Posts Tagged ‘Kazakhstan’

Another piece for the excellent Nikkei Asian Review, this time trying to make the point that there is a missed opportunity for the west in Central Asia. It is a not a new point for me, but it does seem to be something which is all the more relevant given current events in Ukraine. The title is a bit more blunt about the great gaming element of the intended idea than was meant, the idea was really about getting the west to focus on the region and highlight the region’s agency a bit more.

Western powers should exploit Central Asia’s unease over Ukraine war

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have both distanced themselves from Moscow

Demonstrators take part in an anti-war rally in support of Ukraine in Almaty on Mar. 6: Kazakhstan has allowed large protests against the war.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire” (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been received differently around the world, especially in Central Asia, where the two most powerful countries have both expressed clear signs of concern at Moscow’s behavior. There is an opportunity here for the West if they have the agility to take it.

While the modern countries of Central Asia were among the last to separate from the Soviet Union, since then, they have embraced independence and sought to forge a sense of nationhood. Still, when it comes to Russia and its potential to behave like an overbearing bully, there remains a lurking sense of trepidation, even though Russia remains vital to their development, security and future.

Nowhere is this more true than in Kazakhstan, where a similar narrative that Russia has used to invade Ukraine twice and Georgia can also be applied.

In the north of Kazakhstan, there is an ethnic Russian community that makes up around 20% of Kazakhstan’s total population. At the same time, Vladimir Putin sometimes takes digs at Kazakhstan’s legitimacy as a state; a theme periodically picked up by Russian nationalist commentators and officials who like to claim that Kazakhstan or at least part of it is theirs.

While few in Central Asia were surprised by Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine, this had not diminished their horror at what was unfolding there. For the region, Ukraine was an important partner as well as a fellow former Soviet state.

Central Asia has expressed concern about Russian behavior before. In 2008, they criticized Russia’s actions in Georgia, while in 2014, they sought to try to find ways of encouraging Moscow to peacefully resolve its dispute with Ukraine. In both instances, Russia sought to pressure the Central Asian powers to back its actions.

This time around, the Central Asian powers have been even more vocal. While Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have stayed predictably quiet, the Kyrgyz have made positive remarks seemingly supportive of Putin’s actions but also allowed protests against the war. But the two most powerful states, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have made clear signs of wanting to highlight their independence.

Neither country has acceded to Russia’s request to formally recognize the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kazakhstan has allowed large protests against the war, sent aid to Ukraine and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has held talks with Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In Uzbekistan, while public opposition to the war has been more limited, influential Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov declared his support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Moscow has also not been oblivious to the mood in Central Asia. In mid-March, Russia held large-scale training exercises in Tajikistan, while Russia’s Minister of Economic Development Maxim Reshetnikov spoke at a Tashkent trade event highlighting the opportunities for Uzbekistan in the wake of Western sanctions on Russia, as well as encouraging Uzbekistan to play a more active role in Eurasian Economic Union.

Central Asians only need to look back to last August at the fall of Kabul to remember how Moscow rushed in with military aid and support to defend themselves from the unfolding chaos in Afghanistan, while it was Russian soldiers who were called on by Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country during violent protests at the beginning of the year.

Collective Security Treaty Organization peacekeepers are on guard in Almaty on Jan. 11: It was Russian soldiers who were called on by Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country. (Handout photo from Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)   © AP

All of which makes the signals from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan over Ukraine all the more striking. While the criticism may be tempered, it is nevertheless a sign that both countries are eager to show they are not in lockstep with Moscow.

The most recent sign of this was Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko telling German newspaper Die Welt last week that Kazakhstan did not want to be on the wrong side of a new Iron Curtain and would welcome any companies who were finding themselves obliged to exit Russia as a result of Western sanctions.

This was an opportunistic statement and a clear message that Kazakhstan has little desire to be consigned to simply being part of the Russian space involved in a geopolitical conflict with the West. Instead, Kazakhstan wants to maintain its links with the West, something reinforced by the reforms President Tokayev has announced in the wake of the civil unrest earlier in the year.

