Central Asia. (Credit: fpdress/Bigstock)
Central Asia. (Credit: fpdress/Bigstock) (via: bit.ly)

The countries of Central Asia have not been immune to the global forces that have been stimulating religiously inspired violence, as some of its citizens participate in international jihadist groups while others have committed locally organised terrorist actions. But at the same time, none of these countries have demonstrated that they are at profound or disproportionate risk, one which well-trained national and local security forces would be incapable of countering. And this is true even of those Central Asian states that border on Afghanistan.

The rise of religiously-inspired terrorism is an unfortunate fact of life for the international community today, but it shouldn’t be a source of intemperate decision-making on the part of governments, as efforts at prevention and ‘cure’ can create new risks and greater harm than the conditions that they are trying to address.

So far, policy-makers in Central Asia have failed to find strategies that can both effectively identify and neutralise terrorists before they strike. One of the main reasons for this is that they are trying to do too much. They have not been content to merely identify, monitor, and arrest individuals who have had international terrorist training, and any other home grown groups who might have acquired the means to launch terrorist acts. Instead, they have ventured into the danger-fraught area of “prevention,” seeking to exert much greater control over religious activities within their countries, and have engaged in costly programs designed to “de-radicalise” at-risk populations. Such de-radicalisation programs, while a potential boon for the “specialists” employed by them, are of unproven benefit, while restrictions on religious practice may not only violate the international human rights of the citizens of these countries, but they can also serve as a source of radicalisation fostering various forms of political opposition that governments are seeking to reduce or eliminate.

Young people in these countries, particularly where international travel is easiest, have been recruited to fight in the Middle East, while some continue to go to Afghanistan/Pakistan, though in much smaller numbers than in the turbulent days of the early and mid-1990s. Those travelling to prime terrorist training destinations are far fewer than the dire predictions that some have made, and their numbers remain within tolerable limits – tolerable meaning small enough that the security services in these countries should be able to identify and arrest them upon return, or identify and arrest them as potential terrorists at home by monitoring those participating in known dark-web terrorist sites or sites offering lethal weapon technology. This is particularly true if the security services continue to reform through better training and technology. And it should be an accepted risk that a few will continue to slip through.

But instead of simply concentrating on improved functioning of security services and mechanisms, each of the countries in the region is devoting a lot of state resources – in one form or another – to the ‘prevention’ of terrorism. By and large, these policies are generally not understood to carry social and political risks greater than those posed by the relatively small percentage of the population that is engaged in, or contemplating participation in, globally recognised and locally sponsored terrorist groups.

Once again, in a fashion that is unfortunately reminiscent of Soviet-era efforts at ‘scientific-atheistic’ training and propaganda, these states are trying to identify potential terrorists and re-indoctrinate them to accept ‘good’, state-sanctioned forms of Islam. Each of the states has increased its monitoring and supervision of religious activities, sometimes leaving this in the hands of religious officials who are believers and have strong training in Islam, but other times assigning this task to secular figures with little background in or understanding of religion.

Often such officials, particularly the latter group, proselytise the idea of a ‘national’ Islam, something Islamic believers who have had religious education have real trouble accepting, as Islam is by definition a global faith with a single doctrine that is open to multiple interpretations. This makes the state seem suspect to those believers who see Islam as a global faith, and particularly to those who are influenced by the teachings of Muslim scholars or theologians from outside of the local Hanafi tradition. At best such individuals, who would otherwise be loyal, become alienated from the state. At worst, in some places the state is using the increased powers of supervision they have granted themselves to potentially single out and arrest those they view as troublesome, simply by labeling these doctrinally orthodox but not locally prevalent teachings of Islam as “extremist” or “terrorist” activity.


  1. The Claim of Risk

It is very hard to get any reliable estimate of how serious a risk religiously inspired terrorism poses for each of the Central Asian countries. Daesh (the Islamic State) has certainly recruited significant numbers of Muslim youth from the former Soviet Union, using Arabic, Russian, and the various national languages from the region in their recruiting materials.

Daesh publicises the most ‘newsworthy’ of their recruitments, such as the April 2015 recruitment of Gulmurod Halimov, the commander of Tajikistan’s elite police unit OMON, or their 2013 video showing a settlement of Kazakh fighters and their families who had joined Daesh. This video clip was reproduced or commented on throughout the media, both in the region and internationally.[1] It is unclear how many new recruits from the region are gathered with these videos, but the response from the leadership in the Central Asian countries has been quick and strong.

