Assessing the Terrorist Threat In and From Central Asia

Through an examination of the available evidence and drawing on fieldwork in the region since 2014, Edward Lemon discusses the threat posed by terrorism in the region and beyond it, in Russia, Turkey, Europe, and the US.

In the past two years, Central Asians have been involved in terrorist attacks in Istanbul, New York, St. Petersburg, and Stockholm. While we have seen more attacks by Central Asians outside the region than within it, in August four tourists were killed in an Islamic State-inspired attack in southern Tajikistan. This was the first attack credibly linked to IS in the region. Some have been quick to label Central Asia as a growing “hotbed” of Islamic extremism and exporter of terrorism. Returning fighters from Syria and Iraq, spillovers from Afghanistan, and “homegrown” terrorists are all framed as threats to the region. Yet assessing the threat remains difficult, due in no small part to the way the governments of the region manipulate it in order to consolidate their power.


Edward Lemon

Dr Edward Lemon is the DMGS-Kennan Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. He was previously a Mellon Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University. He earned his PhD in international studies from the University of Exeter in 2016. In his research, he examines terrorism, authoritarian governance, religion, security, and migration in Eurasia. He is currently writing a book on transnational repression and counter-extremism in Tajikistan. Since 2009, he has spent almost three years working and conducting fieldwork in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Poland.

Presentation by Dr. Edward Lemon on September 27, 2018


Today’s question that I’ve been addressing in recent research is: how do we measure the threat of terrorism within Central Asia and the threat of terrorism beyond Central Asia, like by Central Asians in the diaspora? In July 2018, five young men from Tajikistan appeared on a video that was posted by Amaq, which is Islamic State’s media outlet. In the video, speaking in broken Russian, they proclaimed their allegiance to al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, and criticized the government of Tajikistan and stated their intention to conduct attacks within Tajikistan. A few days later, they took two cars, ran over four cyclists—Western tourists from Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United States—and killed them with the car and knife attack.

This was an attack that was significant for Central Asia for at least two reasons. First, it was the first attack targeting Western tourists in the region. Previously, there had been hostage-takings by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan during its incursion in 1999-2000. There had been attacks targeting the Israeli and U.S. embassies in Tashkent and Uzbekistan in 2004. And there’d been certain other killings and hostage-takings in Tajikistan in the tail end of the civil war. But this was the first attack specifically targeting Western tourists within the region.

Second, it’s important because it was the first attack that’s been credibly linked to ISIS. The video that was posted two days after the attack showed that there’d been some sort of communication between members of ISIS and the attackers in the run-up to the attack. As I’m going to talk about today in the first half of the presentation, this really moved beyond, and went against, the general trend of terrorist attacks that we’ve seen within the Central Asian region so far.

Central Asia has also hit headlines for reasons and links to terrorism involving Central Asians beyond the region. On the left, we have Sayfullo Saipov, who conducted an attack on Halloween in October 2017 in New York, killing eight people, just meters from the World Trade Center, the most significant attack in New York since 9/11. We also have photos of Akbar Jalilov, on the right, who in April 2017 conducted an attack—was accused of conducting an attack killing 14 people on the new St. Petersburg subway.

At the bottom we have Abdulkadir Masharipov, from Uzbekistan, who is accused of New Year’s Day 2017, of conducting, attacking the Reina Nightclub in Istanbul. Up at the top we have Rakhmat Akilov, also from Uzbekistan, who is accused of conducting an attack in Stockholm in April 2017. Down here on the left, we have Gulmurod Khalimov, who is the former head of OMON in Tajikistan, who spectacularly defected to ISIS in May 2015.

Each of the times these attacks have occurred, we’ve heard how the region is becoming an exporter of terrorism, how it shows that it’s becoming a hotbed of extremism, and that it’s becoming a new producer of foreign fighters and terrorists and become a global threat.

