Why Do Central Asians Join ISIS?, by John Heathershaw and David W. Montgomery

Why do Central Asians join ISIS?

What little we know suggests that the non-religious reasons Central Asians join ISIS are more important than the religious factors often cited by analysts.

For almost a year, the foremost question in the minds of security analysts of Central Asia has been why some Central Asians have joined “jihad” in the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the implications of this development for Central Asian security. Recently, analysts ranging from members of the International Crisis Group (ICG) to guest columnists of the New York Times have warned that this indicates a wider “radicalisation” of the region, while only a few journalists have responded with appropriate scepticism.

For many years, Central Asian governments—fearing their societies and wanting to retain power at all costs—have used the opportunity of the “war on terror” to crack down on all  expressions of Islam, from foreign education to facial hair, which are not officially sanctioned.

Some Western officials, such as Daniel Rosenblum, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, have been more sanguine. But their governments continue to fund the “counter-radicalisation” and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) activities of repressive regimes in the region, as if the costs of these activities (in terms of being yoked to corrupt regimes) are outweighed by the risks (that these regimes will be brought down by violent extremism).

But how much do we really know about radicalisation in Central Asia? We have gone on record over the past year to suggest that we analysts actually know very little, but what we do know suggests that a widespread process of societal radicalisation leading to large-scale support for violent extremist groups is not happening. This is as true about ISIS recruitment today as it is about the disparate Central Asian violent extremist organizations (VEOs) that remain weak in the five post-Soviet republics, and as it was about the call to fight in Afghanistan in the 1990s and 2000s.

We labelled the idea of a societal shift towards radical Islam “The Myth of Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization” and pointed to its damaging consequences in legitimising the repression of unofficial Islam across the region and justifying counter-productive international partnerships in the name of “de-radicalisation.”

However, it is all very well to make such criticisms from our privileged position as academics, who are not required to provide policy solutions. It is also easy to point out that relatively few Central Asians have made the journey to join ISIS relative to Muslim populations in other neighbouring regions of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. It is somewhat incidental to point to methodological issues: the paucity of sources, that correlation is not causation, and that an explanation for the behaviour of a tiny minority cannot be found in a general claim about the majority.

The question remains: As far as we know, why do Central Asians join ISIS?

At George Washington University on 20–21 April 2015, we convened the second of two workshops on the theme of Islam, Secularism and Security in Central Asia and Beyond, supported by the British Council USA’s Bridging Voices programme. Our expert participants, some of whom are cited below, discussed many aspects of the interplay between secular states and Muslim societies in Central Asia, as well as the question of the nature of radicalisation in the region.

As Noah Tucker, one of our participants in the dialogues, observed:

“Central Asians who support or are interested in ISIL appear to mostly be young migrant labourers who have little or no background in Islam as a religion but embrace Islam as an identity that offers solidarity, a sense of belonging and an explanation for economic hardship and discrimination that they experience.”

Other than Tucker’s work on Uzbeks, and forthcoming work by Lemon on Tajiks, there is very little published research on the recruitment of Central Asians by ISIS. Estimates of their numbers range widely—from the conservative 1,000, based on official figures from the five post-Soviet republics, to the speculative 2,000 to 4,000 cited by the ICG. To make any headway, it is necessary to draw on three additional bodies of knowledge to offer some possible answers to this question. These are studies of recruitment of Muslims from other regions, the literature on the nature of radicalisation and violent extremism, and research on politics and security in Central Asia.

Drawing on all these sources, we argue that four factors are important in explaining why Central Asians join ISIS. Whilst each case is specific, there are some general factors common to those largely young men, who have been deluded by online jihadist propaganda and made the journey to Iraq/Syria. Although these factors affect Central Asian Muslims, they are not essentially about Central Asia or Islam. The term “radicalisation” is misleading.  But the attraction of the ISIS brand is global and suggests some aspects of what it means to grow up as a young Muslim during the so-called war on terror.

Opportunity to Rebel

First, as the wider literature on rebellion tells us, rebels need the opportunity to rebel. This may seem obvious, but it explains why wealthier Muslims in Europe, as well as those living nearer the conflict zone in the Middle East, are more likely to join ISIS, as they can hop on a flight to Turkey from their more open societies or get a bus to the border. We know that the opportunities in Central Asia are few and the costs great, due to the lack of resources and a restrictive society that is incessantly monitored.

Research suggests that most Central Asian recruits travel to Iraq/Syria through Russia, where they are less likely to be tracked amidst the flow of many hundreds of thousands of labour migrants. The “political opportunity structure” is more amenable there, as networks of recruitment are able to form in and around Moscow, a city with almost twice the population of largely rural Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, and other large Russian cities.

In villages in Central Asia, the internet is less accessible and any deviant activity far more closely monitored. This informal surveillance is much more effective than bureaucratic control, but in most places it supplements state suppression rather than working against it. Pockets of “extremism,” where this monitoring breaks down, are few and far between in Central Asia.