The press in each of the countries has been used to raise public ire and gain support for stricter state controls of religiously inspired ‘extremism’ and potential extremism. Critical accounts of fighters from their country joining jihadists in Syria and Iraq have been coupled with positive accounts of security ‘successes’, such as returning fighters being detained by local security services and potential recruits identified and – in some cases – ‘rehabilitated’ through state-sponsored programmes teaching them the true, peaceful side of Islam.

In some countries, such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in particular, the tougher legislation is also the result of domestic, allegedly religiously inspired violence, particularly directed against members of security forces. In Tajikistan there were a series of attacks in 2009 and 2010, which led to tougher legislation, and in September 2015 there were a series of attacks on Tajik police and special forces, led by former Deputy Minister of Defense Abduhalim Nazarzoda, who Tajik authorities labeled a terrorist (US Department of State, 2015). There were also a series of explosions directed against Kazakh security officers and blamed on members of extremist groups in May 2011, in Aktobe and Astana, and a further siege in Aktobe in July 2011, followed almost immediately by a prison break in Balkash, allegedly by radical Islamist prisoners, which also resulted in the deaths of security officials. While Kazakh authorities were able to arrest and claimed to have fully eliminated the members of this group by late 2012 (Karlin, 2016, p. 123), it also led to tougher legislation and the introduction of a host of socialisation projects targeting young people.

Many of these changes – particularly those discussions that focus on the responsibility of the state to properly socialise its citizens as to good, acceptable, and ‘national’ forms of religion – are sharply reminiscent of Soviet-era policies. In the USSR, state officials who were atheists (at least nominally so) preached good national values. Today secular officials (or state-appointed, compliant clerics) are choosing which kinds of Islamic practice are acceptable in their countries, banning many Islamic practices and groups which have substantial international standing, and insuring that only state-licensed clerics can benefit from the financial and other social benefits of presiding over Islamic religious functions.

While the practice of Islam – according to state-recognised Hanafi Muslim practice, where state-recognised clerics offer sermons on what are effectively state-approved themes, since the state-appointed Spiritual Administration approves them – is certainly not akin to atheism, it could well prove to antagonise believers in ways similar to Soviet ideological propaganda. Worse yet, it could serve as a radicalising tool, turning believers away from state-sponsored Islam, as has occurred in places like Egypt, in which the Hanafi school of law also dominates, or among the Sunni population of Syria prior to and in the first days of resistance to Bashar al-Assad, before Daesh became a force for believers and the government alike to reckon with. In both of these countries, the preaching of state-sponsored clerics is far closer to mainstream Sunni doctrine than the countries in the Central Asian region.




  1. Convenient Terrorists

The label ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’ is potentially a very convenient one for governments bent on preserving ‘stability’ as the ultimate social and political good, as it allows authorities to label or remove from public life political opponents or otherwise inconvenient public figures. And while some of these figures may, or have in fact, committed illegal and in some cases violent acts, the invocation of ‘terrorism’ or ‘extremism’ triggers much harsher legal penalties for those accused, and potentially for people with any association with them, than would ordinarily be provided for in the country’s legal codex.

In Tajikistan, one clear goal of anti-extremist and anti-terrorist measures is to eliminate former political opponents of President Imomali Rahmon. This is so obvious that it leads observers to question many arrests made on the grounds of extremism or terrorism, asking whether these are simply convenient charges to levy against inconvenient political figures. Tajik officials have also been quick to label all anti-Rahmon violence as religious. Certainly some of the violence, especially the clashes in 2009, seems to have its roots in the Tajik Civil War and demonstrates opposition to Rahmon’s leadership, as it involves fighters loyal to Mirzo Ziyoev, a former UTO commander who served in an early government of national reconciliation, and who was killed in a clash with Tajik security forces. More sustained fighting in the remote and mountainous Khorog region in July 2012, which was blamed on extremists, also had its roots in the Civil War, as it seems to have been launched for the purpose of eliminating local security officers who had originally been part of Civil War-era opposition. But other fighting, such as what occurred in remote parts of the Sughd region during these years (as discussed below), was a much clearer example of home-grown terrorism.