My presentation today forms part of a number of publications. One is a report that’s being published by Harvard’s Belfer Center by Russia Matters, which is an organization within Harvard’s Belfer Center. That really looks at the threat beyond the region from Central Asians. As part of that report, initially, I was tasked with looking at the threat of terrorism within Central Asia and the elements that were then edited out of this report are going to become part of a new Kennan Cable published by the Kennan Institute. Hopefully, both of those reports will be coming out in the coming weeks.

Third, part of my presentation, I’m going to talk a little bit about the causes of terrorism and extremism within the region, published in various places, most recently in the Harriman magazine, published by the Harriman Institute where I was a fellow, a Postdoctoral fellow, up until recently.

What I’m talking about today is really a response to a potential criticism of work like mine, which was leveled by Anna Matveeva and Antonio Guistozzi in a recent peer-reviewed journal article. They criticized scholars such as myself, who’ve been critical toward the level of the terrorist threat within Central Asia. They, using largely interviews with security services, government officials, and some civil society representatives, said that, “Well, no, the threat is much more significant than we are giving it credit for. It’s the reality that cannot be ignored.”

In doing so, they criticize the work of myself and others who’ve claimed that the threat is being manipulated, it’s being scripted and spun by the governments. I think making the argument that the threat is being manipulated doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. I think this is maybe where some critics of our work have misread.

In claiming that the radical Islamic threat in Central Asia is a myth, as David Montgomery and John Heathershaw did in a publication for Chatham House a number of years ago, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Bullets are real. People have been killed as a result of political violence within the region. But at the same time, we cannot ignore the way that the threat itself is being manipulated.

So, taking that as my cue, I looked back and looked at the terrorist attacks that have occurred within the region over the past 10 years, 2008 to 2018. Taking the longer view, initially I thought, “Well, I’ll use the START, the terrorist database published by the University of Maryland. According to that, since 1970, just 0.001% of terrorist attacks around the world occurred within Central Asia. But then I realized the number of attacks that are contained within this START database weren’t really acts of terrorism. Some things were missed, some things were included.

I decided to develop my own data set, as I’m going to talk about today. In terms of the foreign fighters, if 2,000 to 4,000 Central Asians have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, that makes up just 0.0001% of the region’s population. Based on my definition of terrorism, which is quite expansive and includes acts that have been initiated by non-state actors that have been labeled as terrorist groups.

It excludes counter-terrorism operations, but it includes attacks and violent acts that have been attributed to a variety of actors, including groups that potentially do not have such viable links to terrorism, such as the murder of the head of the GKNB (the security services) in Khorog in July 2012 by supporters of Tolib Ayombekov, a local commander, and the murder of 12 people in Almaty in August 2012, which the authorities blamed on an extremist religious group of unknown origin.

Even if we take such a broad definition, I’ve identified only 18 terrorist attacks in the region since 2008. Now, these terrorist attacks have occurred in Astana, in 2011. You can see from the graphic, a number of them have occurred obviously in Kazakhstan, some in Tajikistan. They include attacks and violent instances in Khorog in the Pamir, an ambush in Kamarob in 2010 where 25 soldiers from Tajikistan were killed. It’s part of the conflict there, what the government of Tajikistan is claiming to be a coup attempt in 2015 by a former Deputy Defense Minister. Obviously, most recently the attack in Danghara in southern Tajikistan. A range of different attacks across the region, but only 18 in total.

Since 2008, according to this dataset, 142 individuals have died as a result of terrorist attacks. The vast majority have been members of the law enforcement bodies of the country. These have been a disproportionate number of targets within these attacks, as I mentioned—further evidence that the recent attack in Tajikistan broke with this norm. And 49 of the casualties that I include in that 142 are members of the terrorist group themselves. The 23 civilian casualties, with the exception of the four who were killed in southern Tajikistan in July, were oftentimes collateral damage. Oftentimes they died because they got in the way, and there was limited evidence that they were being targeted directly by these efforts. Half of the incidents occurred in the region’s most prosperous country, Kazakhstan, but half of the deaths have occurred in Tajikistan.

What are the common features of these attacks? What can we identify as the overarching themes that we see in these 18 attacks in the last 10 years?

