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Islamic State Takes Fight to Central Asia

Islamic State Brings Violence to Central Asia
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) announced its backing for Islamic State. Does that imply that the IS operation is getting to Central Asia together with the US-led international anti-IS coalition? Radio VR is discussing the issue with Dr. Theodore Karasik (Dubai) and Dr.Vladimir Sotnikov (Moscow).

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) announced its backing for Islamic State. Does that imply that the IS operation is getting to Central Asia together with the US-led international anti-IS coalition? Radio VR is discussing the issue with Dr. Theodore Karasik, the Director for Research and Consultancy at the Institute for near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), and Dr. Vladimir Sotnikov, the Director of the East-West Strategic studies Center, Moscow.

To quote an online statement by the IMU leader Usman Gazi, "Hereby, on behalf of all members of our movement, in line with our sacred duties, I declare that we are in the same ranks with the Islamic State in this continued war between Islam and (non-Muslims)".

The IMU is known to be an extremist group with links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It is listed as a terrorist organization in the US. It was created in 1991 to  topple Uzbek President Islam Karimov and create an Islamic State under sharia law.

As for the Islamic State, over the past several months it has seized vast stretches of land in Iraq and Syria, and declared an Islamic caliphate on the territories under its control.

Dr. Theodore Karasik: It is very interesting that the IMU has come out with this statement. It’s been carried only by a few outlets. And so, we need to see if there are other more official jihadist websites that carry this statement. Having said that, it makes perfect sense that the IMU would join up with the IS, because there are many other groups in the South Asia, and particularly related to the Taliban, that are beginning to emerge and to declare their allegiance to the IS. We've already had four groups come out of the Taliban declaring their allegiance to the IS and sending fighters over into the Levant.

The IMU, of course, is part of this nexus of terrorism in Afghanistan\Pakistan and it would make sense that they would want to join this group in the Levant, but also to begin to look at destabilizing Central Asia, in the sense of targeting the key countries, particularly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

And it is interesting that it is taking place in a country which  more than its neighbours is prepared to develop ties with NATO and with the West. Is it a result of that or is it not a factor in this situation?

Dr. Theodore Karasik: It is actually a very good question, because the IS wants to draw NATO into this battle, just as they drew in the US and other partners into the airstrikes in the Levant. We estimate that in due time the IS will go after Turkey in order to cause NATO to invoke Article 5 and to bring NATO into the fight. The Central Asian states, if you will, and their relations with NATO and other security organizations can also be targets, too. The important point here is that by moving into the Central Asia, it also forms a bridge with the Uighurs in east China. And we know that there is a hundred Uighurs fighting with the IS in the Levant right now.

So, what we are seeing with the IMU and in the Central Asia is an attempt not only to bridge between the two regions, but also to draw in other state actors into fighting the IS and their supporters.

You see this evolution of Sunni extremist thought and of the related groups beginning to coalesce around each other because of the airstrikes. This is a driver for them to unify under one banner. And as such, as we seeing the support for the IS form the Central Asia, form the South Asia and from the North Africa to what is ongoing in Syria and Iraq today.

Looking a little bit back at the start of the Arab Spring, when the MB parties were coming to power — are MB parties just a step in the same direction as the IS?

Dr. Theodore Karasik: The MB parties are split in about three different directions. The most important direction is the Da'wah faction. They are the most religious and conservative of the MB. We know that the MB, particularly the Da'wah faction has been involved with the IS in terms of helping to transfer fighters and funds to the group, as we as acting as a portal towards the North Africa, particularly in Libya. In Libya we already see the IS beginning to tap into the Libyan society. So, this cancer is spreading quickly and the Brotherhood, this faction that I'm talking of now, the Da'wah faction is an enabler of the situation.

So, what is to be done? The old and tested ways of supporting the forces which could oppose those extremist movements, like giving them finances, supporting them technically seem to be faulty, because those resources often tend to fall into the wrong hands. So, what is the NATO coalition and Afghanistan going to do about that, if anything? And what should the broader international community do about that?

Dr. Theodore Karasik: I think that NATO and the international community, including Russia, which must be involved in this process, there needs to be a hard effort to go after the funding streams for these groups. There also needs to be a dedicated campaign to develop the counter-narratives to combating what these Sunni extremist groups are saying. We are starting to see this a bit with various fatwa and other statements coming from the key Sunni clerics.