The clearest example of abuse in the labelling of a ‘terrorist’ is the case of Muhuddin Kabiri, the long-time head of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) in Tajikistan (PIFT), an individual whom I have known for approximately twenty years. The IRP was part of the National Reconciliation Agreement which ended Tajikistan’s Civil War, and its members, including Kabiri, were part of early post-Civil War parliaments and governments. Kabiri himself was internationally recognised as a proponent of parliamentary and democratic principles of government. He was forced to flee the country in March 2015, and the IRP has been banned in Tajikistan since August 2015 (Pannier, 2015). In an interview published in January 2016, Kabiri estimated that some 150 of his former colleagues from the IRP had been arrested and imprisoned (Kabiri, 2016, p. 3), and later accounts provide even higher figures.

Politics have also had an impact on how Kyrgyzstan understands and prosecutes its policies against extremism. This is especially true since the inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, when violence erupted between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in the Osh region, for which Kyrgyz nationalists placed inordinate blame on the ethnic Uzbek community. The generally greater religiosity of the country’s Uzbek population has worked to the government’s advantage in playing the ‘extremist’ card, when convenient. One who seemingly fell victim to this was Rashot Kamalov. Kamlov is the son of Muhammadrafik Kamalov, a popular cleric in his own right who headed the largest mosque in Kara Su and who was killed in May 2006 by security forces purportedly by accident, and the nephew of Sadykzhan Kamalov, who served as Kyrgyzstan’s first mufti and has headed a large Islamic center in Kara Su, a community that straddles the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border in southern Kyrgyzstan. The clerics of the Kamalov family – ethnic Uzbeks with strong familial ties across the border – have used their preaching, teaching, and writing to try to make the practice and teaching of Hanafi Islam more in line with the teachings and writings of prominent Arab and other Muslim theologians. The elder generation of Kamalovs has also been unwilling to condemn Hizb-ut Tahrir as violating the tenets of Islam and has been willing to allow members of the movement access to their mosques when it was legal in Kyrgyzstan, and, as has been alleged, even after it was banned.

Rashot Kamalov was arrested on charges of extremism in February 2015, sentenced to five years in prison in a highly controversial trial,[2] and then given an additional five-year sentence later that year. He was charged with having extremist religious literature and using his sermons to recruit for ISIL, something that many who heard him preach these sermons dispute. Some maintained that the real reason for Kamalov’s arrest was that he accused Kyrgyz law enforcement officials of picking up ethnic Uzbeks to solicit bribes, jailing them for illegal religious activity or extremism if they did not pay up (see Trilling, 2016; USCIRF Annual Report, 2016, p. 220).

But Kyrgyz authorities are not wrong to be concerned about the risk of radicalisation among the population in the southern part of the country, which is generally more religious than in the north; this is especially true of the local Uzbek population. They do have reason to be nervous about the potential for recruitment to jihadist groups. Noah Tucker writes about a social media activist who supports the Jabhat al Nusra Brigade,[3] including one reposted video showing an Uzbek fighter that got over 1.6 million views (Tucker, 2015, p. 8).

The case of Syria poses challenges for the governments of the region, but also for devout Sunni Muslims. This is especially true to the degree that these states take their cue from Russia and Russian-language media, which has had a tendency to see the conflict in fairly black-and-white terms since entering the war in support of Bashar al-Assad. For Sunni Muslims, social media in Arabic, Turkish, or Western languages offers a surfeit of sources talking about the need for Sunni Muslims to defend their co-religionists and offering support for constituent units in what is a broad – albeit loose – coalition of forces opposing Assad, many of whom do not actively support Daesh.


  1. Daesh in Central Asia versus Home Grown Terrorism

One of the challenges in discussing terrorism in Central Asia is to decide how seriously to take government claims of externally inspired terrorism, be it from Daesh or other terrorist sources. That said, even the most cynical observers recognise that there are religiously-inspired extremist groups – some linked to Daesh, others self-sponsoring – who pose security risks in each of the Central Asian countries.

In January 2015, authors from the International Crisis Group estimated that between 2000 and 4000 fighters from Central Asia were fighting in Syria, and that radicalisation was going on in mosques and prayer rooms throughout the region, with, in their opinion, the internet and social media playing a ‘critical but not definitive role’ (ICG, 2015, p. 1).

