Central Asia 2014: The Terror

by Nathan Hamm on 1/16/2013 · 7 comments

Yesterday, Eurasia Daily Monitor carried a “[x] in Central Asia after NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan” story, the kind of reporting and analysis that is sure to be a fixture in all Central Asia focused publications throughout this year. This particular story deals with militant groups threatening to return to Central Asia after NATO’s withdrawal.

Should anyone be very worried about this?

Central Asian security services seem, at least at times, to be concerned about this. The article offers up quotations from officials in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan worrying about the threats posed by terrorist organizations based in Afghanistan and Pakistan or of the possibility of armed incursions from Afghanistan after NATO’s combat forces leave.

So some members of Central Asian security forces are worried about this risk. Does that make it any more or less real?

The article‘s author, Jacob Zenn, acknowledges that this — whether or not the threat is “real” — is the question. He then argues that these organizations’ intentions and historical parallels mean we should take seriously the possibility that they will return to Central Asia at some point in the future.

The last time a world power withdrew from Afghanistan—the Soviet Union in 1988—many foreign fighters from Southeast Asia returned to their home countries and used the financial and logistical networks and skills acquired in the war-torn country to form terrorist groups… Central Asian fighters do not yet appear to be returning to their homelands. But history, as well as these groups’ intent, suggests that the threat of their eventual return to their home countries—whenever it may be—is real.

This is a weak, unconvincing argument backed up with essentially meaningless evidence. Boiled down, the argument basically is that some terrorist organizations have members from Central Asia and have said that Central Asia is in their sights.

The historic parallel to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan is a terrible fit. Foreign fighters during the Soviet Afghan war were almost exclusively from countries that supported or turned a blind eye to their participation. There were no obstacles to return. With Central Asian militant groups, that is most certainly not the case. Additionally, it is more difficult to think of these organizations as indigenous to Central Asia than it was even a decade ago. Leadership of many of these organizations have much stronger ties in Pakistan and Afghanistan than they do in Central Asia. Meanwhile, the number of new Central Asian recruits, while unknown, is presumably very low. In fact, it often seems that these “Central Asian” groups have an easier time recruiting in France, Germany, and Turkey than anywhere else.

So really, all that we have to judge this threat on are the statements of intent from the groups themselves. It is very generous of these terrorist organizations to share their plans with the world, but it is crucial to view those statements as the aspirational pep talks that they are. There are few signs that any of these groups have the capacity to successfully operate in most of Central Asia. Aside from what seem to be annual outbreaks of fighting in Tajikistan, the clearest evidence of any terrorist group successfully launching an attack deep in Central Asia were the several attacks claimed by Jund al-Khilafah in Kazakhstan in 2011. And in that case, it seems that the attacks may have been launched prematurely in response to security services closing in on the group’s operatives.

Zenn is correct to point out near the end of his article that these organizations are not likely to get much traction with society. He fears though that a lack of political alternatives might bolster the groups’ numbers and increase their ability to pull off attacks. That is a fair enough point. After the Osh violence in 2010, there did seem to actually be increased interest or support for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan among some ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan. But despite the group’s calls for attacks against Kyrgyzstan, absolutely nothing has happened. It is difficult to take too seriously the idea that these groups can ever present a plausible outlet for a significant portion of society in most of Central Asia given their poor capacities for organization and action.

Whether or not terror groups are likely to be more active in Central Asia after NATO withdraws from Afghanistan is a useful thing to think about, but it is vital not to overhype the risks. The governments of the region are phenomenally imaginative at devising and hyping threats to justify not only repressive domestic policies but to extract concessions from Western governments in the forms of financial assistance and tempered criticism of their human rights abuses. Assessments of the risk of terrorism need to capture the scale and timeline for the risk. Zenn is correct that there is a risk of the “return” of Central Asian terror groups at some unspecified point in the future. However, Central Asian security services have shown more than sufficient capability to monitor and disrupt terror groups. Furthermore, as grim as it is to point out, Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue to be much more permissible and target-rich environments for all of these groups.

In other word, 2014 Central Asia looks a lot like 2012 Central Asia for its “indigenous” terror groups.

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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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AJK January 16, 2013 at 3:07 pm

The vagueness makes sense, since Mr. Zenn is also a scholar of Mali (http://www.ibtimes.com/france-suddenly-intervenes-mali-turning-domestic-insurgency-global-conflict-1010218), Yemen (http://www.asil.org/reflection_zenn.cfm), and Turkey (http://www.setadc.org/young-scholars-on-turkey/ysot-events/408-lessons-from-turkish-civil-society-for-the-arab-springq-by-jacob-zenn).