As I said before, almost all of them have targeted law enforcement agencies, the security services, the police, and the military. Now, I think there are two ways in which these terrorist attacks are related in the state. Specifically, in the case of Tajikistan, a number of the violent incidents—as we’ve seen most recently in Dushanbe and Vahdat in 2015, also in Khorog, in the Pamirs, and in the Rasht Valley in 2009 and 2011—involved individuals who’d been incorporated into the state as part of a peace-building process initiated after the end of the civil war. But then they lost their positions within the state through this process that John Heathershaw and Parviz Mullodjanov have called “authoritarian conflict management”.

They were incorporated into the state, they were given the benefits of being incorporated into the state, such as access to various illicit revenues, shall we say. And then they were pushed out of the state. As a result of being pushed out of the state, they reacted violently and this drove the political violence that we’ve seen in the country.

In the case of many of the attacks in Kazakhstan, we’ve seen people who’ve been disgruntled with the police and security services. Ruslan Kulikbayev, who shot three policemen and a civilian in Almaty in July 2016, was reportedly radicalized whilst in prison, and he claimed the attack was an act of revenge against law enforcement officials who had tortured him and his brothers, in a religious sense rather than the literal sense.

Rahimjan Makhatov, who blew himself up in Kazakhstan’s first suicide bombing on May the 17th, 2011, was also reportedly acting in protest of the government’s restrictive religious laws and abuse of prisoners. Oftentimes we see individuals, many whom have links to organized criminal groups who have actively targeted law enforcement as a result of being disgruntled with them—most recently in the case of the Aktobe shootings in Aktobe, Kazakhstan, 2016. That’s the first theme, the idea that law enforcement agencies have been predominant targets of this.

Secondly, as the map indicates, most of the attacks have occurred in peripheral areas. They’ve occurred predominantly in Kazakhstan’s western area, in Aktobe, in Atyrau; in areas like Taraz in 2011, where there was a mass shooting. And in the case of Tajikistan in peripheral areas such as the Pamir and the Rasht Valley areas that we traditionally associated with the opposition. Potentially, there is a link here with core-peripheral relations and the disproportionate level of economic development within the country.

The third theme or feature that we’ve seen across most of the attacks within Central Asia in the past 10 years is: although some of the attacks have had some link to transnational jihadist movements, most of the attacks that have occurred within the region appeared—[and] most of the attackers appeared—to have limited links to transnational Islamist movements. Some of the attacks were low morph attacks by self-radicalized individuals, such as the Almaty government Kulikbayev. Maksat Kariev, who killed seven people in a series of attacks, shooting attacks, in Taraz in December 2011, also fits this profile.

A number of other attacks have occurred by individuals who’ve been inspired by jihadists’ propaganda, but without receiving direct orders, from what we can officially have, direct orders from an external group. That seems to be, potentially according to the Kazakh government, the count of events. The case in the shootings in Aktobe in June 2016, when a number of militants or number of terrorists robbed two gun shops, 16 individuals in total attacked an army base. Nazarbayev, after that, said they’d been inspired by ISIS to conduct those attacks, although with limited evidence for this.

The fourth point is that all these attacks have been sporadic, they’ve been short-lived, and they’ve been relatively disorganized. Very occasionally—almost in most cases the attackers haven’t made any specific demands. They haven’t stated what their goals were, and when they have, such as in the case of the attackers in Tajikistan in July 2018, they’ve been rather vague in their professed aims. Even though after each attack we’ve said, well, this is a new precedent, this is going to happen again and again, what we’ve seen is not a dramatic increase in the number of terrorist attacks.

In fact, when you look back at the number of terrorist attacks following the same definition for the previous decade, so 1998 to 2008, you see a very similar number of casualties, I think, 145 as opposed to 142. We haven’t seen that ramping-up of the terrorist threat. Also, we’re considering that this has also been something that we’ve been talking about for 30 or 40 years now, if you read the obviously logical accounts of various specialists on this during the Soviet Union, there was this idea that of course the main threat to the Soviet Union would come from the Sufi Brotherhoods, that and the clandestine networks of Sufis who would actually overthrow—cause the collapse of—the Soviet Union. Obviously, that didn’t transpire. I think we need to be rather realistic in assessing the actual level of threat within the country.