It is hard to confirm these figures, and figures from other sources are much lower. The estimates from the ICSR (International Center for the Study of Radicalization at Kings College, London) are much lower. In January 2015 they reported that there were some 500 fighters from Uzbekistan fighting in Iraq and Syria, 360 from Turkmenistan, 250 from Kazakhstan, 190 from Tajikistan, and 100 from Kyrgyzstan (Neumann, 2015).

It is also hard to know how significant a role recruits from Central Asia are playing in Syria. According to US-based specialist Noah Tucker, there has been a battle-tried Uzbek presence in Iraq and Syria, filled in part with veterans from the conflict in Afghanistan/Pakistan. The largest of these has been the Imam al-Bukhoriy Brigade, which had its training camp near Aleppo. There are also other Uzbek groups, including Jabbat al Nusra, which Tucker says emerged in summer 2014 and is headed by an Uzbek from Southern Kyrgyzstan (Amir Abu Saloh; see Tucker, 2015). Tucker argues that, ‘for Central Asians, the details of the conflict and the frequently warring factions that fight are obscure. For those interested in joining, it is a conflict about grand narratives that offer meaning to the lives of marginalized migrant workers’(Tucker, 2015, p. 5). Tucker’s account adds another voice to the chorus who have written and spoken about the risk of radicalisation in Russia, where Central Asia’s migrant workers have the opportunity to come into contact with more radicalised and politicised Muslim communities than they easily run into at home. Tucker also points to the late Shaykh Abdulloh Buhoriy, exiled from Uzbekistan when he was chief imam of a large Uzbek mosque and the Ihasanilim Madrasah in Istanbul, as another source for mobilising Uzbeks to fight in Syria. Buhoriy’s social media postings continue to circulate, even after his assassination in December 2014 (Tucker, 2015, p. 7). Also according to Tucker, the Islamic Jihad Union – a splinter group of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which he estimates as having only a few hundred members – nonetheless plays a major role on social media, working to recruit young Uzbeks as jihadists through its news outlets and its library of al-Qaeda documents translated into Uzbek (Tucker, 2015, p. 7).

Although most potential fighters seem to travel as individuals or in small groups, a 2015 ICG report includes a reference to an interview with a Kyrgyz official, who complained that some 20 people from a single Kyrgyz town went as a group to Turkey (the common entry point) to join jihadist movements in Syria (Tucker, 2015, p. 8–9). And the Kazakhs from the 2013 video (referred to above) also are said to have traveled to Syria as a group.

There doesn’t appear to be any single profile for the people who are being recruited. They include both men and women; those who have studied in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Turkey; those who have had both extensive and little (or no) religious training at home; those with a lot of education and those with little; and wealthy, middle-class, and poor alike. Prayer groups appear to be an important source of recruitment, with the ICG 2015 study noting that smaller cells of potential jihadist recruits from within these groups and remain secret to the broader membership (ICG, 2015, p.6).

While state responses may well be excessive, there have been attacks linked in whole or in part to extreme Islamic groups in the countries of the region, which, most disturbingly, demonstrates the existence of a new generation of religiously inspired fighters. For example, in Tajikistan in September 2010 a suicide bomber killed three police officers in Khujand in the Sughd region, and that same month over two dozen soldiers were killed in attacks in the Rasht region, the latter attributed to Mullah Abdullah (Hakimov) and Alovuddin Davlatov (Ali Bedaki), long-time IMU commanders based in Afghanistan. Both were captured and killed in early 2011. In response to these attacks, forty alleged members of the IMU were arrested and tried, followed by 15 men who were said to be members of a hitherto unknown terror group, the Jamaat Ansarullah, who took credit for the attack in a YouTube video. In a short span of time in August–September 2013, Kyrgyz and Tajik authorities reported success in breaking up groups of Kyrgyzstanis trained in Syria and Tajiks trained in Waziristan, Pakistan, who had planned bombing campaigns in their respective national capitals.[4]

Erlan Karin, head of Kazakhstan’s Institute of Strategic Study, has written extensively about home-grown terrorist groups operating in Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, and about the cross-border ties between them. Karin writes about Jaishul Mahdi (‘The Army of the Righteous Ruler’), which he states was formed in Kyrgyzstan in 2007 as a result of the influence of Said Buryatsky, a Russian ideologist of jihad who was active in the north Caucusus and killed by Russian forces in 2010. He also credits Buryatsky (whose name reflects his ethnic Buryat roots) as the source of influence for Kazakhstani jihadist groups that emerged as early as 2002 in Atyrau, whose core membership, directly and indirectly, emerged as the Jund al-Khilafah, the group responsible for the violence in western Kazakhstan in 2010 (Karin, 2016, p, 84, 134). Other terrorist groups, however, have emerged since Jund al-Khilafah’s elimination. In December 2016, Kazakh authorities conducted raids in several cities to arrest members of Taksir wal-Hijra, a group with a broad jihadist agenda, termed ‘jihad without rules’.