All of this presents an interesting opportunity for Western countries if they can figure out how to take it. Central Asia’s two most influential players have hinted at a desire to assert their independence from Russia, but Western powers have largely taken their eyes off Central Asia in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. This disinterest was compounded by the unrest in Kazakhstan earlier in the year, which highlighted the region’s volatility, as well as the fact that a tendency toward repression still exists.

For Western powers eager to find ways of shaping the new global order to their advantage, however, Central Asia is an interesting theater to explore. Increased Western support for Central Asia would create some complexity for Russia on its other flank while also helping encourage regional powers to continue on their stated paths of greater openness, governance and the rule of law.

More updating from last month, this time a piece for the South China Morning Post which attracted a certain ire online at the time looking at China’s broadly passive approach to all of the trouble on its periphery of late. My point was maybe not as strongly put as the headline, but as ever headline writers are focused on clarity and not subtlety.

Eurasia in turmoil: how China’s passivity foments the chaos

  • From Afghanistan to Kazakhstan and now Ukraine, the Eurasian heartland has fallen prey to three forces: authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity
  • Beijing may be happy to sit out the chaos for now but it will ultimately spill over and create problems it cannot ignore
A sign outside the the Canadian embassy in Beijing on March 3 in support of Ukraine. Photo: AFP

It has been a tumultuous six months for Eurasia. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan last August was followed by widespread civil unrest in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year and now a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While Russia has had a prominent role in each context, it is China’s perspective that people most frequently ask about. Yet Beijing has stayed broadly passive, highlighting the role that China sees for itself in the world.

China may be the new superpower on the international stage, but it appears to have little interest in committing itself to resolving any problems that emerge in its neighbourhood or beyond.

The attention on China can sometimes seem exaggerated. We look for Beijing’s view on everything nowadays, sometimes where it is unlikely to be relevant. Yet the truth is that Beijing is a significant actor in all three Eurasian contexts.

China remains the putative largest single external investor in Afghanistan, is Kazakhstan’s second-largest trading partner (and fastest-growing investor), and since 2019 has been Ukraine’s largest trading partner.

China has undertaken or signed contracts for large-scale investments in all three countries, is an important trading partner and (in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan) has a particular interest given the shared borders.

So it is not entirely surprising that people look for China’s views in these contexts, and expect Beijing to want to step in when things turn bad. Yet, in each situation, China has instead stood by to let others try to fix the problems.

A similar playbook can be observed in all three cases. In the first instance, Beijing apportions blame – often finding the United States culpable for the situation.

In Afghanistan, the American withdrawal precipitated the Taliban takeover, making it an easy connection. In Kazakhstan, mutterings of “colour revolutions” started in Moscow and Nur-Sultan, giving Beijing ample fuel to point towards the US. And in Ukraine, China has continued to point to US-driven Nato expansion as a key underlying reason for the conflict.

Having blamed the US, the next step is to try to embrace tightly. In Afghanistan, this has led to a surge in Chinese activity on the ground, regular aid, close engagement with the Taliban authorities, regular championing of their interests at the United Nations and the constant promise (that has yet to materialise) of larger-scale investment.

In Kazakhstan, Beijing picked up seamlessly from where it left off before the trouble in January, while in Ukraine it is trying to sell itself as an impartial supporter of both sides.

Yet in all of this, Beijing commits very little. The constant presentation of multiple-point plans to resolve situations are largely empty declarations which appear well meaning but are not followed by any real evidence of effort to resolve the situations. Instead, they largely state the obvious and seem to suggest that Beijing is somewhat above the situation as a benign observer.

There is no doubt some element of Beijing’s stasis is not really knowing what to do. China’s offers to act as a peace broker have tended to be hollow, usually offering a table around which the various parties can sit.

