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The flow of foreign fighters travelling to Syria to join various jihadist groups attracted the attention of both decision makers and academic researchers, and become an object for a significant number of papers, not least because of its mass nature and broad geographical spread.
From the very beginning of the flow (2011) some regions and countries were in the spotlight: MENA region, Western countries, Russia, and more, and have been studied comprehensively.
However, the situation in Syria and Iraq has developed and changed, and new trends in the flow of foreign fighters emerged subsequently. In such a manner, 2015 was marked by significant intensification of the flow of foreign fighters from Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan).(1) Central Asian Jihadism poses a significant threat not only in regards to foreign fighters, but also to countries outside of Syria and Iraq. This threat was exemplified by the recent (October 31, 2017) vehicular ramming attack in Manhattan, which was carried out by Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, an Uzbek national, who reportedly left a note claiming the attack was in the name of ISIS (2). This attack highlights the importance of understanding the phenomenon of Central Asian jihadism, with its effects both on fighters in theaters of jihad and abroad.
Foreign fighters from the Central Asian region were traced as travelling or attempting to travel to Syria and Iraq since the beginning of the war, but the flow was humble, and militants hardly appeared on stage. Since 2015 one can observe a substantial rise to the flow, which in no small measure was mobilized by propaganda products produced by jihadist groups operating in Syria and Iraq (Islamic State - ISIS). This period, from 2015 until now, is marked for ISIS by significant shifts in its positions in Syria and Iraq, accompanied with losses of territories and fighters. Such circumstances forced the group to turn its attention toward new potential fighters, and particularly Central Asian fighters.
Today, foreign fighters from Central Asia number more than 4,000, (3) are becoming more and more visible, and hold important posts within jihadist groups. In the last three years, the number of terror attacks, performed by natives of Central Asia, rose sharply, which suggests continued expanding terror activities and growing potential threats coming from this population. Moreover, analysis of recent trends allows to suggest that Central Asian militants tend to replace Chechen fighters in the ranks of ISIS - one of the highest valued fighters of the group. Thus, Gulmurod Khalimov, an ethnic Tajik, former commander of the police special forces of the Interior Ministry of Tajikistan, superseded Omar al-Shishani after his death as military commander. Moreover, there are Chechens who play crucial roles in the radicalization and recruitment of potential militants from Central Asian countries.
Although usually the phenomenon of foreign fighters from Central Asian countries is examined as a whole, without distinctions between the countries, an extended analysis of national background seems to contribute significantly to a deeper understanding of the specifics of the flow.
Moreover, Central Asia today is the center of the geostrategic calculations of USA, Russia, and China, which makes the situation with foreign fighters, and the terror threat in general, more complex.
From the other side, it is important to note, that counteractions undertaken by Central Asian governments seem to be stovepiped and focus on restrictions of civil freedoms, due to their authoritarian nature, and, as a result, can be defined as ineffective.
The paper is aimed at conducting a deep analysis of the phenomenon of foreign fighters coming from Central Asian region:
1. There are several definitions of the borders of Central Asian region based on various grounds. This paper accepts the definition, which includes five post-Soviet countries, as it was proclaimed by theirs leaders after gaining the independence.
2. Nicole Chavez. "New Yorkers Defiant After Deadliest Terror Attack In The City Since 9/11". CNN, accessed November 1, 2017. http://edition.cnn.com/2017/11/01/us/new-york-attack/index.html
3. Thomas F. Lynch III, Michael Bouffard, Kelsey King, and Graham Vickowski “The Return of Foreign Fighters to Central Asia: Implications for U.S. Counterterrorism Policy”, Strategic Perspectives 21, National Defense University Press, October 29, 2016, accessed September 28, 2017, http://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/Article/987178/the-return-of-foreign-fighters-to-central-asia-implications-for-us-counterterro/
This article is part of the RED-Alert project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation Programme under grant agreement No 740688.