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Is ISIL Going to Enter Central Asia?

Is ISIS going to enter Central Asia?
We have been reading reports in the press recently of young Muslims in the North Caucuses and from Central Asia itself joining ISIL, and even of a possible spring ISIL offensive against Tajikistan.

How much truth is in these reports, and if a war should break out, who will counter ISIL? Joining me to talk about these issues is Dr Theodore Karasik, a Dubai-based geopolitical analyst.

Is it likely that ISIL will actually enter Central Asia or not?

Dr Theodore Karasik: I think within the Islamic State plans they seek to enter Central Asia sooner rather than later. The evidence of that is they have hundreds of fighters from the Northern Caucasus and the Central Asian States who have firmly undergone training in the Levant. On top of that they have other cells that are formed in Northern Afghanistan who intend to target Tajikistan and Kazakhstan as well as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

That’s pretty frightening scenario you are painting. Now, on the other hand, I understand that Central Asian republics are Muslims, you know, people do believe in Allah. Why on earth should ISIL enter Central Asia? Who are they going to fight against when 95% of the population is Islam?

Dr Theodore Karasik: You have to understand that the Islam that is practiced in Central Asia is of course one of the Sunni variants. However it’s been modified through Russian history as well as local culture and customs. With the radicalization process that Daesh practices, if you will, or Islamic State members go through, they tend to particular ideas in terms of fighting extremism that are evenly spread in communities in central Asia for those people who are outside of government control, in other words people in rural areas and perhaps in certain suburbs or major cities are susceptible to these kind of ideas.

And as in Tajikistan and probably I don’t know about Uzbekistan but definitely Turkmenistan and I think that there are quite a large amount of areas which are rather government-controlled, right?

Dr Theodore Karasik: In a sense yes, we have to remember that ever since the Soviet Union broke up, two decades plus ago, that Central Asia has been evolving itself in the sense of governance, army, and so on, and we’ve seen a number of outbreaks of violence that were all ethnically based or clan-based if you will.

We’ve also had incidents of Islamic terrorism and that label was given to some of these incidents because the perpetrators happened to be Muslims. Now we’ve entered into a new dimension were there are this areas were Islamic State can gain a threshold because the Islamic State represents an alternative government and economic model that people like, because their lives can improve and they get higher salaries under this economic idea.

And that’s very attractive in an area of an average income of two or three hundred dollars a month, and very serious environmental problems particularly in Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan I understand.

Dr Theodore Karasik: Yes, that’s correct. You have to remember that in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan and also in the mountain parts of the eastern part of Tajikistan, these locations have always been notorious if you will for being outside of government control or areas that we would call, in the western sense, rebels against the capitals of Bishkek or Dushanbe. These are areas that Al Qaeda and Daesh have tried to penetrate before and that was demonstrated in recent history by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

And I guess that’s the important thing: breaking people from a clan-based system, I mean, us westerners, we think that things aren’t going so well in Central Asia because of repression and not very much freedom of speech and so on. But in fact, people’s consciousness is not really there, it's in a different place, it's much to do with the clan-background or clan-warfare.

Dr Theodore Karasik: Ever even before the Soviet Union seized to exist, in Central Asia clans always mattered and so still to this day you see it, in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the other Central Asian states, and the clans are all based on region, and these clans occupied various ministries or security organs.

The revolutions that we’ve seen in Kyrgyzstan are all between the various clans in the north and south fighting over power. The clan identity is very, very strong, is the main driver of the societies, but at the same time those tribes are being influenced by outside pressures and those that find themselves outside of this system of ethos are susceptible to Islamic State teaching.

Let’s just dedicate to talking about the worse possible scenario. If large scale violence should break out, and lot of people is saying the Iraqi and Syrian scenarios is impossible for Central Asia, but let’s just say it happens. Who is going to counter this? Who is going to come in, China? Russia? US? EU? Iran? Turkey? Do you know?

Dr Theodore Karasik: I think that what we’ve witnessed in an inner region with the formation of coalitions led by a particular country, for example what the US-led coalition in the Levant and in the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthies in Yemen, I would likely see the formation of a SCO-led coalition to try to take back control of the area within a Central Asian state were a Caliphate appendix may appear but it also involve counter-terrorism, special operation forces on the ground near from the country in question or from the SCO as an organization. I’d not see America involved in a counter-terrorism operation in Central Asia, this is the backyard of Russia and China, the de-facto intruders is their responsibility.

OK, you mentioned the SCO, but what about what about the other organizations, like the CSTO, a defense alliance which formed out of the previous CIS arrangement?

Dr Theodore Karasik: Right, this organization will also be involved but it's actually the SCO that has more of the meaning edge if you will, in terms of their organizing, training, and equipping capability.

The CSTO is indeed a collective military organization. The SCO has more bite. I think that when it comes to an issue such as having the Islamic State in Central Asia.

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