While this is a useful role, a proper negotiator will need to work the various groups, understand their interests and force heads together. This is also likely to mean telling people what they do not want to hear, something Beijing is never very interested in doing as it potentially creates adversaries.

But so far, by sitting and watching, Beijing has not done itself much ill. While its international standing may be damaged among those who would like to see it take a more active role, by not doing so, China is leaving itself in a position where it can continue its relations with whichever party comes out on top.

And given Beijing’s strong economic interests in every situation, all the parties involved will usually have a strong incentive to continue to engage with Beijing after the chaos subsides.

But there is a longer-term problem here, which may eventually cause China some regret. The result of this passivity has been a Eurasia increasingly in tumult.

As Washington leads the West in a mostly seaborne crusade in the Indo-Pacific against China, we see the Eurasian heartland fall prey to three forces. Authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity. The result has been large-scale loss of life, and growing constraints on people’s liberties.

This is the net result of a Eurasian heartland abandoned to local forces, and increasingly overseen by superpowers who see value only in shaping history when they deem it important to their grandeur, and otherwise seem content to simply let things play out, no matter the consequences on the ground.

For now, China might be happy to watch things play out. But, unfettered, these forces are likely to create nothing but misery and a Eurasian backyard in which China will find itself the dominant power watching over chaos.

And while in the short term it might be possible to find some benefit from this situation, in the longer term, it will spill over and ultimately create problems that Beijing cannot just watch from the sidelines.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

More catch up posting from last month, this time a short piece for the wonderful Nikkei Asian Review looking at how Central Asia is likely to suffer from the chaos generated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Have a few more since this which make similar points but through different lenses, but for now enjoy this.

Central Asia braces for economic catastrophe

Sanctions aimed at Russia will have serious knock-on effects

Migrant workers from Uzbekistan collect potatoes at an agrarian field in Beryozovka near Russia’s Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk: their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire” (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Across what is still referred to as the former Soviet space, there has been a sharp intake of breath. While many have grown accustomed to overbearing Russian behavior, few expected the dismemberment of Ukraine.

For Central Asia, the consequences go deeper than worrying whether they might be next. The intertwining of their economies with Russia means the drastic sanctions being imposed on Moscow will likely hit them too. And for a region that is increasingly being targeted by the West, this will further exacerbate economic suffering.

It is not so long ago that Central Asia was actively calling for greater Russian military support. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, Russian forces rushed in to undertake joint training exercises with Tajik and Uzbek forces, while Moscow sped through military sales to customers across the region.

In January, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on Russian forces, under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to help reestablish control in the wake of violent protests wracking his country.

For Central Asians, Russia remains an essential security partner. While China is seen as ascendant, it is Russia that remains hugely significant in political, economic and security terms.

The truth is that while Beijing may be the rising power, China tends to be quite passive, as its responses to the crises in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan have shown. Similarly now with Ukraine, Beijing appears largely content to talk rather than actually try to do something on the ground.

While China sees Central Asia as five nations it wants to do business with, Russia takes a more paternalistic view, in some cases even questioning their viability as states. Vladimir Putin has on occasion questioned Kazakhstan’s nation status, just as he has with Ukraine. This worries Central Asians.

Take Kazakhstan, which has a population of around 3.5 million ethnic Russians, nearly 20% of its population, concentrated near its border with Russia. It is very easy to envisage a scenario where Moscow stakes a claim to these people back in much the same way as in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 first crystallized this concern. At the time, Moscow not only sought regional endorsement through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but recognition of the two breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Moscow claimed it had gone in to defend. This appeal was roundly rejected, with China in particular horrified by the precedent that Moscow was setting.

Fast forward to today, and while it is clear that Central Asians are uneasy, there is a lot less condemnation. In fact, in a conversation with President Putin, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov appeared to support Russia’s position, prompting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to withdraw his ambassador from the capital Bishkek.