  1. State Response

However, this does not answer the question of whether the response of the governments in the region is likely to minimise these risks, to unintentionally exacerbate them, or to create other kinds of political and social problems.

The 2015 ICG report notes that membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir or Tablighi Jamaat seems to play only a peripheral role in radicalisation, and no role in formal recruitment (ICG, 2015, p.6). Yet both groups have been labeled as extremist within Central Asia.

This is particularly troubling with regard to Tablighi Jamaat being labeled as “extremist”, as it is not generally viewed as a radical Islamic organisation by US or European scholars[5].

Membership in Tabligh Jamaat is grounds for prosecution in much of Central Asia, and in Kazakhstan 40 people were arrested and tried on criminal charges between December 2014 and September 2016 for their participation in this organisation.[6]

Hizb ut-Tahrir is illegal in the Central Asian states, and it is banned in parts of Europe. The organisation, which publicly calls for the peaceful creation of a modern day caliphate, raises concern because there are clandestine aspects to it. But claims of its links to terrorism, are, as already noted, hard to sustain, and when and where it was legal in Central Asia, as it was in Kyrgyzstan for over a decade, there was some cooperation between Hanafi clerics in state-registered mosques, and Hizb ut-Tahrir members, and many in southern Kyrgyzstan in particular benefitted from charities run by Hizb ut-Tahrir.[7]

The criteria for deciding that a group is extremist has broadened over time, so that each year some previously legal groups have been outlawed, even though the nature of their activities has not changed. And in Tajikistan, in particular, the label of “extremism” has been applied to groups generally viewed as political, rather than necessarily religious, opposition.

Punishments for banned groups have also grown tougher. For example, in Tajikistan, in 2011 and 2012 administrative and penal codes were amended to include larger fines and prison terms for participating in unsanctioned religious activities, and a new law on parental responsibility was introduced which banned minors (those under 18) from attending services in mosques or participating in any religious services except funerals. Restrictions against ‘religious’ dress have been broadened and are more strictly enforced.

Similarly, Tajikistan’s law on extremism does not require that extremist activity include violence or imminent violence for alleged offenders to fall under its purview (USCIRF Annual Report, 2016, pp. 127–28). Mosques and religious schools that do not adhere to all of the country’s legislation on religion, including accepting supervision by the state-appointed religious authorities, are subject to closure. In January 2016 Tajik Interior Minister Ramazon Khamro Rahimzoda noted that some 900 of the capital’s 1,500 mosques and prayer rooms had been shut for non-compliance with aspects of the country’s legal codes (Bayram, 2016).

The Tajik government’s actions are consistent with the pattern throughout the region of reasserting the primacy of the Hanafi school of law, giving it a ‘national’ and sometimes a legal pride of place. Central Asia’s religious authorities maintain that Hanafi Islam is the most locally appropriate, not just because it has been the locally dominant school historically, but because it is described as ‘tolerating’ pre-Islamic customs, which helps moderate Islamic teachings that prevail in other parts of the world. However, the degree of tolerance that the governments of the region attribute to the Hanafi tradition is itself subject to question, as it is based less on religious teachings than on what religious teachings are assumed to have been. For example, Ibn Tammiya, considered one of the originators of Salafi thought, himself made reference to Abu Hanifah’s teachings, a point that Salafists themselves note (Al-Haddad, 2009).From a dispassionate distance, it appears that achieving social conformity is as important a goal as protecting the government and civilians alike from violent incursions.

Not only are more groups being banned, but the scope of legal religious activity has also narrowed. Throughout the region, there is now much greater supervision of legally sanctioned religious activities, including through the introduction of surveillance cameras in mosques in some places, much closer advance review of Friday sermons, and increased centralised preparation of the texts for Friday sermons. The criteria for declaring activities illegal have also been broadened.

