the main grounds for recruitment for the war in Syria is among Central Asian populations in Russia. The Russian government estimates – counting just Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz – that there are over four million Central Asian guest workers in Russia (here). Detached from the control and moderation of family, village, local mosque, society and government – and experiencing discrimination – Central Asians in Russia are more receptive to recruitment into radical extremist groups. Furthermore, in Russia the Central Asian recruits can follow the well established networks of jihadis from Russia’s north Caucasus, who for reasons of historical connections (eg, Caucasian diasporas in Syria and Turkey) and vicinity have always had relatively strong connections to Turkey and the Arab countries. Recruitment and travel to Afghanistan is, by comparison, a near hopeless task. The Central Asia borders with Afghanistan are heavily militarised and controlled, unlike the Turkish border. As for nearby countries that provide a pool of expatriate recruits, travel from Russia to Turkey for jihadis from among the millions of Central Asians working in Russia is quite easy. In comparison, there are extremely few Central Asians working or studying in Iran or Pakistan from which to recruit from. (8)
5. The framing of the war in Syria and Iraq as a fight against Shia Islam: Jihadis in Syria have framed the fight as one of oppressed Sunnis against Shia rulers. The denigration of and hatred for Shia Muslims in Central Asia is not widespread, but it does have resonance with a surprising number of religious young men who, under the influence of anti-Shia Salafi Islamist ideology, see Shia Islam as either a threat or a nuisance that should be eliminated. (9) Afghanistan, while being considered as occupied by foreigners, has a Sunni Muslim president. Furthermore, the Taleban have not framed the fighting there as Sunni versus Shia since the late 1990s with the Taleban offensive in Mazar against the Shia Hazaras (here), whom the Taleban more so considered a minority to be controlled rather than as a Shia oppressor.
6. Social media: The role of social media in recruiting is often mentioned as an important factor for IS and other groups in Syria and Iraq (here), despite this hypothesis being untested. (10) Central Asians, especially those in Russia, are enthusiastic users of social media, with most of the pro-IS sentiments being expressed on Russian-language social networking sites and forums that are popular throughout the former Soviet Union. The Taleban and al-Qaeda, meanwhile, are comparatively invisible in the social media consumed by Central Asians. Any messages or media in Arabic produced by the Taleban or al-Qaeda regarding Afghanistan will reach very few Central Asians. Those Central Asians with a good command of Arabic and/or Islamic jurisprudence have stayed away from radical groups like IS and al-Qaeda. Instead, Central Asian recruits have consistently been shown to be those with low levels of education and previously poor attendance at their local mosque (here and here, in Russian). As for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, it rarely produces anything, especially when compared to the volume from Syria and Iraq. As for a comparison between the online presence of the Taleban and IS leaders – both would-be leaders of all Muslims, as Afghan analyst Wahid Muzhda has said – the “reclusive Mullah Omar, who communicates with believers twice a year by issuing a holiday encyclical in a variety of languages, is at a disadvantage [compared to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of IS] in the new age of social media and satellite television.”
7. Jihadi living standards in Syria: Despite the destruction brought about by the civil war in Syria, infrastructure, transportation, accommodation, sanitation, education, communication technology, various modern amenities and other measures of development are at much higher levels (on average) in Syria than in Afghanistan. These benefits, plus the ability to bring along your family or be given a new wife (and the permission to enslave local women in Syria and Iraq), make life in Syria seem far more appealing than in Afghanistan or the border areas of Pakistan, where life as an insurgent is generally more unpleasant. (11) Recently, low-ranking IS fighters in Syria uploaded a video (safe link here) showing what they consider their austere living conditions to counter the ‘5-star jihad’ image perpetuated on social media by other IS fighters who uploaded images of their lives in captured villas and mansions (here). Still, the video shows a standard of living far above what one would endure as a Taleban insurgent in Afghanistan. Syria has been represented as a place that the potential entry-level jihadi and his family can live (though this may change) whereas Afghanistan has not.
8. Collective memory of the Soviet Afghan War: A negative perception of Afghanistan and Afghans lingers from the collective experience of Central Asians in the Soviet War in Afghanistan. (12) No such negative feelings exist for the Arab world.
9. Linguistic familiarity: Almost no Central Asians speak Urdu or Pashto, making a trip to Pakistan and a border crossing into Afghanistan difficult. But most Central Asians can speak Russian and many more can speak Turkish than Urdu. This makes following the recruiting networks from Russia into Turkey and then into Syria easier. Once in Syria, there are significant numbers of other Muslims from the Russian federation (eg, Chechens) and from Central Asia who can use Russian as their lingua franca when not in smaller groups, such as the Uzbek jamaats (organised religious groups). The linguistic familiarity of Turkmens, Uzbeks and Tajiks from Central Asian with their co-ethnic communities in northern Afghanistan is not a factor drawing them there, being negated by all the factors listed above (see also the relevant sections of this AAN report).
10. Transnational jihad in Syria and Iraq versus a local struggle in Afghanistan: IS has declared a new caliphate that is not limited by national borders (here and here) and named the IS leader as the caliph whom all Muslim must obey. In contrast, the Afghan Taleban are focused on a national struggle, as they have noted in a number of public pronouncements like this one from their Qatar office: “The Islamic Emirate never wants to pose harms to other countries from its soil, nor will it allow anyone to cause a threat to the security of countries from the soil of Afghanistan.” For the internationalist jihadi, the greater appeal of IS over the Taleban is clear.