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Sadyr Japarov during a meeting in Strelna on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg, in December 2021: the Kyrgyz President appeared to support Russia’s position. (Handout photo from Kremlin Press Office)    © Reuters

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both found themselves pulled into the information war, with both being forced to deny that they supported Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Kazakhstan that they had been asked to participate in the fighting by Moscow. In Uzbekistan, the government issued a statement pointing out that any national who was found to be fighting for a foreign army would be prosecuted upon return home.

Ultimately though, it will be economic questions that will dominate minds across Central Asia. Millions of Central Asian citizens work in Russia, and their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income, something that will be hit by the abrupt drop in the value of the ruble.

The collapse in the value of the Russian currency has also led to massive knock-on devaluations across Central Asia as markets reflect on the consequences of Russia’s exclusion from the international economy.

Russia is a major investor and partner to all five countries. Russia has reportedly invested around $40 billion in Kazakhstan alone since the fall of the Soviet Union, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are bound intimately to the Russian economy as members of the Eurasian Economic Union.

All of this means that when Russia suffers economically, Central Asia feels it. Now, the region is bracing for the worst. Central Asia may have experienced something similar following the 2014 sanctions leveled against Russia, but this time the hit is likely to be exponentially harder.

All of which comes at a moment of great flux in a region still suffering from the fallout from COVID. Add to that, Kazakhstan is still recovering from the national unrest that rocked the country in January, Turkmenistan is in the midst of a leadership transition, and Tajikistan appears to be on the cusp of something similar.

Many geostrategists may be tempted to conclude that Beijing is likely to benefit. And there is no doubt that this will strengthen Chinese options in the region. But the reality is that Central Asia will still be very much tied to Russia, with all the consequent loss of income that will entail. Central Asian migrant labor will struggle to find the same opportunities in other countries.

Now entirely encircled by countries that are being targeted by escalating Western sanctions — Afghanistan, Iran, China and Russia — Central Asia is increasingly finding itself between an economic hard place and a politically precarious one.

Pushed into a corner not of its choosing, the collateral damage to Central Asia from Putin’s Ukrainian invasion is likely to be considerable.

More very late posting, this time from January for the Straits Times looking at how China was impacted by events in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year. Seems a world away from what we are facing now, though there is clearly a link that runs through Moscow.

China’s Kazakh Concerns

China is going to find that Kazakhstan is not the secure and predictable neighbour that it was, says the writer. PHOTO: REUTERS

When Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) vision in 2013, he started it with a speech in Astana, as the capital of Kazakhstan was then called.

In an expansive speech, Mr Xi articulated the importance of Kazakhstan within his broader vision of Chinese policy across the Eurasian landmass.

The Kazakh government appreciated the speech and the wider concept, so much so that a year later then President Nursultan Nazarbayev articulated his own national economic strategy called Nurly Zhol (bright path), which built on the Chinese ideas and projects. 

China and Kazakhstan would grow and prosper together. The Kazakhs benefited from Chinese trade and investment while Beijing appreciated having a stable “soft authoritarian” success story on its border. This intertwining highlights the importance of Kazakhstan to China, and explains the consequent horror with which Beijing watched the chaotic way in which the country welcomed in the new year. 

Chinese strategists were not alone in being shocked at the chaotic scenes that have played out over the past couple of weeks. Central Asia watchers both within the region and beyond were equally surprised by the turn of events, which began as demonstrations against a fuel price hike and escalated into violent clashes with hundreds reported dead and injured.

STABILITY AND PROSPERITY

Most used to see Kazakhstan as the most stable and prosperous country in what is still described as the post-Soviet belt that surrounds Russia. The government was an almost perfect articulation of the concept of “soft authoritarianism”, in which a strong authority dominated the country but left a certain space for political discourse, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a free (but controlled) media. 

The main reason it was able to do this was the massive wealth accumulated by the government, thanks to its large mineral and hydrocarbon reserves. 

