The radical group ISIS is a buzzword in Central Asia, where local governments portray it as an imminent security threat, despite the organisation's central command rarely making reference to the ex-Soviet, majority-Muslim region.
Estimates of the number of citizens from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan currently fighting for ISIS, a brutal Al Qaeda off-shoot which now controls half of Syria and giant swathes of Iraq, vary from several hundred to several thousand.
Since news of citizens leaving their country to fight there first became known after the onset of the Syrian civil war, ISIS rapidly displaced Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) as the most talked-up extremist organisation in Central Asia.
But just as analysts are divided as to the reasons Central Asians join ISIS, there is little evidence of an overall game plan towards the region on the part of the group.
While scribes argue and regional officials muddy the water by grouping all threats under the ISIS umbrella, what few clues there are lie with videos attributed to the radical group featuring citizens from the region.
On July 25, Furat media, an ISIS media wing centred on the countries of the former Soviet Union, released ‘Message to the People of Kyrgyzstan’, a video with a man speaking in the Kyrgyz language and calling Kyrgyz to join ISIS. The man was later identified as a resident of the southern region of Jalalabad who left for a country presumed to be Syria by way of Moscow.
In the video he decried democracy as “law made by humans” and called on fellow citizens to “move from the country of infidels to the land of the Islamic State.”
An anonymous source who later contacted the local media outlet Kloop.kg identified the speaker in the video as “Ulan”, a man in his late 20s, who was “not very communicative” when they went to school together. The source said that he had spent time in Egypt and had spoken Arabic — a language unknown to most Kyrgyz — from a young age.
While the now-deleted footage bears the Furat logo, it lacks the special effects and violence of other some ISIS videos produced via the channel. The question remains as to whether all of the channel's output is tightly controlled by ISIS’ PR team, or whether it is something of an ‘open mic’ for fighters looking to preach jihad back to their home audiences.
John Heathershaw, a British academic who has cautioned against sensationalising the ISIS threat towards Central Asia, told Kloop:
Presumably, the people behind the message are Kyrgyz, who are led to believe that they will be able to spread the [so-called] caliphate as far as Kyrgyzstan.
Look who is talking
The relationship between the state and religion in Tajikistan remains one of the most fractious in the region. Praying in the streets is banned, the government is waging war against the hijab and local police officers occasionally stop observant Muslims in the street to shave their beards.
On May 28, Furat released a video featuring a Tajik police chief, Gulmurod Halimov, who defected from the country to join ISIS. In the 12-minute long video-message, Halimov railed against the state's anti-religious policies and called on Tajiks working as migrants in Russia — “slaves” — to join ISIS in the Middle East.
A blogger, Akmal Rustami, commented on the popular Tajik blog-platform, Blogiston.tj:
Целевая аудитория Видео — обращения направлена на трудовых мигрантов которые работают в Российской Федерации а также на обычных молодых неграмотных людей Таджикистана.
The target audience of this video is migrant workers who work in the Russian Federation as well as ordinary, young, uneducated people in Tajikistan.
Given Halimov's high rank, his defection represented a great PR opportunity for the group. Clearly on this occasion, Furat made sure production was tight:
This is the most well-made film of a Tajik IS fighter. Unsurprisingly, they have quickly used Halimov for recruitment purposes
— Edward Lemon (@EdwardLemon3) May 28, 2015
ISIS’ first official video referencing citizens of Central Asia was in November 2014, when a boy that appears to be a young teenager speaking in Kazakh and referring himself to Abdullah threatens to kill non-believers.
In a follow up video in January, the same boy seemingly shoots two alleged Russian spies. Kloop, which bucked the general trend among regional media by covering both videos, was blocked in Kazakhstan and briefly de-hosted in Kyrgyzstan.
Like the Gulmurod Halimov clip, Abdullah the child soldier was picked up by media across the world, and was clearly intended for an audience beyond Central Asia. The same cannot be said about a second clip featuring Halimov, which one analyst notes has a much more personal feel and “lacks the high-tech editing and graphics seen in his first clip”.
Specifically, Halimov threatens to cut off his brother's head for siding with the Tajik government rather than joining ISIS.
ISIS has made comparatively limited inroads into the region in terms of recruitment — proportionally a Kyrgyz citizen is no more likely to fight for ISIS than a French one and several times less likely than a Lebanese — but with a fast growing population the region has strong potential to supply the organisation.
Most Central Asians who do leave to join ISIS in Syria do so by way of Russia and Turkey. On July 30, for instance, Russia's Federal Security Bureau FSB announced they had stopped a Kyrgyz citizen leaving the country to join ISIS. Many more have slipped through the net.
To Central Asians the journey to Russia is a habit. According to statistics from the Federal Migration Service over 2.5 million citizens of Uzbekistan work there, more than a million from Tajikistan and over half a million Kyrgyzstanis. Illegal migrants are not included in the figure.
For years, citizens from the region have been filling gaps in the Russian economy, which suffers a top-heavy demographic pyramid and a shortage of labour. In their home republics unemployment and underemployment are widespread.
All of this makes the region an untapped mine for recruitment. Even if the caliphate never gets near Central Asia, Central Asian fighters could play a growing role expanding its boundaries in the Middle East.