How The Islamic State Operates in Central Asia

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On March 22, the largest terrorist attack in Russia in the last 20 years struck Crocus City Hall near Moscow. The international terrorist organization "Islamic State", banned in Kazakhstan, claimed responsibility. Orda.kz has learned about recruiting for the unit allegedly responsible for the tragedy at Crocus.

Experts believe that the IS branch in Central and South Asia — Islamic State – Khorasan Province, i.e. ISKP, is behind the terrorist attack. It was created for operations in Afghanistan and neighboring countries, as well as for future expansion into Iran, India, Central Asia, and the republics of the former Soviet Union.

Deutsche Welle describes the ISKP as one of the most violent Islamic State Branches. It was founded in 2014 by former members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Since 2015, they have killed thousands of people in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The group's name refers to the historical Khorasan region, which includes the current territories of Iran, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. ISKP's scope and vision extend much further, however. The group adheres to a militant interpretation of jihadism.

Before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent Taliban takeover, the US military actively fought the ISKP, neutralizing many of its leaders. Upon the United States' departure, ISKP increased its activities, creating additional training camps and expanding international networks. The Taliban is unable to constrain the group, and attacks on ethnic and religious minorities in Afghanistan have become more regular.

ISKP is reportedly responsible for the terrorist attack in the Iranian city of Kerman on January 3, 2024, which killed 95 people. The tragedy in Moscow's Crocus City Hall claimed the lives of at least 143 people. The reason for this may be Russian military operations in predominately muslim countries, i.g. Chechnya, and Moscow's close ties with both Iran and Syria along with attempts to establish ties with the Taliban - ISKP's rival.

After the fall of Kabul, ISKP began spreading its messages around the world in more languages according to The Diplomat. ISKP has thereby expanded its reach beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In an interview with Mediazona Central Asia, Russian expert in Asian and Islamic Studies and Afghanistan, Andrei Serenko, noted that the roots of the group are in Pakistan. The planners of the terrorist attacks were trained by the Haqqani Network, the de-facto Afghan branch of Pakistan's interagency intelligence. The expert says that this explains the competency in the attacks.

The people there are professionals, they were trained in their time in the Pakistani special services, they were carefully taken care of and are still being taken care of, in fact, to this day. Therefore, the part of the IG that is responsible for planning operations has a very good school, very good teachers, Serenko sums up.

ISKP launched missile strikes against Uzbekistan in April 2022 and Tajikistan in May of the same year. Meanwhile, the group has launched operations in Central Asian countries to recruit people from various communities. ISKP disseminates propaganda in the Tajik and Uzbek languages and translates original materials into them. The group has introduced a wing of its propaganda apparatus - Al-Azaim Tajiki.

 Another wing, Khuroson Ovozi, publishes content in Uzbek and actively recruits people from Central Asia.

Al-Azaim has also expanded its production of materials in several languages: Pashto, Dari, Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Uzbek, Tajik, Hindi, Malayalam, Russian, English, and sometimes Uyghur. Al-Azaim employs different platforms, including Telegram, Facebook, TikTok, etc.

The Guardian, citing Western and other intelligence agencies, writes that in 2023, the Islamic State launched a large-scale campaign to recruit fighters from Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries. Over the past 12 months, ISIS has successfully recruited the top militants of Jamaat Ansarullah, a terrorist group founded under the leadership of a native of Tajikistan.

In recent years, special services have detained citizens of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan who were reportedly ISKP members planning to carry out terrorist attacks in European countries.

Kazakhstan does not have a publicly available list of citizens recruited by the Islamic State. However, indirect evidence points to the figure approaching a thousand. By 2018, about 800 citizens of Kazakhstan had left for Syria and Iraq, most of whom were children, according to KNB data. Last autumn, the Ulytau court handed down a six-year sentence to a Kazakhstani man who joined IS. There have been other similar trials in Kazakhstan

In early March, the KNB reported that the FSB had eliminated two Kazakhstanis preparing a terrorist attack in Moscow. The Islamic State has been on the list of terrorist organizations banned in Kazakhstan since October 2015.

The Economist has reported that about 4,000 militants from Central Asia have joined the terrorists in Iraq and Syria. After the Caliphate lost 90% of its territory in 2017, many returned home. The ISKP is actively attempting to recruit them.

According to Andrei Serenko, in Russia, ISIS recruits people mainly from Central Asia, primarily citizens of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. There are also Kazakhstanis among those recruited. Recruitment operations with potential militants are conducted through migrant labor communities on social networks and messengers.

In an interview with the New York Times, Colin P. Clark, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group consulting firm, said that the vast majority of ISKP members are of Central Asian origin.

NYT spoke with a senior representative of Western intelligence, who named three main factors that allow the ISKP to carry out new attacks: the existence of dormant cells in Europe, the situation around the Gaza Strip, and the support of Russian-speaking people living in Europe.

Meanwhile, Serenko says that Russian Russian-speaking Tajiks, Turkmens, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Chechens, Tatars, Russians, Dagestanis, Ingush, and other natives of the post-Soviet space are a significant part of the ISKP militants.

The expert believes that the upcoming Olympic Games to be held in France will be a test for Europe. Serenko is sure that ISKP could attempt to demonstrate its capabilities. His concern is shared by Middle East and counterterrorism expert, Edmund Fitton-Brown. He believes that the Olympic Games "would be a premium target for terrorists."

Original Author: Mansur Khabarov

* ISIS is a banned organization in Kazakhstan

DISCLAIMER: This isa translated piece. The text has been modified, the content is the same. Please refer to the original piece in Russian for accuracy. The text has been updated to reflect the current situation. The article was originally published on 26/03/24.

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