These were exploited by numerous foreign companies, including Western ones.  Chinese firms have long looked at Kazakhstan as an important opportunity. Soon after the country’s independence from the Soviet Union, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) stepped in to exploit oil fields in Atyrau on the shores of the Caspian Sea.  In order to get the oil back to China, it built China’s first direct oil pipeline which stretched from Atyrau back to China covering more than 2,300km of the empty Central Asian steppe. This was only the first of numerous hydrocarbon projects. 

And it was not only a story of oil and gas. Mining company Kazakhmys, which dominates Kazakhstan’s rich copper reserves, received loans of around US$4.2 billion (S$5.7 billion) from the China Development Bank. The company would regularly take some parts of its loan facilities in yuan, something the Chinese bank appreciated as it helped with its wider strategy of trying to get the Chinese currency in wider global circulation, as well as ensuring that Chinese firms were used as contractors. 

Kazakhstan is one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, and in November last year started a joint venture with Chinese firms to produce nuclear fuel – a key part of China’s national energy strategy to reduce their carbon footprint. Kazakhstan is also a major target for Chinese agribusiness eager to take advantage of the vast underpopulated territory. 

According to Kazakh Invest data, there are some 20 million hectares of arable land (roughly the size of the United Kingdom) and another 180 million ha of meadows and pastures. This is very attractive to a country like China, with its booming population of middle class consumers looking for bountiful cheaper food options. 

Shortly before the Covid-19 outbreak, Kazakhstan opened a new market in Wuhan, where its products were sold. This became an early victim of the pandemic.  Kazakhstan was also a crucial first way station in the BRI. As mentioned, this was the country where Mr Xi first articulated his vision, even though elements of his ambitious trans-continental network were in existence long before the concept was announced. 

Kazakhstan had long sought to develop its rail and road links to China, eager to access its markets.  In the early 1990s, then President Nazarbayev had encouraged opening up his markets and rail routes to China, keenly sending his representatives to a Eurasian rail connectivity conference hosted in Beijing by then Premier Li Peng in 1996. 

For China, the Kazakh connection was useful more as a path on the way to more prosperous and populated markets in Russia and Europe. Either way, the two countries saw mutual advantage, with the Kazakhs getting infrastructure and transit fees, while China had a smooth path across the Eurasian heartland. 

Yet all this was thrown into question these past couple of weeks. The unexpected chaos in Kazakhstan caused concern among investors around the world. 

Western consultancies with large offices in big cities Nur-Sultan (Astana’s current name) and Almaty (the biggest city in the country) suddenly lost communications with them during the Internet outages amid the protests. Chinese firms were slightly more insulated from these disruptions, as most of their in-country staff were based at remote locations near oil fields or mining concessions.

PASSIVE BUT POINTED RESPONSE

While the riots look to have been put down, questions remain over stability in Kazakhstan and how China will manage this relationship going forward. At the moment, the response has been fairly passive, though pointed.  In a message to Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in the wake of the violence, Mr Xi talked about “colour revolutions”, highlighting the degree to which China was concerned about the instability in the country. 

This was an allusion to Western interference, referring back to the series of government overthrows seen in the former Soviet space in 2004, when Ukraine underwent a so-called “Orange Revolution”, Georgia a “Rose Revolution” and Kyrgyzstan a “Tulip Revolution”. For the Russians and the Chinese, these uprisings were widely seen as being linked to American-sponsored NGOs. 

For Beijing, the “colour revolutions” as well as the “Arab Spring” are like deadly viruses – something to be kept out lest the “bug” of public uprising catches on in China too. 

Yet, notwithstanding these concerns, China has done little in trying to help stabilise the situation. Instead, it has sat back and applauded as the Kazakhs called on Russia to step in and help bring stability under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Moscow-led alliance of six former Soviet states. 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi did offer “law enforcement and security cooperation” to help the country oppose interference by “external forces” – a narrative which echoed the explanations offered by the Kazakh government for the unrest. But these are likely just words. There is little to suggest the Kazakhs would take the Chinese up on the offer. 

