April 13, 2016 Special Dispatch No. 6386

A Russian View Of The Islamist Threat To Central Asia

April 13, 2016
Afghanistan, Russia | Special Dispatch No. 6386

On January 19, 2016, the website of the pro-Kremlin think tank Valdai Club published a report by Andrei Kazantsev, director of the Analytical Center of the Institute for International Studies in Russia, titled "Central-Asia: Secular Statehood Challenged by Radical Islam."[1] Kazantsev wrote that post-Soviet Central Asian countries face a threat from radical Islam that impacts prospects for secular statehood and represents a serious obstacle to modernization of the region.

The following are excerpts from Kazantsev's article:[2]


"Post-Soviet Central Asian countries are facing problems caused by old security challenges and the emergence of completely new threats. These threats may influence the prospects for secular statehood in the region and represent a serious obstacle to modernization. One of the old security challenges is the situation in neighboring Afghanistan, where crisis phenomena are continuously aggravated. The most dangerous threat is posed by the concentration of militants in northern Afghanistan (on the border with Tajikistan,[3] Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan)...[4]

"As [a] UN Security Council paper stated, 'Afghan security forces estimated in March 2015 that some 6,500 foreign terrorist fighters are active in this country.'[5] There are 200 fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan alone (later renamed the Islamic Movement of Turkistan, IMT).[6] According to Russian General Staff estimates, if the Afghans are also included the total number of terrorist fighters in this country would amount to 50,000.[7] The threat from Afghanistan is not only an ideological alternative to secular statehood in the form of radical Islam, but also has a purely military dimension..."

The Islamic State

"In 2014, and particularly in 2015, a 'second front' emerged in the Middle East which has rapidly gained a Central Asian dimension: the Islamic State (ISIS). First, ISIS is fraught with the threat of faith-motivated terrorism in view of militants' migration potential... 500 militants arrived in Syria and Iraq from Uzbekistan; 360 from Turkmenistan, 350 from Kyrgyzstan, 250 from Kazakhstan, and 190 from Tajikistan. Obviously, their recruitment would have been impossible without the existence of ISIS 'sleeper cells' in Central Asian countries and Russia. Militants often travel to Syria and Iraq through Russia. Guest workers in Russia are also recruited. Second, ISIS is a serious ideological challenge to all Islamic states, Central Asian states included, because as a caliphate it claims supremacy in the entire Muslim world. Specifically, ISIS has listed Central Asia and Afghanistan as Wilayat Khorasan [i.e. a province of the Islamic State]

"A special threat to Central Asia is posed by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), historically the most dangerous terrorist movement in the region... which has joined ISIS. At the same time, ISIS banners were raised by Turkmen tribes that inhabit areas bordering on Turkmenistan (many are descendants of the basmachi who fought the early Soviet government).[8] ISIS is engaged in subversion in the Central Asian hinterland as well. Kyrgyz and Tajik experts report that ISIS has allocated $70 million for subversion in the region.[9] Security threats to Central Asia from radical Islam in Afghanistan and Middle Eastern countries are being aggravated by numerous negative domestic factors that put the majority of countries in the region on the list of 'fragile states.' These 'fragile states' may easily become 'failed states' that do not control their own territory. These states are ideal ground for the entrenchment of radical terrorist groups like ISIS..."

Central Asia

Drug Trafficking, Corruption, Poverty, And "Sultanistic Regimes"

"Factors contributing to these states' 'fragility' are as follows: first, the large-scale drug traffic along the northern transportation route from Afghanistan to Russia. The latter is the world's main consumer of Afghan heroin. Security experts know well that the proceeds from drug trafficking are often used to fund terrorism and religious extremism. The existence of this link is clear from the Batken war: One of IMU's goals in invading Kyrgyzstan was to create routes for heroin trafficking.[10]

"[Another] important factor contributing to their 'fragility' and the growth of the radical Islamic threat is the extremely high rate of corruption in the region... First, corruption is closely linked with organized crime, especially drug trafficking, the proceeds from which may be used to finance terrorist groups, as we have already mentioned. Second, it sharply reduces the efficiency of government agencies in the fight against the threat of radical Islam. Third, the high level of corruption and ensuing social inequality are one of the main propaganda points used by radical Islamists, including ISIS, against existing secular regimes in the region.