These governments appear to be in search of ideological conformity as a guarantor of social and political stability, and using legislation and decrees to advocate a ‘national’ form of Islam is one way to do this. In Kazakhstan, for example, the government has set up committees to deal with ‘youth’ affairs, which have a strong socialisation mission, as well as ‘Centres for Support for Victims of Destructive Sects’. Kazakhstan created a new Ministry of Religious Affairs and Civil Society in 2016, and the state programme to combat religious extremism and terrorism, introduced in 2013 and running until 2017, is said to have a budget of over $1 billion for programmes that are intended to reach some 200,000 people (Beissembayev, 2016, p. 2). There has been an increase in outreach activities by the Agency for Religious Affairs, which has tried to introduce more uniformity in the practice of Islam in particular, again emphasising the exclusivity guaranteed to the Hanafi school of law.

Kazakh government policy has worked to the benefit of the Muslim Spiritual Administration. Mosques that were not registered by the Muslim Spiritual Administration have been forced to close; the most prominent of these is the Din-Muhammad Mosque in Petropavlovsk, which has been in use by Bashkirs and Tatars since the middle of the nineteenth century. The consolidation of mosques has also eliminated virtually all but Kazakh-language mosques. Effectively, the policy has also meant that only Muslim religious schools tied to the Muslim Spiritual Administration are allowed to operate, and training of Kazakh clerics is now intended to exclusively occur within the country and under state authority, and is no longer permitted to occur in a foreign institution. At the same time, the intent is to deliver a religiously authentic product, one true to Hanafi teachings, given the appointment of Yerzhan Mayamerov as Mufti in 2013, a cleric who was Egyptian-trained and remained there working in the fatwa division in al-Azhar University.            In each of the countries, there is increasing control over the Internet and social media, which is generally viewed as a potentially pernicious instrument for sowing ‘extremism’ in religion and politics more generally. For example, in Kyrgyzstan, authorities closed 21 sites and deleted 20 users from the popular odnoklassniki social network (За экстремистское содержание закрыли 21 кыргызских сайт, 2017).

There is also a strong effort to link Salafi groups to organised crime networks, arguing that the same personality traits may explain membership in Salafi and in criminal groups, that there is also crossover because Salafi groups may choose to engage in criminal activities to raise funds for their activities (which are also supported through internal taxation), and that Salafi groups may have to resort to criminal groups to get weapons or other illegal materials (Beissembayev, 2016, p. 16). This effort to link Salafist and criminal organisations is a convenient way to strengthen the state’s reasons for banning Salafist groups. This effort is supported by a large number of secular intellectuals in Kazakhstan. A good example is found in interviews with Aidos Sarym, the head of the Sarsenbayev Foundation, who has been active in the opposition as well as in the government. He argues that it would be legitimate to outlaw Salafists in the country, being an advocate of the idea that there is a ‘Kazakh Islam’ or a Kazakh understanding of Islam (ICG, 2015, p. 4). This latter view is found in some form in each of the countries in the region.

There is a dogmatic aspect to the arguments of those like Aidos Sarym, that strongly worded assertions are in some way synonymous with “truths”. His arguments in favour of banning Salafism completely separate the historic role played by Salafists in Central Asia and elsewhere, and the complexity of current Salafist thought. But this style of argumentation does not make the state’s primary argument in socialisation – that is, that there is a uniquely national form of Islam – inherently more believable or potentially convincing to young people who have had any depth to their religious education. For that reason, it can further support the arguments that Salafist and other ‘extremist’ groups make in criticism of state-supported clerics, whose motivations for defending the state may be genuinely in line with their religious understandings, but may also be the product of no small degree of self-interest, given the funds that they collect ‘serving’ the community, which include the ‘gifts’ received for performing life rituals (circumcisions, weddings, and funerals) as well as the salaries provided by the state-registered mosques in which they serve.


  1. Conclusion

The current approach to “combatting terrorism” in Central Asia appears to put equal weight on detection of actual terrorists, preventing the emergence of terrorism through increased state control of the content and supervision of religious affairs, and preventing future terrorists through better socialisation to create loyal citizens.

Sadly, this reflects a lack of new thinking about how to prevent youth from being attracted to terrorist activities, and an unspoken concern about the inability of security forces to detect and neutralise terrorist plots.