In terms of the threat, the other two threats that are talked about in terms of the threat within Central Asia: the threat of returning foreign fighters and the threat of spillovers from Afghanistan. We’re also seeing a relatively limited picture. Taking the upper estimates, these are the estimates of each country. The upper estimates, they’re a mixture of government figures, estimates from groups like the Soufan Group, we obviously have between, I think, 2,300 … 4,300 individuals who’ve gone to Syria and Iraq.

What are the scenarios, what is going to happen to these individuals now that the caliphate is potentially on the downturn?

Well, for many of them it was a one-way trip, and they’ve been killed. Obviously, figures from Islamic State itself indicated that Tajik citizens were the number-one suicide bombers in terms of being used by Islamic State. According to government figures, at least 800 of these individuals have been killed. That would leave—along with the fact that the second scenario, 300 from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have now returned (some have faced prosecution, others have faced amnesty) that would leave somewhere in the region of 1000 to 3000 individuals who are either still in Iraq or have moved on to other areas. An undisclosed number are also in prison, primarily in Iraq. Don’t have precise figures on that.

The third scenario is moving to a third country. We have seen some evidence, and this is a part of another chapter in the report that I’m involved with at Harvard’s Belfer Center—will be tracked by Vera Mironova. She’s spent time in Ukraine, interviewing Russian-speaking former foreign fighters. Some of those individuals, from speaking to her, have given up their desire to fight: they’re jaded, they’re tired, they’re disillusioned with what they saw in Syria and Iraq. But some of them are lying low and waiting to potentially move to another battlefield or to conduct attacks within Europe. That’s certainly another scenario we could see play out.

The fourth is the move of these individuals to another battlefield, the historical case of the Afghan Arabs torn around to different theaters, applying their trade, so to speak. What evidence do we have that Central Asian fighters are moving to Afghanistan? Given this—its geographical proximity and linguistic affinities with Central Asia make it a logical destination for ex-fighters and new recruits. It obviously shares a 2,300-kilometer border with Central Asia.

This is something we’ve been hearing in the media relatively frequently. I’m not an expert on Afghanistan, so I won’t talk in too much detail about what’s going on. But theoretically, Islamic State has had a declared presence in Afghanistan for the past four years. Should be more appealing to Central Asians than the Taliban’s, because it has a professed ideology and desire to expand north into post-Soviet Central Asia. Since declaring its presence in Afghanistan, we’ve seen it move beyond its initial base in Nangarhar down on the border with Pakistan, up to Badakhshan on the border with Tajikistan, more recently Jowzjan. Although now there are reports as of August that that contingent in Jowzjan, which is on the border with Turkmenistan, have now been defeated by ISKP.

There’s a lot of debate over the amount of strength of ISKP, Islamic State in Khorasan Province. Afghan officials put the number at three thousand. If you read the Russian-language media, you’re talking about figures in the 10,000s or more. It’s very difficult to ascertain their real strength within the country.

Afghan authorities believe that 100 fighters entered the country to join ISKP in the first six months of 2017. We have seen some reports and videos coming out that Uzbek fighters had transferred from Syria to fight in Afghanistan. We have seen some evidence that some Tajiks have been diverted. They couldn’t go to Syria and Iraq because the border with Turkey was closed. They were diverted by Iran across the border into Afghanistan.

The president of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, says that the dozens of such individuals, at least within the media, nine cases of Tajiks entering Afghanistan by or around have been reported in the last year or so. We’re seeing some diversion, some individuals moving from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan. Some people being diverted to Afghanistan, rather than to Syria and Iraq, but certainly when compared with the number of recruits at the height of recruitment to Islamic State, in 2014-2015 we’re not talking very significant numbers.