You spoke with him when he showed up on Registan (http://registan.net/2012/04/10/making-sense-of-jund-al-khilafahs-claims/) but that wasn’t enough to stop Aaron Zelin from waving his claims around on a flag (http://jihadology.net/category/articles-of-the-week/page/3/).

And that was all with the first page of his google search. Quite a world traveler, that gentleman.

Steven January 17, 2013 at 6:28 am

Like elsewhere, focusing on perceived terrorism threats serves as a smoke screen for state corruption and enables governments to restrict citizen freedom. Good for the pockets of defense industry executives as well.

jake January 18, 2013 at 3:51 pm

By the way, I was right about Merah, despite the doubters at the time, when I said: “Sure, JaK may be bluffing about Mohammed Merah. But what may have happened is that Merah passed through a JaK training camp in Pakistan’s tribal areas with the approval or guidance of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. This is not such a far stretch considering that the IMU, JaK, TIP, and other Central Asian groups all have camps supported by the Taliban in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. To Merah, JaK could have been a typical al-Qaeda outfit, but to JaK Merah could have been perceived as one of theirs— hence the claims.”

If you know the Garsallaoui story, it lends much support to this idea.

Yes, anyway I’ll be in Central Asia tomorrow – so if you’re there we can meet.

Nathan Hamm January 18, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Doesn’t that imply that these guys are kind of a hot mess, to use the scientific term, organizationally. What does that suggest about their capabilities? How should we temper or qualify our risk assessments, then?

I know your aim with an article like this is likely different than mine has been when I’ve dealt with similar themes. It’s just that terrorism analysts, I’ve noticed, grab and hold onto statements of intent really tightly because that is about all that’s available for some of these organizations. Speculating and asking questions are good things, but they need to be done in both directions. Elaborate fictions are not unheard of regarding Central Asian terrorist organizations.

jake January 18, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Well, the piece is called “militants threaten return..” and the piece is about about militants threatening return… Are these groups a real “threat”? Perhaps it is relevant how one defines “threat”? Jemaah Islamiya in Indonesia carried out about 10+ attacks in 10+ years, one or two a year, and had several major embassy/hotel blasts. But they were certainly a threat. Presumably, a CA group could do that in a few a years – one or two major attacks per year. In terms of assessing threat I think you would have to say it is there, or else you would be negligent in assessing the thereat, but I understand if someone argues that these groups like TIP, IMU, JaK are not a threat — or that CA fighters not affiliated with those groups are not a threat — and that such attacks are unlikely. The larger threat may be destabilization of Fergana region (those ridiculous borders and enclaves will not last several more generations) or other parts of Tajikistan like GBAO. Also, you’re going to have major changes in leadership in the region’s two strongest countries this next decade (KZ and UZ), while Russia has experienced legitimate threats in its Ural region, the Caucasus has many threats, so it’s not a particularly stable environment, at least in my view. The main issue to me with respect to this article is if there are approx 1000 CA fighters in Af-Pak, where will they go in the future, retire their arms and go home and get a job? Go to Kashmir? Arab countries? Africa? Dagestan? Stay in Afghan? I don’t expect them to retire any more quickly than the SEAsia militants did 20 years ago, and whenever they go I would expect conflict. I think a number will go back home and can a post-Karimov UZ keep track of them all? Maybe.

Nathan Hamm January 18, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Yeah, I understood it. Like I said, I don’t think the argument you set up in there is a particularly strong one. The historical parallel is very different. Return? For a lot of the people who keep these organizations ticking, they’re already home. And even if they really do want to head to Central Asia, why wouldn’t they keep doing what they’re doing now — fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan — since that’s been fairly decent business for them.

As to the threat… Yes, it depends on how you define it. If it’s the occasional attack, then I don’t disagree. But even then, let’s actually give the security services some credit for being effective. There hasn’t been a terrorist attack in Uzbekistan since 2004 (unless you believe Andijon was one). In Kazakhstan, it’s questionable whether or not the attacks in 2011 were what was intended. There’s a whole mess of BS surrounding talk of extremism in Kyrgyzstan and whether or not terrorist groups have been behind various disruptions, but even in that permissive environment not much has happened.

So, by all means, point out that some of these groups have designs on Central Asia and want to “return.” But I think it’s very important to define how this is different from the status quo. Again though, my concern is with how this information gets translated into policies. There are more than a few people who take aspirational statements, slap an exclamation point on them, and push them up to policymakers for action. The scale of the threat should be marked as well so that terrorism gets relegated to the appropriate (read: low) priority in our Central Asia policy.

Nate January 22, 2013 at 11:44 am

This is a great way of putting it, Nathan. When we talk about threats to stability in Central Asia, terrorism/Islamic radicalism should be on the list, but it should be much lower priority than competition between organized crime groups working hand-in-glove with state apparatuses.

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