One of the reasons for the latter concern over capacity is because, even after 25 years of independence, the security services in the Central Asian countries are (to varying degrees) only partially reformed. Writing in a 2011 report for the Open Society Foundations, David Lewis concluded: ‘These programs have mostly failed to achieve real reform in security services, and have often compromised OSCE ideals by supporting forces that have been accused of human rights abuses and high-level corruption’ (Lewis, 2011). Since that time, the security services in these countries have participated in a myriad of international programs and projects designed to achieve their improvement.

Nonetheless, the 2015 ICG study concludes that ‘security services, particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are ill-equipped to track IS supporters’. The same could likely be said for other terrorist or armed criminal groups. And it is sometimes quite difficult to tease out the differences. Following a series of attacks in Aktobe in June 2016 and the shootings of security officials in Almaty in July 2016, which were blamed on ‘terrorists’, the government of Kazakhstan has introduced draft legislation designed to tighten provisions against terrorism (Изменение законодательства Казахстана по вопросам терроризма, 2016), which was passed and then signed into law in December 2016 (Vnesenie zakonodatel’stva Kazakhstana po voprosam terrorizma, 2016). The law, which enjoyed the support of seemingly ‘liberal’ intellectuals (Айдос Сарым о противодействии терроризму, 2016), includes further restrictions on the import and domestic distribution of religious literature, monitoring of ‘religious tourism’ (Corley, 2017), and tightened regulations on citizen registration, the latter of which has created something of a public outcry in Kazakhstan.

There is a paradox in much of the recent state policies in Central Asia, where the label of ‘Islamic extremist’ is being used much too loosely. Groups like the Soldiers of Islam, at least according to Erlan Karin’s detailed account, are being labeled as ‘religious extremists’ even though their leaders display little familiarity with Islamic doctrines and teachings. This same label is applied to Islamic groups, such as Salafists or Sunni ‘Dawa’ clerics, who are grounded in generally recognised ‘authentic’ Sunni Islamic teachings. Salafists, Ahmadiyya, and Tablighi Jamaat are all banned in parts of Central Asia, as they are deemed ‘non-traditional’ and potentially extremist because they have not been historically widespread in Central Asia, where Hanafi Islam has dominated. At the least, this is an oversimplification of both the history of the region and the history of Islam.

Many banned groups maintain that they are followers of Hanafi law and that their quarrel is with state laws on registration, or the primacy afforded state-organised and supported official Spiritual Administrations. Similarly, Salafists have been present in Central Asia historically and are not by definition either violent or extremist. Salafi teachings were in fact very much involved in efforts to define Islam as compatible with modernity in Central Asia in the late nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth century. Finally, Sunni Islam recognises four schools of jurisprudence, of which Hanafi Islam is but one, and even tacitly according Hanafi Islam official status relegates all other forms to a quasi-legal role.

So what we seem to see is secular governments (and for a devout Muslim, all of Central Asia’s leaders would appear to be secular, no matter their professed religiosity) defining Islam for believers, something that has had and is having tragic consequences in much of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as elsewhere.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution for how to address the threats of global terrorism in general, or the threat of proliferating terrorism from the campaigns of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, or the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is no substitute for good border controls, and effective monitoring of those who have travelled to areas in which terrorism is proliferating.

But too much attention is being paid to unproven or (in the case of policies reminiscent of Soviet-era efforts) disproven strategies of socialisation in general and hyper-supervision of religious content in particular. The Central Asian states are far from unique in their desire to steer people away from toxic Islamic clerics. They are not the only ones seeking to do outreach work among prison populations, or trying to launch pro-Islamic websites with content deemed positive. But while charismatic clerics may enjoy some success in prisons, decisions made by believers as to whose guidance to accept are highly personal ones. And there are numerous examples of government sponsored websites about religion failing to attract strong support or engagement throughout the Middle East, supported by the US[8], its international allies, and some of the host governments.

All the states in the Central Asian region have legitimate interests in seeking to create loyal citizens with a shared national ideology, and in foreign policy. But the current strategy of limiting options for the citizens of these, through greatly increased restriction of access to the “market of ideas” through tougher controls of the internet, greater supervision of religious materials coming from abroad, reducing the number of religious groups allowed to operate in the country, is a form of paternalism. All governments are paternalistic to some degree, especially when they perceive an external risk. But exaggerating the risk, or being excessively paternalistic, can create unintended consequences.

In all of these countries, resources which could be directed towards true security work are being applied to questionable, ideologically based nation-building exercises instead, exercises which serve to increase the social and political distance between believers and secular elements in society. So in the name of protecting the state and society from one security risk, these governments are creating new – and likely more serious – risks for the future.