We are seeing an increase in the number of violent border incidents. This is based on the official figures from the border guards of Tajikistan. You see, from a figure of 14 in 2011, violent incidents, you see at peak, at 31 last year. You are seeing an uptick in the number of border incidents, and in some way is linked to the movement of the Taliban and Islamic State. Up to the border with Tajikistan strengthening their presence there, particularly after the U.S. scaling back its forces within Afghanistan from 2014 onwards.

Many of these skirmishes are linked to small-scale drug trafficking. There have been a limited number of armed incursions. As is the case with all of these attacks and incidents within Central Asia, oftentimes there are conflicting reports; oftentimes the government prevents journalists and independent observers from visiting and trying to get a more independent account of what’s happened. That’s the perennial challenge with the study of terrorism within the region. That’s three facets of the terrorist threat within the region. All of which point to a threat that exists undoubtedly, but in some ways has been overexaggerated by a number of actors when you actually look at the data, as I’ve presented it today.

What about the threat beyond the region?

Significant Central Asian diasporas exist, primarily in Russia where there are two to four million, three to five million, an undisclosed number of Central Asians living primarily as labor migrants but sometimes as dual citizens and permanent residents. There are also significant diaspora migrant communities in Turkey, where there are 100,000 to 200,000 Central Asians living, and in the United States, where there are approximately 250,000. Also in Europe, where there are somewhere in the region of under 100,000.

As I pointed to in one of the first slides, some of these individuals—a small number—have been involved in a number of violent attacks. These violent attacks since 2017 actually killed more people than all of those attacks in the past decade within Central Asia. So potentially, looking beyond the region, we are looking at a more significant threat.

Attacks have been carried out by two—broadly speaking, two—different types of Central Asians living abroad. Some of them have acted on orders after direct contact with terrorist organizations, representatives primarily from Islamic State. Rakhmat Akilov, who was a Stockholm truck attacker in April 2017, according to the indictment by the Swedish government, had stated that he’d been in contact with no fewer than 30 Islamic fighters in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan prior to the attack, one of whom had Tajik citizenship and had taken a role in mentoring him and preparing him for that attack. So we have seen people who’ve specifically been in contact with Islamic State or other terrorist organizations.

The second, there are individuals like Sayfullo Saipov who were self-radicalized. They were exposed to jihadist propaganda, but the evidence that we have indicates that they didn’t have any specific contact by messaging or online communication with any members or supporters of a terrorist organization. As I said, the number of casualties as a result of these varying attacks is actually—can be more than the number of casualties within the region itself.

The final question, linked to this, if we’re going to assess the threat of terrorism within Central Asia, we have a number of ways we can attempt to do that. It’s never going to be precise science, and I think we need to be reflexive about the limits of the knowledge we can really have about these issues. But we can obviously look at the historical record and what’s changing within the region to try and make certain statements about what the threat’s been like or how the threat may develop in the future. We can also look at the drivers of radicalization and extremist recruitment, which is what I’ll briefly talk about to end on.

Each individual’s pathway to terrorist organization is different. Catchall explanations of recruitment fail to capture these complex dynamics. I think it’s important to recognize the experience of those living in the diaspora, who decide to conduct an attack in that place of residence. Those remaining in Central Asia, those living as migrants in Russia who make the decision to travel to Syria and Iraq, these are all very different decisions. They take different levels of commitment, levels of planning. We need to approach them with that. We’ll approach these issues with that in mind.

Generally, research conducted by myself, people like Noah Tucker, Emil Nasritdinov, the group from RUSI [The Royal United Services Institute], the think tank in London. The survey and ethnographic and other data collection that we’ve had on this process of radicalization have pointed to the fact that factors such as poverty and lack of education and, importantly, high levels of religiosity seem to play a limited role. We have numerous reports of recruits, and those who’ve been susceptible to recruitment come from highly educated backgrounds, middle-class backgrounds; not all of them are in poverty, not all of them are naïve and lacking in education.

I think there are a number of broad generalizations that don’t apply in every case by all means, that have emerged from the knowledge and the research that we have so far. First is that very few of the recruits, from the evidence that we have, have any formal religious training. What we’re seeing seems to be similar to what Oliver Roy has observed in the case of European jihadists and recruits to Islamic State: not a radicalization of Islam where ideology seems to play a very important role, but an Islamization of radicalism.

