Central Asia has long been considered part of Russia’s footprint, not least because several million Russian-speaking people — mostly in Kazakhstan (3,644,529), Kyrgyzstan (364,600) and Uzbekistan (650,000) — share a sense of belonging to its culture and history. However, this is not the only reason Moscow is paying attention to events in Central Asia. The region’s states are Russia’s close neighbors, and the security challenges they face affect Moscow’s national interests.
On March 15, Russian media reported that a terrorist attack planned for International Women’s Day on March 8 was prevented in the capital. Izattilo M., a 23-year-old citizen of Tajikistan who had earlier joined ISIS in Syria, was to be a trigger-man. He was detained when he arrived in Moscow by air from Turkey, and Russian security services are now hunting for his accomplices and a so-call sleeper cell that was to provide Izattilo M. with explosives.
According to intelligence data, such sleeper cells are based in Russian regions not only with predominantly Muslim populations, but Christian as well. Their numbers are increasing as ISIS fighters return from Syria — a process that gains momentum following defeats suffered by the terrorist group. Adding to the threat are well-trained terrorists who recruit supporters among migrant workers from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan who go to Russia to work but fail to integrate into society.
Russia’s national security is also threatened by destabilization in neighboring Central Asian countries since the region is a buffer between the Russian Federation and Islamist fighters. To be blunt, there are serious concerns as to whether Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, given varying degrees of effectiveness and preparedness of law-enforcement agencies, are capable today of adequately addressing the terrorist threat from Afghanistan. It is not the Taliban per se that poses a real threat to Central Asian countries. The movement is not interested in expanding beyond Afghanistan — in particular, to Central Asia.
Afghanistan is an ISIS staging ground
Some analysts say Afghanistan represents one of the key goals for ISIS because the militant group can use the country as a staging ground to expand its influence to neighboring Central Asian republics, primarily Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It should be noted that ISIS has far-reaching plans to establish the Khorasan province, which would span Afghanistan, Pakistan, part of Central Asia and Eastern Iran.
Moscow can’t ignore this. In late February, President Vladimir Putin toured Central Asia, making stops in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. During his visit, Putin said Russia would strengthen the armed forces of Kyrgyzstan within the Collective Security Treaty Organization. He also signaled that Kyrgyzstan benefits from the presence of the Russian military base in Kant, a northern Kyrgyz town.
“As soon as Kyrgyzstan says it has made its armed forces strong enough and does not need the base anymore, we will take our leave the same day,” Putin said following negotiations with his Kyrgyz counterpart, President Almazbek Atambayev. Putin also noted that the military base was established at the request of the then-leadership of Kyrgyzstan after the country suffered a terrorist attack.
Indeed, in the 2000s Kyrgyzstan became the most unstable country in Central Asia. Add to that the historically complex situation in the Fergana Valley, where a terrorist network is active and enjoys the support of Islamists from neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In 1999, Uzbek authorities began construction of a barrier along the country’s border with Kyrgyzstan for the purpose of preventing terrorist incursions. That decision was prompted by bomb attacks in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, carried out by Islamist terrorists from Kyrgyzstan.
ISIS fighters penetrate Russia as migrant labor
As of today, intelligence agencies say about 500 Kyrgyz citizens have left for Syria to fight for ISIS, some of whom have returned home or are expected to. This is a matter of concern for Moscow since Kyrgyzstan is becoming one of the main channels for the ISIS militants to penetrate Russia in the guise of labor migrants.
There is also evidence of growing radicalization in segments of Kyrgyzstan’s population. As the International Crisis Group put it, since the end of the Soviet era, Islam has become a central element in the country’s public life. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the number of mosques has increased to more than 2,300 from 39. At the same time, Islam and politics have been increasingly intersecting, causing political polarization. Most notably, some socially marginalized Kyrgyz have been involved in radical versions of Islam. Religious extremism is today largely localized in the country’s south, notably, in the Osh, Batken and Jalal-Abad regions.
Combating terrorism requires a multifaceted approach, including tackling social and economic issues. Meanwhile, one of the key criteria is the state’s capacity to ensure security and effective law enforcement. Armed incursions of radical militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan into southern Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000 are telling and represent a threat that must be averted. That is why a stronger Central Asia will be a real benefit to its neighbors.