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Aging autocrats find pretext for crackdowns
Aging autocrats find pretext for crackdowns
A propaganda video posted by the Islamic State group on Oct.17 was the latest evidence that Central Asian militants have joined the ranks of the terrorist group.
«We should take this and put it on the Internet. Let the
infidels take a look!» said one of the two
Estimates differ, but 1,000 to 5,000 militants with Central Asian
origins are thought to be fighting for Islamic State in Syria
and Iraq. They mostly come from
The authoritarian governments in these Central Asian states now fear these militants could spread the seeds of dissent among their compatriots back at home.
The Uzbek government’s Committee on Religious Affairs warned in an Oct.31 statement: «Today, fighters from more than 80 countries, especially from the Central Asian republics, feature among the ranks of these terrorist groups. And there is no guarantee that tomorrow they will not become the instigators of new forms of destabilization».
A few days later, Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev spoke on the same subject. He said the Islamic State group and radical Islam as a whole pose «a special threat to the identity of the resurgent Kyrgyz ethos», according to local press reports on Nov.4.
The threat posed by returning Islamic State recruits may
be a new and increasingly real one, but Central Asian rulers have
never hesitated from using Islam as an arrow in their quiver.
Back in the 1990s, moderate Sunni Islam was reintroduced as the state
religion throughout the region after decades of Soviet censorship.
It helped to legitimize the
At the same time, radical Islam often gave them a powerful pretext to further tighten control over the population.
«I would not say that this threat is always imaginary, but it can often be seriously exaggerated in the interest of justifying authoritarianism», said Andrei Kazantsev, a Turkmen who is director of the Analytical Center of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, a branch of the Russian foreign ministry.
«With specific regard to the Islamic State, it is a relevant pretext for Central Asian regimes to connect with the U.S. and other major world powers to get more military aid and justify the introduction of new restrictive measures against the opposition».
Local authorities are carrying out a growing number of police operations related to the activity of alleged Islamic militants.
Authorities in Tajikistan earlier this month arrested 12 men suspected
of recruiting residents of the northern province of Sughd
to fight alongside Islamic militants in Syria. Kyrgyzstan detained
six alleged members of the banned Hizb
The autocratic nature of institutions in Central Asia is often highlighted as a reason for the existence of homegrown radical Islamic movements in the first place.
«The roots of radicalization in Central Asia among young people lay in the appalling policies of leaders such as Karimov, who waged war against all political dissent and anything remotely Islamic», wrote Ahmed Rashid in his 2008 book «Descent into Chaos». The Pakistani journalist and longtime observer of Islamic movements in Central Asia noted that there was a total ban on all political parties, trade and student unions, and political gatherings in Uzbekistan. He wrote that more than 10,000 «political prisoners filled Uzbek jails, where torture and death under interrogation were common. Anyone appearing too Islamic or even saying his prayers five times a day could be arrested and tortured. As long as such regimes considered secular democratic parties a threat, it was natural that a violent Islamic underground would flourish».
Most of the rulers have been in power since their countries'
independence from the Soviet Union. Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan,
Emomalii Rahmon in Tajikistan and Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan all
belonged to the local Soviet nomenklatura — the elite who held key
posts before independence and professed loyalty to the Communist Party.
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the president of reclusive Turkmenistan, was
Kyrgyzstan is the only country among the «stans» to have experienced democracy following the 2005 «Tulip revolution». Its institutions are freer but more fragile than in other Central Asian countries.
The main radical Islam group in the region is the Islamic Movement
of Uzbekistan, founded in the late 1990s by Uzbek exiles
in Afghanistan who were fighting to overthrow Karimov and establish
The IMU has long been seen as potentially the most destabilizing Islamic movement in the region, since it was blamed for the 1999 Tashkent bombings that claimed the lives of 16 civilians. But its fight has always struggled to gain momentum and some doubt remains as to whether it was involved in the 1999 attacks. The movement paid a high price for its allegiance to the Taliban in the 2000s, suffering from heavy losses throughout the war with the U.S. and losing its main leaders, Juma Namangani and Tohir Yuldashev.
All eyes on Afghanistan
Autocratic regimes may have a history of playing up the threat of radical Islam to serve their own purposes, but there are concerns that groups such as IMU could be on the resurgence.
The IMU was implicated in a thwarted,
Rather than today’s main battlefields of Syria and Iraq, experts say the real threat will come from Afghanistan.
That was where the bulk of Central Asian Islamic opposition members were gathered and offered the prime position for launching operations elsewhere in the region, Kazantsev said.
The IMU has long used Afghanistan as a base and teamed
up with the Taliban. While it suffered massive losses in the
fight against Western forces, it has grown its numbers in Northern
Afghanistan’s tribal areas. This is attributed to the gradual
reduction of U.S. and NATO forces in the
region, and a planned
«The ability of Afghan forces to contain the IMU in Northern Afghanistan after [international] military forces leave the region will determine the security of Central Asia in the second half of this decade», said Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African and Eurasian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation.
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