What we see is recruits who don’t oftentimes—from the reports from their family members, those who’ve returned to be amnestied in places like Tajikistan…Most times, they didn’t have a religious upbringing, they didn’t have formal religious training. They very quickly rediscover Islam, rapidly embracing this simplistic takfiri narrative, that there’s good and there’s evil, there are good guys and bad guys, and we need to kill the bad guys. Their lack of religious knowledge and real comprehension of what Islam is really about makes them more susceptible to such simplistic narratives. That’s one of the takeaways that we have. Very few of them really have undergone advanced religious training. Most embrace religion quickly and radicalize rather quickly.

The second takeaway from this research is that experiences of personal injustice, either at the hands of governments within the region, at the hands of police and law enforcement… I know that’s something that Noah Tucker came across a lot in his focus groups in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan… These negative experiences at the hands of the police and law enforcement seem to be important in pushing certain individuals toward extremist groups.

Experiences with corruption, experiences with governance in general, and/ or with the misuse of governance within the region seem to be important. But it’s not only about relations to governance within the region. For a lot of individuals, from the profiles that we have, they’ve often had a sense of personal failure. Their job didn’t work out; they migrated to Russia expecting to have a certain life and it didn’t work out for them; their marriage is broken down; they experience stigmatization and personal and social problems—all of which made them more vulnerable to recruitment.

When I was living in Moscow, in early 2015 really, at the height of the extremist recruitment, I was with some Tajik labor migrants I knew who were constructing the Spartak Stadium for the World Cup in Moscow earlier this year. They told me the story of Nasim, and his story typifies a lot of the stories that we’ve heard through the research that we have on Central Asian recruitment. Nasim arrived in Moscow in 2013 … this is the words from my field-wide notes based on what his friends said about him … He was a smart guy; spoke Russian, good Russian; wanted to find a good job, but he couldn’t. He ended up in construction. In 2014, he went and married a girl from his village back in Tajikistan. But soon he came back. The marriage was not good; he became angry and bitter, and when the recruiters came, he found their promises attractive.

He never prayed before or talked about religion, but now he talked about jihad. One day he disappeared, the next thing we heard was in Syria. His story is relatively typical of someone who didn’t have a religious background, who had some sense of personal failure, personal injustice, who ended up being attracted to an extremist group.

I think it’s important not to just think about the push factors. There are also certain pull factors. When one has experienced injustice or personal failure, the messaging coming from groups like Islamic State to Central Asians is often quite positive. It’s offering them a sense of meaning, a sense of identity, individual fulfillment. These heroic images of jihadists living together, being given a wage, being offered a welfare system, adventure, brotherhood, can be quite attractive to individuals who are disillusioned, such as Nasim.

The third broad conclusion from the research that we have, something again that Noah has found in his research and I found in my work on Tajikistan, is that networks matter. This is a general conclusion and one of the few agreements that emerged from our research on radicalization in general. We have a lot of cases in Central Asia of people being recruited through social networks, insofar as they knew someone personally who had been recruited to extremist groups. You have cases in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan of entire villages, family networks, standing family networks being recruited, because one of them or a few of them fell under the influence of recruiters.

The fourth broad takeaway is that migration itself is not a cause or a variable. A lot of people have talked about the way in which the majority of Central Asians have been recruited as labor migrants. Generally, the data that we have indicates that that’s often the case, though less the case according to Emil’s research on Kyrgyzstan. Migration itself is not a causal variable. I think the migrant experience and being a migrant in Russia maybe explains more how people get recruited because it’s easier for those recruitment networks to exist in places like Moscow—big cities and other areas in Russia. But it doesn’t really explain why. Realistically, really, radicalization is dynamic, it’s not linear, it’s transnational. Difficult to say whether someone who was recruited became vulnerable before or after migration. Oftentimes it is experiences across a long period of time that make them vulnerable to recruitment.

What are the key takeaways from my presentation today?

