A senior State Department official has downplayed the threat of Central Asian fighters joining ISIS amid heightened concerns after a high-ranking Tajikistan police official announced that he had joined the radical Islamist group.
While some Central Asians are joining the group, the vast majority are recruited outside the region, particularly as labor migrants in Russia, said Daniel Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.
"For the overwhelming majority of Central Asians, the conflict in Syria and Iraq is a distant phenomenon; it is not something they think about day-to-day. But a small minority of Central Asians have been successfully recruited by violent extremists to join the conflict," Rosenblum said .
Rosenblum was speaking at a June 11 hearing of the U.S. Congress's Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe titled"Wanted: Foreign Fighters -- The Escalating Threat of ISIL in Central Asia." In spite of that somewhat overwrought title, Rosenblum did not discuss the what threat ISIS may pose to Central Asia itself, though he did mention media reports of ISIS appearing in Afghanistan: "We have seen signs that ISIL is attempting to spread into Afghanistan, and that some Taliban groups have rebranded themselves as ISIL to attract funding and recruits. ISIL’s presence in Afghanistan is a relatively new phenomenon and it will take time to evaluate its long-term prospects."
The main driver of recruitment isn't the rising threat of radical Islam, or the poor human rights practices of Central Asian governments (probably the two most common theories put forward) but the lack of social support systems for Central Asian labor migrants in Russia, Rosenblum said:
A variety of research suggests the vast majority of Central Asian recruits are being recruited from outside the borders of Central Asia, and many come from the Russian Federation....
One key factor for migrant workers in Russia can be the lack of a positive presence of family, community, and religious leaders that, back home, would all work to prevent recruitment and radicalization to violence. Furthermore, once in Russia, Central Asian migrant workers are often subject to ghettoization. Many regularly experience discrimination, harassment, and humiliation from both the public and the authorities. The absence of mitigating factors such as social, familial and spiritual bonds together with the presence of aggravating factors such as marginalization and disenfranchisement create fertile ground for extremist recruiters. Recruiters are able to traverse migrant-labor heavy neighborhoods in Russia’s cities and use social media to find and target their quarry – isolated and lonely individuals who want to feel connected to something empowering and larger than themselves, often including individuals who were not previously religiously observant or educated.
Rosenblum also discussed the State Department's efforts to combat ISIS recruitment in Central Asia, which include two regional meetings in late June for government officials (in Astana) and civil society representatives (in Istanbul). The State Department also is supporting a number of bilateral programs in Central Asia focusing on building civil society and countering the message of radical Islam, he testified.
Rosenblum's subdued take on ISIS in Central Asia was contrasted by the two expert witnesses, Frank J. Cilluffo, director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University; and Jennifer Leonard, deputy director of the International Crisis Group. Both gave somewhat more pessimistic takes on the phenomenon.
"The foreign fighter challenge is a matter of serious concern for the U.S. and our allies. While the foreign fighter phenomena is nothing new, its present scale and scope is unprecedented," Cilluffo testified. And he said the dramatic defection of Tajikistan OMON head Gulmorod Khalimov is a worrying sign.
"I am quite concerned about Colonel Khalimov’s defection. I think that one of the key indicators, if you look at any foreign fighter flow historically, is what I refer to as bridge figures. These are people who have feet in both communities," he said. "These bridge figures are important, and I do think that his role in terms of serving as a communicator to spread propaganda should not be underestimated. Not only does he have operational capability, he’s got street creds with the folks he’s trying to influence."
Rosenblum didn't mention Khalimov in his testimony but during the question-and-answer period he was asked about that, the fact that Khalimov had received U.S. military training on several occasions, and what can be done to make sure U.S. trainees don't later join groups like ISIS. "I don’t know the answer to that, to be honest with you," Rosenblum said. "It is something that we have to think long and hard about. Something tells me that it would be very difficult, because the motivations are so complex."
While Central Asians have been discussing the subject of ISIS in the region for some time, the issue broke into the mainstream discussion with Khalimov's defection, as evidenced by this hearing. But the focus on Central Asia may be misplaced. Edward Lemon, a researcher focused on Central Asian fighters in the Middle East at the University of Exeter, told Foreign Policy in a piece published this week that European countries are proportionally sending more fighters to ISIS than is Central Asia.
“Only about 1 in every 20,000 Tajik Muslims are in Iraq and Syria. Compare that to 1 in every 1,500 Belgian Muslims who have gone to fight,” Lemon said, adding that most Central Asians who have gone to join the Islamic State are unlikely to return to Central Asia. “It’s a one-way ticket,” he said. “Central Asian jihadis are dying at an alarming rate.”