"Poverty is the next factor contributing to these states' 'fragility.' Regional countries (especially parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in the Fergana Valley)[11] are characterized by a very high degree of rural overpopulation aggravated by the shortage of water and fertile soil. This leads to unemployment and large numbers of marginalized young people who are highly susceptible to brainwashing by radical Islamists. The problem is worsened by the degradation of the Soviet-era social support, education, and healthcare systems... The increase in poverty is occurring against the backdrop of a trend toward socio- economic 'de-modernization.' For example, due to civil war and economic hardships, urban residents in Tajikistan dropped to 26% of the entire population in 2010, which is comparable with the world's most backward countries. Other manifestations of 'de-modernization' include an exodus of highly-skilled specialists and intellectuals (both Russian-speaking and ethnic)...

"[Another] critical factor threatening the statehood of regional countries is the existence of personalized 'sultanistic' regimes ingrained in the clan systems that determine the intra-elite network configurations. The two key countries in the region - Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan - did not experience a single power change in the post-Soviet period and the existing political institutions in both countries are closely linked with the strong personalities of their presidents. At the same time, by virtue of the age factor, a change of supreme power will be on the agenda in the near future and this may lead to the exacerbation of inter-clan conflicts within the elites and further destabilization."

Clashes Over Water Resources And Conflicts Of Interest

"[Another issue is] serious interstate clashes over water resources between countries in the upper reaches of rivers (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) and those in the lower reaches (Uzbekistan, and less so Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan). These conflicts are serious obstacles to cooperation, including the joint struggle against security threats.

"[Furthermore,] influential great powers (Russia, the United States, China, the EU, and Islamic countries) are involved in the competition for influence in the region. Conflicts of interest between them may increase security threats and at best neutralize their efforts to help regional countries cope with various challenges.

"The aforementioned external threats from radical Islam emanating from Afghanistan and Middle Eastern countries, threats that are dramatically enhanced by domestic problems existing in a number of regional countries, clearly point to some crisis in the secular statehood model that was established in Central Asia in the post-Soviet period. Prospects for overcoming this crisis are different in different countries and are largely determined by the nature of the relationships between government agencies and Islam..."

Islamism In Tajikistan

"After the Central Asian countries gained independence, their elites began to actively support what they considered politically appropriate versions of Islam, in an attempt to create national forms of the religion that would legitimatize existing political systems in secular states. The situation in Tajikistan is the worst, in terms of instability and the influence of radical Islam. Among the negative factors it is important to note its proximity to Afghanistan, a very complicated domestic socio-economic situation, and the ongoing destructive consequences of the civil war that took place during the first half of the 1990s. At the same time, the radicalization of society, including of law enforcement, is accelerating.

Gulmurod Khalimov, a colonel in the Tajikistani riot police who deserted his unit and joined ISIS in 2015.

"The most blatant incident occurred in 2015, when riot police [officer] Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov deserted his unit and joined ISIS.[12] A military mutiny headed by Deputy Defense Minister Maj.-Gen. Abdukhalim Nazarzoda occurred in the fall of 2015.[13] The authorities also attributed this to the influence of radical Islam. The central government of Tajikistan does not seem to exercise strong control over some of its territories such as Gorno Badakhshan [an autonomous region in eastern Tajikistan]. The defense of the Tajik-Afghan border has also weakened following the departure of Russian border guards. This is dangerous in view of the accelerated destabilization in Afghanistan's border areas.[14] Excesses in the struggle against Islamism may also be conducive to the dissemination of radical Islam. Such actions as the wide-scale shutdown of mosques, the introduction of a tough dress code in opposition to Islamic tradition, and the banning of the moderate Islamic Revival of Tajikistan party, may consolidate the radical Islamic underground."[15]  

Islamism In Kyrgyzstan

"Kyrgyzstan is also subject to serious threats. One of the specific risks is the country's geopolitical split into north and south [following its independence in 1991, there is a possibility of a north-south split]. As the Batken war bore out, Kyrgyz government agencies are traditionally weak and were further weakened by two revolutions (2005 and 2010).[16] Radical Islamism presents the greatest threat in the south of Kyrgyzstan, especially within the large Uzbek diaspora. The situation in this area is complicated by an acute ethnic conflict between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks which led to pogroms in 2010."[17]  

Islamism In Turkmenistan

The situation in Turkmenistan has traditionally been considered one of the most stable in the region (as the above statehood ratings indicate). Nevertheless, it seriously deteriorated in 2014-2015, after ISIS penetrated areas adjoining the Afghan-Turkmen border. The negative aspects of Turkmenistan's neutral status are becoming obvious.[18] The country does not have a strong army to protect its borders, nor can it request military aid from Russia, for instance, as this would contradict the concept of neutrality. The domestic situation leaves much to be desired, too..." 