Martha Brill Olcott

Visiting Professor, Michigan State University; Professor Emeritus, Colgate University






150 казахских джихадистов в Сирии» взорвали социальные сети RFE/FL. (2013, October 21). Retrieved from http://rus.azattyq.org/a/kazakhstantsy-v-sirii-videorolik-socialniye-seti/25142732.html


Айдос Сарым высказался о противодействии терроризму. (2016, September 16). Tengri News. Retrieved from https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/aydos-saryim-vyiskazalsya-o-protivodeystvii-terrorizmu-302420/


В 2016 году в Кыргызстане за публикацию материалов экстремистского характера закрыли 21 сайт. (2017, January 6). Belyi Parus. Retrieved from www.paruskg.info/2017/01/06/140399


О внесении изменений и дополнений в некоторые законодательные акты РеспубликиКазахстан по вопросам противодействия экстремизму и терроризму. (2016).


Проект Закона РК внесен на рассмотрение Мажилиса Парламента РК постановлением Правительства РК от 31 августа 2016 года № 490. Retrieved from http://online.zakon.kz/Document/?doc_id=32149545#pos=53;-216


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Bayram, Mushfig. (2016, May 6). Tajikistan: Continued State “Total Control” of Islam. Forum 18. Retrieved from http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2175


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Butler, Desmond and Lardner, Richard (2017, January 31) US Military Botches Online Fight Against Islamic State. The Associated Press, published by Bloomberg.com. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-31/us-military-botches-online-fight-against-islamic-state


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Trilling, David. (2015, June 29). Kyrgyzstan: Extremism Charges, Vague and Secretive, Open Door to Abuses. Retrieved from http://www.eurasianet.org/node/74061


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Tucker, Noah. (2016, February 13). Public and State Responses to ISIS Messaging: Kazakhstan. Retrieved from https://www.liportal.de/fileadmin/user_upload/oeffentlich/Kasachstan/40_gesellschaft/CERIA_Brief_13__February_2016.pdf


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[1] See Tucker, 2016; 150 казахских джихадистов в Сирии, 2013. The clip itself is reproduced in part on a November 2013 broadcast from 1612, a Kazakh opposition channel on YouTube, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0UUAyb-EJU.

[2] Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression program also took up the case of Kamalov, one of the very few legal cases involving Central Asians that they have provided materials on. See The Prosecutor General of Osh City vs. Rashod Kamalov, retrieved from https://globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/cases/case-of-imam-rashod-kamalov/.

[3] For a discussion on the Jabbat al Nusra Brigade that is fighting in Syria, see Comerford, 2015.

[4] Zenn, 2013. This report is based in part on Zenn’s interviews in the region.

[5] For example, see Barbara Metcalf, “Traditionalist” Islamic Activism: Deoband, Tablighis, and Talibs,” SSRC, After September 11: 2001 Essays Archive.


[6] 19 of the 31 whose trials were complete by early September 2014 were sentenced to prison terms (see Corley, 2016).

[7] Interviews of author done in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2003-2005.

[8] For an example of complaints about these failed efforts, see Desmond Butler and Richard Lardner, the Associated Press, “US Military Botches Online Fight Against Islamic State” Bloomberg, January 31, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-31/us-military-botches-online-fight-against-islamic-state.

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Martha Brill Olcott

U.S. expert on Central Asia and the Caspian,

Martha Brill Olcott has been a prolific author of works on all aspects of the political, social, and economic affairs in Central Asia, and the geopolitical environment of the region for over three decades. While she is best known for her writings on Kazakhstan (The Kazakhs and Kazakhstan Unfulfilled Promise), Olcott has been studying questions of religion, identity and politics in Central Asia and the Muslim “world” more generally for over forty years. Her book In the Whirlwind of Jihad (Brookings Institution Press, 2012) is the culmination of this research.Olcott is also a Visiting Professor at James Madison College, Michigan State University. She is also Professor Emerita at Colgate University, where she served as a member of the faculty from 1975-2002. At various times in her career Olcott has also served as a consultant or advisor for the U.S. government and various international institutions and organizations. These included serving as a Special Assistant to Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and filling a 5 year term on the Board of Directors of the Central Asian American Enterprise Fund at the request of President Bill Clinton. She also previously was a senior associate at the Russia Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.