This spring USAID and MSI International commissioned me to write a long-form policy paper on the Central Asian recruiting to the Syrian conflict. Though it took a couple of months to make sure it was approved for public release, I’m happy to finally be able to share it. This report is the culmination of around two years of research on jihadist recruiting of Central Asians, the way social media has changed the recruiting and messaging process, the role of recruits in Syria and the factors some of the factors that appear to motivate a small number of citizens to join the conflict.
You can read the whole thing here.
From the executive summary:
Current estimates indicate that as of January 2015 the total number of foreign fighters in the Syria/Iraq conflict exceeded 20,700 – a figure that now surpasses the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s and makes it the largest mobilization of foreign fighters to a Muslim-majority conflict zone since World War II. Like the Afghan conflict before it, the war in Syria and Iraq appears likely to drag on for years, and has become one of the defining issues of a generation of young Muslims in Europe, the Middle East, and the former USSR – a large number of whom respond to the narrative that they are personally implicated in this foreign conflict because of their shared membership in what they see as a transnational religious community. The conflict has attracted multiple foreign groups, including both Sunni and Shi’a violent extremist groups, who view the disputed territory taken from the states of Syria and now Iraq as the primary staging ground for their vision of re-shaping the Middle East and, in some cases, the entire world. Competition between these groups frequently descends into fratricidal violence, particularly since al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and their allies disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in 2013 and tensions escalated into open warfare in early 2014.
For Central Asians watching the war from afar, the details of the conflict and the frequently warring factions that fight it are obscure. But for those interested in joining, it is a conflict about grand narratives that offer meaning to the lives of marginalized migrant workers in particular, who are the core target audience for recruiters. An increasing number of Central Asians are being drawn to both of these factions and their and to their goals. The states of the former USSR provide the third largest proportion of foreign fighter recruits behind Western Europe and the Middle East. Exact estimates for the number of Central Asians mobilized into the conflict very widely, and there are many incentives on the part of regional security services and their favored commentators to exaggerate the level of threat to the region. Regardless of these uncertainties surrounding exact estimates, it is clear that Central Asians are playing a noticeable role in the conflict and that foreign recruiting for the war has surpassed even the Afghanistan/Pakistan conflict at its height.
Today, the focus of Central Asian violent extremism had shifted to the Syrian conflict and away from Afghanistan/Pakistan, and this shift is shaped in part by geography: it is far cheaper, easier and more feasible for recruits – especially those drawn from the up to 7 million Central Asian migrant laborers working under difficult conditions and facing rampant discrimination and tightening immigration laws in Russia – to enter Turkey and go from there to Syria than to travel to Pakistan. As the focus of the global Salafi-jihadist movement (and its funders) shifted to Syria, IMU and IJU statements admitted that many veteran fighters were abandoning the Afghanistan/Pakistan zone as well as the mountains of Dagestan and Chechnya within the former USSR for Syria and Iraq.
Once they arrive in Syria, these fighters appear to be distributed into two broad affiliations, mirroring the larger fault lines of the Syrian conflict. The first, the “Aleppo Uzbeks,” comprises several smaller brigades (and an independent VEO led by ethnic Uzbeks) allied with or part of Jabhat al Nusra and based around the opposition stronghold of Aleppo in Northern Syria. The second are those Central Asians fighting as part of ISIS, based in ar-Raqqa in Syria and in Mosul in Iraq.
Migration – primarily economic migration – may be the single most important factor for Central Asian recruiting to the Syrian conflict. No detailed surveys of foreign fighters from the region have been done or are likely to ever be completed because of the difficulty accessing the groups. However, all sources of available information show recruits come almost exclusively from outside the borders of the Central Asian states and that an important part of messaging and recruitment happens online. Migration and subsequent marginalization or ghettoization breaks important community bonds for the migrants and removes them from positive mitigating factors – family, community, religious leaders – that all work to prevent militant mobilization at home. In Central Asia in particular, strong community pressure by family and elders work to restrain younger members from engaging even in peaceful political activity or participating in religious groups that might draw negative attention from the authorities.
This study finds that mobilization for the conflict among Central Asians can be grouped into three basic narratives that resonate with recruits. The most common – and most resonant – narrative deployed by the Aleppo-based groups allied with al Qaeda’s Jabhat al Nusra has nothing to do with AQ ideology or global vision, but argues that the armed opposition against the Assad government is a “just war” and a defensive conflict – jihad to defend against the slaughter of innocents.
The narratives deployed by supporters of the Islamic State, on the other hand, exploit feelings of resentment among marginalized Central Asians and promote the idea that are mistreated or disadvantaged specifically because of their Muslim identity. The Islamic state is portrayed as a “Muslim utopia,” a place where a radically different social order creates a paradise on earth that has a place for every Muslim who will support its ideology regardless of their background or status.
The third primary narrative emphasizes the power of a “Muslim” state as a counterforce to the West and the United States in particular, which are portrayed by ISIS recruiters in the Central Asian languages as the parties responsible for the oppression experienced by the migrants in Russia and other destination countries and at a home. These arguments are sustained by a constant stream of misinformation and conspiracy theories that populate both the social media information environment inhabited by Central Asian migrants and the steady drumbeat of Russian media propaganda that, perhaps surprisingly, reinforces many of the same themes.
Responses to this mobilization by Central Asian governments have focused almost exclusively on their own narrative that the Islamic State has territorial ambitions in Central Asia and presents an imminent existential threat – a view that very few outside analysts share. However, policy changes by the governments suggest that, rhetoric aside, they understand the real threat that the conflict in Iraq and Syria poses. But most of these policies fail to address the issue of migrant recruiting or the domestic factors that drive migration. No matter how effective they may be at preventing the spread of Syria- or Iraq-based VEOs from expanding their recruiting or military operations into Central Asia, these policies may fail to counteract the problem of recruitment since most of it appears to happen when citizens are pushed outside the territory of their home states and their supportive home communities. Without changing this fundamental approach, current measures may fail to have any real effect on violent extremist mobilization.
Much of the Central Asian public reaction to the rise of ISIS has been spurred by conspiracies alleged in the press and by Central Asian politicians that promote the belief that ISIS is an American “puppet” created to hinder the development of Muslim-majority countries. Central Asian governments frequently choose to fuel, rather than correct, these conspiracies. Promoting the narrative that the economic and social problems that cause migration in the first place are the fault of the United States unwittingly plays directly into the recruitment narratives promoted by ISIS supporters. Refusing to acknowledge the local roots of fundamental problems that spur migration is likely to only deepen the economic and political marginalization experienced by migrant workers that makes them vulnerable to violent mobilization along religious or ethnic lines.
Both state and public responses in Central Asia to the Syrian conflict have troubling implications for the United States government. State policies that both fuel and reflect anti-American attitudes are growing in the region and among its large population of migrants living abroad, especially in Russia. Perhaps more than anything else, the issues of the Syrian conflict illustrate the need for the United States to work to actively to rebuild trust with the peoples of Central Asia.