Anti-Secular Political Ideas

However, while there are millions of Central Asian migrants in Russia, only a very small proportion are recruited by ISIS. The few that make that choice express vehemently conservative and anti-secular political ideas. They rail against Western policies in the Middle East and assistance to regimes in Central Asia. They emphasize the profanities of secularised societies and the ignorance of and vulgar control exerted over Islam by Central Asian governments. By themselves, these grievances are not causal, but they are a part of the picture. As Peter Neumann has argued with respect to violent extremism, ideas matter.

Such ideas put these recruits on a completely different plane to Muslims supporting more popular movements within Central Asia, such as Tablighi Jamaat in Kyrgyzstan (which is legal) and the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (which once claimed to have 40,000 members and remains legal, barely, but beleaguered). These groups and their members are partially or completely secularised in their political views and not necessarily anti-Western. The idea touted by some Western analysts that such people are on a path towards radicalisation fails to recognise their acceptance of the secular state, which creates a vast gap between them and the extremists.

“Extremist ideology” is often identified as a specifically religious doctrine. There is no doubt that ISIS is a group whose hateful ideology and self-representations are Islamic—just consider the declaration of the Caliphate by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with its frequent Qur’anic references, and the content of ISIS’s daily propaganda. Many of these ideas are conservative (in the sense of wishing to return to an imagined past) not radical (in the sense of demanding change, innovation and novelty). In this sense the term “radical” is also misleading.

Moreover, what evidence do we have that these ideas are primarily religious and offer a coherent theological, legal and practical alternative for the Central Asian Muslim population?  Very little. ISIS’s ideas are framed in terms of Muslim against kaffir (those who have rejected the Qu’ran), but they themselves remain marginal to the mainstream legal schools of Islam. The level of religious knowledge and education remains very low in Central Asia; those who travel to Iraq/Syria rarely make reference to theology in their declarations, social media profiles and testimonies, but discuss banalities of practice as a way of demonstrating their religiosity to others. To a social scientist the religious rhetoric of ISIS looks like a secondary effect of extremism, not a primary cause.

Political ideas about the repression of Muslims appear to be somewhat more important. These can be held by someone with little or no knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence or commitment to its practice in prayer, worship and other rituals. This analytical distinction between politics and religion—a distinction found neither in the extremist ideology itself nor in the secular analysis of it—is necessary to make sense of why ISIS may attract many Muslims and even some non-Muslims with little or any knowledge of Islam.

It is the excitement of rebellion, the opportunity to fight, and delusions of grandeur offered by ISIS that are more commonly cited. In this sense, the Tajik special forces commander Gulmorod Khalimov, who defected to ISIS-held territory in Iraq/Syria, is typical in his protests against the United States, Russia and Tajikistan for their killing and repression of Muslims. It is the anti-secular politics of ISIS, not its theology and religious practice, that seem to explain its attraction to Central Asians like Khalimov, who joined ISIS despite showing no great piety or commitment to the “straight path” in their past.

Exposure to Violence

Still, there are probably many Muslims who hold these views and have the opportunity to be recruited but choose not to go. The evidence indicates that a third factor, exposure to violence, is crucial as a trigger to mobilization. This is why large-scale support for jihadism has historically only been found in war zones and refugee camps where violence is prevalent. Khalimov’s involvement in violence, in military campaigns against fellow Tajik Muslims in Rasht (2010) and Khorog  (2012), and the US special forces training he received may be important here, although it is impossible to say for certain. In the propaganda video announcing his defection, he speaks directly to the United States: “You taught your soldiers how to surround and attack, in order to exterminate Islam and Muslims.”

The absence of widespread political violence in Central Asia since the 1990s may again explain why recruitment is lower in Central Asia than in the Middle East and North Africa. However, the high rates of recruitment in Western Europe suggest that basic security and development are far from being bulwarks against extremism. In the UK an estimated 1 per 4,900 and in Belgium 1 per 1,450 of the Muslim population have joined ISIS; in Uzbekistan the rate is 1 per 54,000, in Tajikistan 1 per 37,000. (These figures are composed from the estimates of ISIS recruitment from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.)

Violence is more than physical, but also structural and cultural. It relates to threats to a person’s ethnic and gender identity as well as their basic survival. Testimonies from Western jihadists about their experiences of racism in public and hypocrisy at home suggest that feelings of shame and isolation, however misplaced, are factors in their recruitment. There also appears to be a link between domestic violence and the attraction to violent extremism, which is particularly visible in the highly patriarchal societies that prevail in much, but not all, of Central Asia.

