January has been a busy month for Kyrgyzstan’s security services as they tackle what they call a growing threat from militants loyal to the Islamic State. As usual, there is little evidence to support their claims and plenty of reasons to fear that heavy-handed tactics and docile judges could only make the problem worse.
On January 27 the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) snatched six alleged militants in Osh. A GKNB spokesman accused the group of planning attacks in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Four of the individuals, authorities suspect, had trained in Syria.
Just two days later Radio Azattyq reported that the GKNB had nabbed a 29-year-old man near Bishkek and accused him of sending five relatives to the Islamic State-controlled city of Raqqa in Syria. The week before, authorities in Osh arrested a 22-year-old, claiming he had spent four months in Syria. Also earlier in the month, six alleged jihadi recruiters were arrested in a series of raids across Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished south. Three women, alleged members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir – a London-based proselytizing group with no known ties to violence – were also seized, Interfax reported.
Scaremongering about IS has become an effective way to grab headlines in Central Asia, with evidence an afterthought. In Bishkek, self-appointed religious affairs expert Kadyr Malikov recently claimed that the Islamic State had allocated $70 million to plan an attack in Central Asia. He offered no evidence and, indeed, has a history of making provocative statements with little basis in reality. "The information has not been confirmed yet, but we receive signals," he contended.
Estimates on the number of Kyrgyz citizens fighting in Syria and Iraq vary widely. A recent International Crisis Group report concluded that 500 residents from Osh alone had left for Syria. The government has offered more circumspect figures, arguing that 200 Kyrgyz nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State. This week an Interior Ministry official estimated that just 23 of these individuals are ethnic Kyrgyz; the vast majority, he said, are Uzbeks. Thirty women, according to the government’s figures, are among those who have left for Syria.