The reasons for Central Asians preferring to fight in Syria, as listed above, should be considered as a preliminary and possibly incomplete list. Some of the factors are likely far more important than others, and it is not possible to accurately rank them. For the Taleban, this is a sign of its post-2001 failure to attract foreign fighters in any significant numbers beyond those from Pakistan. Starting in 2003, the fight against American-led forces in Iraq was clearly the place to be for the international jihadi. And now the fight against the Syrian and Iraqi governments and the non-Sunni and non-Muslim communities there is drawing the bulk of foreign jihadi fighters. Afghanistan will very likely continue to be an insurgency supported overwhelmingly by Afghans and Pakistanis, not by foreign jihadis from further abroad in any significant number – especially not from Central Asia.
(1) On the IMU and Central Asian fighters in Afghanistan, see: Christian Bleuer and Reza Kazemi, ‘Between Co-operation and Insulation: Afghanistan’s Relations with the Central Asian Republics’, Afghanistan Analysts Network, 27 June 2014, pp 17, 22, 34-5, 47-8.
(2) For further reading on the bandwagon effect and insurgent groups, see: Daniel Byman, Peter Chalk, Bruce Hoffman, William Rosenau, and David Brannan, ‘Trends in Outside Support for Insurgent Movements,’ RAND Monograph, 2001; Steven Metz and Raymond Millen, ‘Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the 21st century: Reconceptualizing Threat and Response,’ Strategic Studies Institute Report, November 2004.
(3) See this report: Christian Bleuer and Reza Kazemi, ‘Between Co-operation and Insulation: Afghanistan’s Relations with the Central Asian Republics’, Afghanistan Analysts Network, 27 June 2014, pp 26-9, 40 (including the footnotes).
(4) Regarding observance of Islam, the new preference for Hanbali practices by some Central Asians over the traditionally-favoured Hanafi rites is strongly tied in with the belief that Arab practices of Islam are ‘purer’ and better, despite mistakenly conflating Hanbali rites as common to all Arabs. See, for example: Adeeb Khalid, Islam After Communism, University of California Press 2007, 144-5.
The author of this dispatch spoke with young men in a village in Tajikistan who stressed that the only authentic place for them to study Islam is in Saudi Arabia. Ironically, they lived not far from where the famous Central Asian Islamic scholar Muhammadjon Hindustoni lived until his death of old age in the late 1980s. Hindustoni left the Soviet Union and studied Islam in Afghanistan and India before returning to Central Asia and vigorously defending Hanafi rites against what he termed foreign (ie, Arab) ‘Wahhabism.’
(5) Over a five year period visiting and living in Central Asia, this author has very rarely seen in the media, or heard in local discussions, concerns over Uyghurs, Rohingyas, Chechens, Dagestanis or Afghans. In comparison, the issues of Palestinians, Muslims in Europe and America, and Muslims in the ‘Arab Spring’ countries were far more prominent.
(6) On the IMU, see: Christian Bleuer and Reza Kazemi, ‘Between Co-operation and Insulation: Afghanistan’s Relations with the Central Asian Republics’, Afghanistan Analysts Network, 27 June 2014, pp 17, 22, 34-5, 47-8.
(7) The phenomenon of disillusioned fighters wanting to leave Syria has mostly been discussed in regards to fighters from the West (for example here). For Central Asians, access to returnees or to those who want to return is more difficult. Most references are made in the government-controlled or US military-sponsored media (for example, an article titled “Regret-filled Tajiks return from Syria” here).
(8) Next to nothing is known about the recruitment of Central Asians to the fighting in Afghanistan from within Pakistan. However, the absence of Central Asia guest workers in Pakistan, the repatriation of Tajik refugees in the late 1990s to 2002, and the numbers of Tajik students in Pakistan revealed during the controversy in Tajikistan over foreign Islamic education, in which Tajik were forced or pressured to return to Tajikistan (here, here and here), it is clear that there are very few Central Asians in Pakistan, especially when compared to Russia. This article (here) briefly discusses reasons for Russia being a fertile recruiting ground. The rest of the analysis is based on research by the author on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
(9) The author of this dispatch was more than a few times offered unsolicited hateful comments about Shia Muslims and Iranian Shia influence (positive comments came from the secular well-educated in Tajikistan, and generally in reference to Persian culture and Iranians). Furthermore, the accusations of ‘secret’ Shiism against certain Islamic scholars in Tajikistan are surprisingly effective. Many religious young men in the south of Tajikistan are certain that the prominent Turajonzoda family of scholars (of Qadiriyya Sufi lineage) have converted to Shia Islam at Iran’s behest and are a threat to Sunnis in Tajikistan (author’s research, 2012-2014).
(10) The importance of social media as a recruiting tool versus more ‘old-fashioned’ recruiting techniques (eg, person-to-person contacts in ‘real life’) for the fight in Syria and Iraq has not yet been measured in any scholarly study.
(11) In a German report, young German Muslims expressed their disappointment with the quality of life in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas, citing it as a reason for their return. Similarly, Central Asians image of Afghanistan is of a backwards, dirty and undeveloped place. In contrast, they usually praise Turkey, Europe and the better developed Arab countries for their higher levels of development (author’s research in Central Asia, 2011-2014, see also relevant sections in this AAN report).
(12) See the sources cited in this journal article: Christian Bleuer, ‘Muslim Soldiers in Non-Muslim Militaries at War in Muslim Lands: The Soviet, American and Indian Experience’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 32, No. 4 (2012).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020