Islamism In Uzbekistan

"Uzbekistan's standoff with extremist trends in Islam is characterized by substantial contradictions. On the one hand, the region's strongest extremist groups originated in Uzbekistan. In 1999, IMU staged massive terrorist attacks in Tashkent. In May 2005, Akromiya (Akromiylar), a radical Islamic group, organized an uprising in Andizhan (Fergana Valley). On the other hand, the state's powerful law enforcement agencies and its generally repressive policy have put the activities of religious extremists in the country under a measure of control.

"Islamic propaganda and terrorist activities are increasing in Uzbekistan against the backdrop of a worsening socio-economic crisis. Uzbekistan is second after Russia in the post-Soviet space in terms of the number of militants who went to fight in Syria and Iraq. Among other things, the growth of religious extremism in Uzbekistan is a complicated issue, as it is linked with clan policy. Uzbekistan has a traditional 'division of labor' between regional clans that is nicely expressed in the proverb: 'A resident of Samarkand rules; a resident of Tashkent counts money, and a resident of the Fergana Valley prays.' This proverb emphasizes Islam's special role in the Fergana Valley and the fact that all key clergymen in Uzbekistan traditionally come from the Fergana Valley. During the post-Soviet evolution [one of the two most powerful Uzbek clans], the Samarkand clan (the president himself [Islam Karimov] belongs to it) and the Tashkent clan (in charge of the economy) came to power in Uzbekistan. Many experts believe that the Fergana clan has traditionally used the threat of Islamic extremism to enhance its influence. The aforementioned inter-clan alignment of political forces is highly important as the prevailing problem of the inheritance of power may seriously aggravate the inter-clan struggle." 

Islamism In Kazakhstan

"Kazakhstan is least affected by religious radicalism owing to the following specific factors: a stable economy (about two-thirds of Central Asia's GDP is produced in Kazakhstan); a fairly high level of social modernization in the Soviet period; the existence of a large strata of Russian speakers; and the historical tradition of Islam's dissemination among the Kazakhs. The situation in two regions is critically important in terms of the spread of radical Islam. The influence of Islamic institutions has traditionally been strong in southern Kazakhstan, which is an area with a settled population. Islam's revival there has been characterized by the emergence of its more radical forms. A no less complicated situation has been taking shape in western Kazakhstan over the past few years. The intensive industrial development of the region's oil and gas deposits has attracted socially marginalized groups..."

Countering Islamism: The Hanafi School And The Jadid Ideology

A cartoon portraying a Jadid reformer opposingthe traditionalists (Source: 

"Threats to secular statehood in Central Asia are fairly high. However, the region's countries have the potential to counter them. Historically, Central Asia, as part of the Muslim world was characterized by developed Islamic science... and the high Sufi tradition of Islam including mystical poetry... It is these local cultural traditions of Islam that are some of the main targets of Islamic radicals, who deny national forms of Muslim religion and culture. Central Asian Sufis (primarily the great Uzbek teacher of the Soviet era Muhammad-jan Hindustani)[19] actively countered the spread of radical Islam (Salafism and Wahhabism). Therefore, it is no surprise that religious extremism is much less widespread in ancient Central Asian centers of civilization, such as Samarkand and Bukhara, by virtue of the high traditional culture of the population.

"The potential of the traditional legal Hanafi School should not be underestimated either. It is one of the four Orthodox Sunni religious schools of jurisprudence, whereas radical Islam (Salafism) is linked to the Saudi-adopted Hanbali School in the radical Wahhabi interpretation. The development of traditional Islam and the consolidation of the Hanafi School for official recognition (which is the case, for instance, in Tajikistan) is a resource for fighting radicalism...

"It should also be emphasized that Central Asian states have positive historical experience in terms of successfully upgrading Islamic ideology, which may well be leveraged in current conditions. The latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century saw the emergence of the Jadid ideology... It was introduced by Muslim liberal reformers in the regions, who were leaders in the dissemination of such ideas.[20] This is a cultural tradition of development along the strictly secular road, which is typical of the region's more advanced countries such as Kazakhstan." 

Countering Islamism: "Soviet Modernization Heritage," An Efficient Market Economy, And Russia's Role

"Soviet modernization heritage also facilitates the preservation of secular statehood. It led to many changes in Central Asia. Many Soviet-established non-Muslim stereotypes of everyday life (for instance, high literacy and the secular education of the population owing to the system of universal school education, the consumption of alcohol and infrequent visits to mosques) still make many residents of this region substantially different from their brethren-in-faith in the rest of the Muslim world.