Well, first, that the terrorist threat within Central Asia itself has been relatively limited since the countries gained independence from the Soviet Union. In the last 10 years, as I’ve talked about, there were 19 terrorist attacks, resulting in 142 casualties. Just put that into perspective, at the same time in Kyrgyzstan alone, over 11,000 people died in broad traffic accidents. That’s just in Kyrgyzstan. Almost 100 times more casualties than were the result of terrorist attacks within the region. I think that puts it into perspective, the level of threat that we’re talking about.

As I said, it’s a threat that needs to be taken seriously and needs to be engaged with by policymakers, but it’s also a threat that’s been manipulated and exaggerated by a variety of actors pursuing a variety of interests. When we have seen terrorist attacks within the region, or attacks that have been labeled as terrorism, as I’ve mentioned, most of those attacks have been really linked to local political dynamics, local political struggles, more so than international or transnational Islamist movements.

There have been some spillovers, on the border with Afghanistan, for example, especially in the last few years as the Taliban and other militant groups strengthened their presence in northern Afghanistan, but thus far we haven’t seen mass incursions of militants or mass spillovers from Afghanistan into Central Asia. The threat within Central Asia itself has remained relatively limited.

I think the greatest dangers, the greatest threats going forward with regards to terrorism, organized violence within the region, are the sort of attacks that we saw in July in Tajikistan. Individuals who are radicalized in person or online, either in Central Asia or more likely abroad, who then decide to conduct attacks with simple weapons such as knives, vehicles, or guns—weapons that are easy to get hold of. Such attacks are much more difficult to interdict—to prevent—for security services and law enforcement within the region, because they don’t involve crossing multiple international borders in the way that becoming a foreign fighter does. They often take a limited amount of planning and coordination between different parties. These sort of attacks are difficult to prevent and do pose an, albeit limited, threat going forward.

What is probably more likely to cause mass casualties is the sort of violence we’ve seen in the country so far: violence around ethnic tensions, violence linked to local political struggles such as the situation currently in the Gornyi-Badakhshan in the east of Tajikistan, in which the government is seeking to wrest control from a number of former commanders who continue to play a key role in the local political economy around smuggling across the border with Afghanistan. These sort of dynamics, in which the state tries to crack down on local opposition groups, have often produced the greatest amount of violence within Central Asia, and I think it’s these local political struggles that will continue to have the potential to cause violence within the region.

Also, the dynamics of authoritarian governance in the region, as we’ve already discussed, pose certain threats to the stability of the region. We’ve seen from the research conducted by myself, conducted through Radio Free Europe by Noah Tucker and his colleagues, and by Emil Nasritdinov sitting in the back. Much of the focus group and interview research on countering violent extremism within Central Asia points to the role of corruption, the role of negative interactions with law enforcement, and the role of specific repressive practices adapted by local authorities, as key drivers, key reasons that certain individuals have joined extremist groups. I think what has caused a greater amount of violence, a greater amount of casualties, is, of course, the authoritarian governments in the region themselves, whose repressive practices have resulted in thousands of casualties over the past 27 years of independence, far more casualties than terrorism has caused. I think we need to flip the question in that way.

Just to conclude, I think we also need to shift our attention. Why are we focusing on the 0.005% of Central Asians who’ve joined terrorist groups and carried out attacks, causing, as we’ve said, 142 casualties? Why are we focusing on that when there’s a more interesting question around why the remaining 99.995% of Central Asians have remained quiescent despite the difficulties they face? I think really, we’re already seeing a move toward this in the “countering violent extremism” community.

Really, we need to focus not so much on the drivers of radicalization, but the drivers and causes of resilience in communities. Look to the ways in which certain communities have their own practices their own mechanisms, often that exist organically, independently of the state, independently of external interventions. That have the opportunity and the ability to mitigate recruitment, radicalization, potentially conflict. I think we need to look at the 99.995% rather than the 0.005% percent that we’ve been focusing on thus far. Anyway, thank you all for coming today and listening to me speak about this important topic.

All photos and data by
Edward Lemon


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