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Aging autocrats find pretext for crackdowns

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- A propaganda video posted by the Islamic State group on Oct. 17 was the latest evidence that Central Asian militants have joined the ranks of the terrorist group.

     "We should take this and put it on the Internet. Let the infidels take a look!" said one of the two Uzbek-speaking fighters featured in the video shot in Kobani, a town in Syria.

     Estimates differ, but 1,000 to 5,000 militants with Central Asian origins are thought to be fighting for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. They mostly come from poverty-stricken Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and were largely recruited in Russia, home of thousands of Central Asian migrant workers. According to witnesses, many of them were lured by money rather than religious fanaticism, as they were offered up to $5,000 per month. That is twice as much as the yearly average salary in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and more than what most people earn in a year even in relatively wealthier Uzbekistan.

     The authoritarian governments in these Central Asian states now fear these militants could spread the seeds of dissent among their compatriots back at home.

     The Uzbek government's Committee on Religious Affairs warned in an Oct. 31 statement: "Today, fighters from more than 80 countries, especially from the Central Asian republics, feature among the ranks of these terrorist groups. And there is no guarantee that tomorrow they will not become the instigators of new forms of destabilization."

     A few days later, Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev spoke on the same subject. He said the Islamic State group and radical Islam as a whole pose "a special threat to the identity of the resurgent Kyrgyz ethos," according to local press reports on Nov. 4.

     The threat posed by returning Islamic State recruits may be a new and increasingly real one, but Central Asian rulers have never hesitated from using Islam as an arrow in their quiver. Back in the 1990s, moderate Sunni Islam was reintroduced as the state religion throughout the region after decades of Soviet censorship. It helped to legitimize the nation-building processes promoted by the authoritarian leaders who were emerging from the shadow of their Soviet overlords.

     At the same time, radical Islam often gave them a powerful pretext to further tighten control over the population.

"Justifying authoritarianism"

"I would not say that this threat is always imaginary, but it can often be seriously exaggerated in the interest of justifying authoritarianism," said Andrei Kazantsev, a native of Turkmenistan who is director of the Analytical Center of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, a branch of the Russian foreign ministry.

     "With specific regard to the Islamic State, it is a relevant pretext for Central Asian regimes to connect with the U.S. and other major world powers to get more military aid and justify the introduction of new restrictive measures against the opposition."

     Local authorities are carrying out a growing number of police operations related to the activity of alleged Islamic militants.

     Authorities in Tajikistan earlier this month arrested 12 men suspected of recruiting residents of the northern province of Sughd to fight alongside Islamic militants in Syria. Kyrgyzstan detained six alleged members of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic group back in April. There have been regular reports of similar operations across the region. Atambayev also announced new restrictions on religious freedom to prevent radical Islam from spreading.

     The autocratic nature of institutions in Central Asia is often highlighted as a reason for the existence of homegrown radical Islamic movements in the first place.

     "The roots of radicalization in Central Asia among young people lay in the appalling policies of leaders such as Karimov, who waged war against all political dissent and anything remotely Islamic," wrote Ahmed Rashid in his 2008 book "Descent into Chaos." The Pakistani journalist and longtime observer of Islamic movements in Central Asia noted that there was a total ban on all political parties, trade and student unions, and political gatherings in Uzbekistan. He wrote that more than 10,000 "political prisoners filled Uzbek jails, where torture and death under interrogation were common. Anyone appearing too Islamic or even saying his prayers five times a day could be arrested and tortured. As long as such regimes considered secular democratic parties a threat, it was natural that a violent Islamic underground would flourish."

     Most of the rulers have been in power since their countries' independence from the Soviet Union. Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, Emomalii Rahmon in Tajikistan and Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan all belonged to the local Soviet nomenklatura -- the elite who held key posts before independence and professed loyalty to the Communist Party. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the president of reclusive Turkmenistan, was hand-picked by a local state security council in 2006 to succeed the late Saparmurat Niyazov, who belonged to the old Communist elite.

     Kyrgyzstan is the only country among the "stans" to have experienced democracy following the 2005 "Tulip revolution." Its institutions are freer but more fragile than in other Central Asian countries.

     The main radical Islam group in the region is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, founded in the late 1990s by Uzbek exiles in Afghanistan who were fighting to overthrow Karimov and establish a pan-Islamic caliphate in Central Asia.

     The IMU has long been seen as potentially the most destabilizing Islamic movement in the region, since it was blamed for the 1999 Tashkent bombings that claimed the lives of 16 civilians. But its fight has always struggled to gain momentum and some doubt remains as to whether it was involved in the 1999 attacks. The movement paid a high price for its allegiance to the Taliban in the 2000s, suffering from heavy losses throughout the war with the U.S. and losing its main leaders, Juma Namangani and Tohir Yuldashev. 

All eyes on Afghanistan

Autocratic regimes may have a history of playing up the threat of radical Islam to serve their own purposes, but there are concerns that groups such as IMU could be on the resurgence.

     The IMU was implicated in a thwarted, large-scale terrorist plot in Europe that was organized by al-Qaida in 2010. And as most of the region's leaders age and suffer from increasing health problems -- Karimov and Nazarbayev are both in their 70s -- any power struggle could create a vacuum that local radical Islamic cells would not hesitate to try and fill.

     Rather than today's main battlefields of Syria and Iraq, experts say the real threat will come from Afghanistan.

     That was where the bulk of Central Asian Islamic opposition members were gathered and offered the prime position for launching operations elsewhere in the region, Kazantsev said.

     The IMU has long used Afghanistan as a base and teamed up with the Taliban. While it suffered massive losses in the fight against Western forces, it has grown its numbers in Northern Afghanistan's tribal areas. This is attributed to the gradual reduction of U.S. and NATO forces in the region, and a planned pull-out at the end of 2014.

     "The ability of Afghan forces to contain the IMU in Northern Afghanistan after [international] military forces leave the region will determine the security of Central Asia in the second half of this decade," said Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African and Eurasian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation.

Kanat Shaku contributed research to this article.

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