"In the post-Soviet period, the efficiency of reforms aimed at building modern institutions was different in different countries of the region. Kazakhstan has been in the lead in terms of developing a market economy and attracting investment. An efficient market economy is one of the largest obstacles to the return to archaic Islamic institutions as urged by radicals... It is Kazakhstan that is a kind of a 'bastion of stability' primarily owing to its relative (regional) socio-economic well-being. It ensures the security of Russia's southern borders, China's western borders and eventually the security of the European Union's eastern borders.

"The assistance of great powers is a major resource in the struggle against radical Islamism in Central Asia. In this context special credit goes to Russia which has key positions in terms of ensuring regional security. The Moscow-backed Collective Security Treaty Organization is the main protection for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan against possible invasions from Afghan territory and potential ISIS expansion.[21] Russia is vitally concerned with fighting Islamic radicalism in Central Asia. Its further spread and even possible victory are linked to the growth potential of many cross-border threats (terrorism, drug trafficking, the intensification of uncontrolled migration, etc.). In the migration context, the security of Russia's several metropolitan areas (Moscow above all) largely depends on the ability of Moscow and the entire international community to render effective aid to Central Asian countries in countering the  growing threat of radical Islamism."


[1], January 19, 2016.

[2] The original English has been lightly edited for clarity.

[3] The main phase of the joint command staff exercises involving the units of the armed forces of Russia and Tajikistan started in March 2016. The command and control units of Tajikistan's Defense Ministry and Russia's Central Military District as well as motorized rifle, armored and artillery units, Special Forces, airborne and air assault groups of both countries participated in the drill., March 14, 2016.

[4], October 8, 2015.

[5] Letter dated May 19, 2015 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999) and 1989 (2011) concerning Al-Qaeda and associated individuals and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council. S/2015/358.p.8.

[6] Letter dated 19 May 2015 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999) and 1989 (2011) concerning Al-Qaeda and associated individuals and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council. S/2015/358.P. 9.

[7], October 8, 2015.

[8] The Basmachi Revolt was an insurrection against Soviet rule in Central Asia, which started after the Russian revolution in 1917 and was largely suppressed by 1926.

[9], October 8, 2015.

[10] The Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan (IMU) has been blamed by Kirgizstan for the Batken incidents of 1999 and 2000.

[11] The Fergana Valley, in Central Asia, spreads across eastern Uzbekistan, south of Kyrgyzstan and north of Tajikistan. In March 2016, tensions rose between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over an elevated territory in the valley shared by the two countries.

[12] On April 2015, Gulmurod Khalimov joined ISIS in Syria. Khalimov, a former commander of the special forces of the Tajiki Ministry of Interior, appeared in a propaganda video confirming that he is fighting for ISIS. On February 2016, his second wife,  Humairo Mirova, left for Syria along with their four children.

[13] On September 2015, former Tajiki deputy defense minister General Abdukhalim Nazarzodawas killed by Tajiki security forces, after gunmen loyal to Nazarzoda clashed with government forces.

[14] On October 6, 2015, President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss security issues in order to defend the 1,200-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan. In the meeting, Rahmon said that the situation in Afghanistan is worsening daily. "Hostilities are underway along over 60 percent of the border. This is very alarming; therefore... I would like to take up specifically matters of ensuring security in the region," he said., October 6, 2015.

[15] In January 2016, police in Tajikistan shaved the beards off nearly 13,000 men, and 1,700 women removed their headscarves in a bid to tackle extremism.

[16] The Tulip Revolution, or the First Kyrgyz Revolution, overthrew Kyrgyz president AskarAkayev in 2005. The Second Kyrgyz Revolution ousted Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010.

[17] In the aftermath of the Second Kyrgyz Revolution, ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010. The clashes resulted in hundreds of people killed, and in the looting and destruction of property.

[18] On December 12, 1995, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Resolution on the Permanent Neutrality of Turkmenistan.

[19] Muhammad-jan Hindustani (1892-1989) was an Uzbeki Muslim scholar. He is considered to be the father of the Islamic renaissance in Central Asia.

[20] Jadidism was a movement of Muslim reformers in Central Asia, mainly among the Uzbeks and the Tajiks, from the first years of the 20th century to the 1920s.

[21] The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was signed on May 15, 1992.


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