However, there is a disconnection between these Sunni clerics and young people, who gravitate towards the groups like the IS and others throughout the MENA region and Central Asia. There is a requirement for younger clerics to speak up, because younger clerics are seen by the young people as not being affiliated with the state. So, this is what needs to be pushed: more of a full pressure point on these Islamic groups by younger scholars, so that there is an engagement there, where you try to talk people out of joining these Sunni extremist groups.

And you also said that Russia needs to be included into this kind of effort. But what we are hearing from the top NATO officials is not exactly encouraging in that respect, is it?

Dr. Theodore Karasik: No, what NATO and the US are saying about Russia is totally counterproductive when the Sunni extremist threat is much larger. This sideshow in Ukraine, although it is very sad, has to stop. It is distracting a much needed partner in Moscow, because Russia understands very well how this Sunni extremist universe works. The Russian foreign policy and Russian security services need to be included in any kind of attempt to mitigate the threat from the Sunni extremists.

And more importantly, of course, is that Jordan and some of the Gulf states recognize the importance of Moscow, as of course does Syria and Iran, because Jordan is now working closely with Russia. We saw King Abdullah go to Moscow to meet with President Putin. This was an important development, because it goes to the heart of cooperation on those folks who are from the Russian Federation, not only Chechens and other peoples from the Northern Caucasus, but also people who are fighting with the IS and al-Nusra, who come from the middle Volga region. And it is important for Russia to be included in trying to stamp out this trend. On top of that, Russia knows how to conduct the information operations necessary, to try to mitigate the ability for these groups to recruit”.

Should Russia get involved?

Dr. Vladimir Sotnikov: You know, it is an interesting question and quite a complicated one, because Russia would be involved anyhow, because Uzbekistan is a country that is bordering Russia and it is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. So, I expect that some militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan would be going through the border between Russia and Uzbekistan, probably, aiming at committing some terrorist acts in the central Russia, like in Volgograd or in the North Caucasus.

So, really, this is a huge problem for Russia, because it is our neighbour, and Moscow would like to have a good neighbour in the name of Uzbekistan. And we have quite a good relationship now, unlike the relationship ten years ago when there were the American bases, and in particular the base in Karshi, on the territory of Uzbekistan. So, we have a good relationship.

Now, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan would try and put every effort to spoil this relationship. So, for Russia, in the sense of spoiled relations with Uzbekistan, this is one problem. And the other problem is that the militants from Uzbekistan would penetrate the Russian-Uzbek border and go into Russia to setup their terrorist activity on the territory of the Russian Federation.

But then, whom should we contact to counter this threat?

Dr. Vladimir Sotnikov: The Western partners of the Russian Federation, they are still thinking whether Russia should join the ranks of those states which are fighting the IS in Iraq. And one of their concerns is that the Russian presence in the area of Iraq and Syria, in this volatile area would enhance the Russian stance in the region.

I think that, obviously, Russia should contact the official authorities of Uzbekistan, probably, President Karimov. Or the Russian special services should contact the Uzbek special services, to make a joint plan of action, in case there will be a situation when these militants and mercenaries from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan would go into the Russian territory. So, this is obvious, I think.

This is the global danger. What these militants, these jihadist terrorists are doing now in the area of Iraq and Syria – this is not a regional threat only, this is a global threat. And, of course, we should join, but only the Russian Government should decide in what format we should join the forces which are fighting now and will be fighting in the future against the IS.

Of course, we all know that the Taliban movement, for example, was supported by the US during the civil war in Afghanistan, during the time when the Soviet troops moved into Afghanistan. It was long-long ago, exactly 20 years ago. And, probably, I'm not excluding the possibility that some special services of our Western partners were taking part in creating these movements, like the IS.

And what in essence is the IS? The IS are the militants who were trained and armed with the weapons by some of our Western partners. And now they are fighting against them, against their former mentees. So, I'm not excluding the situation that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan got the same treatment, and got the same support from some of our Western partners.

Unfortunately, this is the political life and this is big politics. And in big politics the so-called national interests are playing a big role. Just like it was when there was the Soviet Union, I think that now some of our Westerns partners still don’t like the idea that Russia would be strong and would be enhancing itself on the world arena, especially in these volatile regions, like AsPac, like the ME”.

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