From the Ferghana Valley to Syria and Beyond: A Brief History of Central Asian Foreign Fighters

It’s no small secret that Russian-speaking militants from Central Asia are a critical element of today’s Salafi-jihadi terror threat. Religious repression, poor governance, economic hardship, political violence, and the siren call of ISIS all helped spawn a new generation of recruits and draw seasoned fighters to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. Over the past few years, terrorists from Central Asia have also struck beyond the immediate battlefield, at civilian targets in Turkey, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.

Origins of Central Asian Militancy

Long before Central Asians joined the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, they featured prominently among other violent extremist fighters in the violence-soaked landscape of South and Central Asia. Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the rise of authoritarian Central Asian states, anti-regime fighters from Central Asia cropped up to challenge these dictatorships, and to fight U.S.-led coalition forces alongside al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Best known among these is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), rising in opposition to the Uzbek regime of Islam Karimov in the 1990s. Other fighters—many from Central Asia’s restive Ferghana Valley, joined in the Tajikistan civil war from 1992-1997, while others carried off sporadic attacks in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Over time, economic conditions, corruption, and governance in Central Asia darkened while space for open political and religious expression remained virtually non-existent. This led millions of young men to seek employment in Russia and elsewhere, often in deplorable working and living conditions—but where Islamic religious tradition and influence was more readily accessible. At the same time, those who remained in Central Asia were driven underground to practice Islam and to foment resistance to totalitarian regimes.

In Russia, Central Asian workers found both economic and spiritual sustenance. Marginalized within Russian society and far from their families and other sources of moderation, some of these young men sought refuge in a more intolerant interpretation of Islam and in the reassurances of fundamentalist preachers offering guidance in the face of loneliness and hardship. Millions of Central Asian men made Russia their long-term, temporary home—unwittingly becoming a broad recruitment pool for Salafi-jihadi recruiters seeking fighters.

Meanwhile, the IMU—embattled and eventually subordinated to local and more powerful groups along the Afghan-Pakistan border—was in decline as the civil war in Syria gathered momentum in late 2011. When ISIS took Mosul, Iraq and declared a caliphate in the summer of 2014, it offered an irresistible and compelling lifeline to both veteran and aspiring fighters with little progress to show in their own region.

A Unifying Call to Battle in al-Sham

An emerging, westward movement to battle reinforced Salafi-jihadi prophesies of an eventual conflict in the Levant following one in the Khorasan—an area covering much of today’s Central Asia. Fortified with a divinely-sanctioned plan, the IMU—long an al Qaeda-affiliated group—immediately switched allegiance to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Joining the multinational, multiethnic militants operating across Syria proved only a minor challenge. Central Asian fighters slipped from one Russian-speaking facilitator to another. Beginning in Istanbul where their international flights terminated, fighters and recruits moved southward through Ankara and Gaziantep, through an open border and into the most important and dynamic jihadi battlefield. Purpose, income, and glory were now at hand for Central Asians who had experienced little or none at all.

Central Asians—roughly 2,000 in number—played roles ranging from suicide bombers to senior commanders, highlighted by Gulmurod Khalimov, a U.S.-trained leader of Tajikistan’s OMON counterterrorism police who switched sides to join ISIS. With thousands of other fighters on the battlefield speaking a common Russian language, Central Asians became part of a larger jihadist community linked across Europe, Russia, and the Middle East.

A Global Reach

But the maelstrom of Syria and Iraq would not be the only stage for Central Asia’s violent extremists. With communities across the globe, they offered ISIS an embedded network of potential suicide bombers and attackers who could heed the long-distance call to battle sounded by ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.

And strike they did, in some of the biggest media markets in the world. On Halloween eve, 2017 in New York City, the Uzbek lone-wolf, Sayfullo Saipov, drove a rented truck down a bicycle path, killing eight innocent people. A similar attack took place in Stockholm, Sweden only six months earlier, at the hands of another Uzbek, Rakhmat Akilov. Other prominent attacks attributed to Central Asians included two recent assaults in Turkey: a June 2016 Istanbul airport attack (featuring Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Russian perpetrators) and the New Year’s Eve 2016 attack on Istanbul’s Reina nightclub, carried out by an Uzbek national, Abdulkadir Masharipov. Russia itself was not spared, with an April, 2017 attack on the St. Petersburg Metro by an ethnic Uzbek who was raised in southern Kyrgyzstan.

With a broad, ethnic and linguistic network to facilitate their movement, Central Asian, Russian-speaking fighters can travel with relative ease across a geographically contiguous environment. Linked through marginalized diaspora and criminal networks, this framework enables movement and sustenance while also providing sanctuary. Authoritarian, poorly-performing governments that are inhospitable to Islam and the potential challenge it poses to regime control and legitimacy, will continue to fortify the factors pushing young men to seek membership and empowerment in Salafi-jihadi organizations.

Though fewer than 1,000 of the estimated 8,500 Russian-speaking fighters have returned to Russia or Central Asia, they do so as force multipliers—able to bring their battlefield skills to bear on regimes they have sworn to depose. These regimes—successful over the years in presenting the West with a binary choice between their “secular” governments and “terrorist groups”—will be able to cite the return of seasoned fighters as cover for the continued exclusion of alternative voices and tight control of Islamic practice—all of which has proven central to the recruitment of fighters in the first place. A vicious cycle indeed.

Thomas M. Sanderson is a senior associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Thomas M. Sanderson