Feelings of Alienation and Exclusion

This leads to a fourth and final factor, which is altogether more personal, more gendered and probably more important: feelings of alienation and exclusion. Rather than a gradual process of becoming more and more religious, the shift to a desire to join the jihad seems to occur quite rapidly in many cases. From Western jihadists who suddenly abandoned their university studies to modern Central Asians who rapidly “Islamised,” many cases suggest that social and psychological factors are at play. Sexual frustration and thwarted ambition are likely to affect young men everywhere, whatever their religion, especially those in the conservative social contexts of patriarchal families and authoritarian states. The role that jihadist groups play in creating community and meaning is frequently cited by those who have sought to explain their past once they have turned their backs on violent extremism.

It is this aspect that may give most cause for concern in Central Asia. Noah Tucker’s analysis of Uzbek ISIS recruits shows that all have very particular stories in which unemployment and relationship breakdown triggered a rapid move to rebellion and violence. “But the overarching pattern that I see among Central Asians is that the young people who go want to belong to something bigger than themselves, often in a situation in which they feel isolated and alone,” he commented to the BBC. “They are looking for meaning in their lives, for something significant to be a part of.”

There are significant social and political developments at work here. More important than the increasing Islamisation of Central Asia since 1991 may be the increasing conservatism and patriarchy promoted by secular regimes that are widely understood to be wholly corrupt. Early marriage, poverty and migration have all increased in volume. Education, healthcare and job opportunities have all decreased in quality. It is not good to be young in Central Asia right now, and the generation gap between Soviet-educated parents and their barely educated offspring is profound. The absence of fathers from the home and the shift away from industrial employment opportunities have hit teenage boys particularly hard.

The “youth bulge,” with close to 50 per cent of the population in some states under the age of sixteen, is characterised by a lost generation of young people in Central Asia who lack employment prospects at home, as the ethnographer Sophie Roche notes. But the remarkable coping strategies of the vast majority of older Central Asians suggest that authoritarianism and poverty are not general causes of violent extremism.  Their effects must be differentiated by gender and generation.

The research of Roche and others suggests that there is a particular strain placed on young people who become the object of patriarchal control mechanisms. In this environment, young men may turn to violence as a means to gain recognition, masculinity and honour; they may find this in combat sports clubs and/or ISIS propaganda. It is not clear whether it is religiosity that drives this process as much as a process of alienation and exclusion from one’s family and society.

Religion—part of the content, not the cause

Violent extremism remains thankfully rare in Central Asia. The two post-Soviet Central Asian cases of mass political violence that have been spuriously linked to religious factors may be instructive for those wanting to assess the possibility of further outbreaks if ISIS recruits return (although, as Ed Lemon points out, theirs is often a one-way ticket).

Tim Epkenhans shows in his prodigious study of the origins of the Tajik civil war that although religious debates were important in explaining the clergy’s disputes with one another and with the Soviet state prior to the war, they had very little to do with why Tajiks formed and joined militias.  Even those who represented themselves as guardians of Islam were propelled by a variety of political factors, the least of which was the ideas of political Islam.

Similarly, in Uzbekistan’s Andijon uprising, presented as an Islamic extremist rebellion by the government, the role of religion was actually limited, with one scholar denoting it as “epiphenomenal.”

In both cases religion was part of the context, not the cause.

Much contemporary security analysis on Central Asia focuses on one of the four factors identified here—extremist ideology—at the expense of the other three. That one factor is often misattributed as being primarily religious when it is primarily political.

Maybe if we stop obsessing about religiosity, we can begin to see the non-religious factors that really matter: how feelings of alienation and exposure to violence feed anti-secular political views amongst a very small minority of young people who are able and willing to take the opportunity to enter ISIS’s fantasy world.

These four factors are important, not just for the recruitment to Iraq/Syria that is taking place, but for the harbinger they pose for Central Asia’s political future. We need more information and far better analysis than we currently have to make sense of these phenomena. This evidence will need to draw on criminology and ethnographies of gender relations as much as security studies and “expert interviews” on Islamic VEOs if we are to get closer to the truth on this matter.

In the meantime, there are strong grounds to stop talking about piety and mosques as if they were the prime sources and sites of danger and to look instead at the non-religious reasons why ISIS’s online clarion call to join the caliphate has not gone unheard in Central Asia.

John Heathershaw is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter and Principal Investigator for the ESRC Research Project: Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia.

David W. Montgomery (ISSRPL 2003) is CEDAR Director of Program Development and Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.


This post is published simultaneously and in collaboration with the Exeter Central Asian Studies Network, and is part of CEDAR’s partnership with the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), George Washington University, and the University of Exeter in organizing a two-part conference on “Islam, Secularism and Security in Central Asia and Beyond,” part of a British Council USA Bridging Voices dialogue.

One response on “Why Do Central Asians Join ISIS?, by John Heathershaw and David W. Montgomery

  1. Sarah MacMillen

    Well done. You both highlight the important point that potent political fundamentalisms are often a reaction to social/political dynamics and existential experiences of post-modern changes and experiences. Thank you for your piece.

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