This is in part because it is not clear what China would really be able to contribute that would be needed by the Kazakhs. There are also sensitivities at a public level about the relationship with Beijing. China has always struggled with an underlying sense of Sinophobia in the country. 

Earlier attempts by Chinese agribusiness to rent land in Kazakhstan had led to protests against the government for selling the people’s national patrimony to foreigners. Back in 2010, protests and violence erupted in Zhanaozen over a dispute between workers and a local CNPC affiliate, leading to at least 14 deaths. There have also been repeated lower-level clashes in the country between Chinese workers and locals. 

More recently, Covid-19 has made things even more awkward. While the Kazakhs have been keen to keep the borders and trading going, the Chinese have made entry to China very difficult. Although goods were coming out of China, they were not going back into the country. 

This had led to problems in Kazakhstan, in terms of sellers struggling not only to get their goods to China but also through it to other markets. Lianyungang, a city in Shandong, is heavily used by Kazakh sellers eager to gain access from their landlocked country to global markets. The Kazakh economy, already suffering from the effects of Covid-19, now found that the BRI, which was supposed to be about free-flowing connectivity, suddenly went only one way.

WORRIES AHEAD

All of this sets the context for how China is going to have to manage future relations with Kazakhstan. It is clearly happy that Russia had stepped in to help stabilise the situation, but the Kazakh government still has a lot of work to do in resolving bigger entrenched problems such as a glaring income divide, corruption and elite power contests. 

China is unfortunately a part contributor to these issues. Its investments have tended to engage with the elites, with locals feeling cut out. While Mr Tokayev will undoubtedly want to maintain the strong economic relationship with China, it will now have an added layer of concern to it from the Chinese perspective, and he will have to juggle his desire to keep Beijing happy while finding himself needing to answer to his local population in a more timely manner than before. All of which is likely to mean China is going to find that Kazakhstan is not the entirely secure and predictable neighbour that it was. 

The bigger problem for China is that if this is the case in Kazakhstan – the starting point of the Belt and Road chosen in large part for its stability – where else might their current assumptions be wrong

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, and the author of the forthcoming Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Have been very slow in posting of late for a wide and varied set of reasons – stuff at home, lots of work and generally chaotic start to the year. Made all the worse by current events which seem to continue to trump themselves in misery. Anyway, first up, one of three contributions to this year’s Annual Assessment Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) for my Singaporean host institution the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). This ones provides an overview of events last year in relation to extremism and terrorism linked to Central Asia – either in the region or beyond. As ever, enjoyed doing this with Nodir.

Central Asia

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

Despite the absence of recorded terrorist attacks over the last two years, countering terrorism and extremism remained a security priority for the five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in 2021. This is primarily accrued to potential risks arising from the presence and activities of Central Asian jihadist groups in Syria and neighbouring Afghanistan, where the radical Taliban movement took power in August. In both theatres of conflict, Central Asian fighters continue to fight under the protection and control of bigger militant groups such as the Taliban, Hay ’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Islamic State (IS). Another ongoing challenge is the exploitation by regional groups of online tools to radicalise, recruit and fund-raise both within the region and amongst diaspora communities scattered around Europe, Russia and beyond.

Militant Groups in Afghanistan

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has left Central Asia with a complex security dilemma along its border. While Afghanistan’s strategic landscape may differ from the five Central Asian states in a number of ways, the presence of interlinked cross-border communities, as well as relatively porous borders and linked economies, also binds them together. The overriding regional security concern is Central Asian militant groups that had been fighting alongside the Taliban will take advantage of the situation to regroup and refocus their attention towards Central Asia, using Afghanistan as a springboard. This, alongside the possibility that the wider militancy in Afghanistan might lead once again to an unstable state whose violence might overspill in other ways into the region, has put Central Asian authorities on alert.

For more than two decades, Afghanistan has sheltered various Central Asian militant groups. Currently, four Central Asian militant units, namely the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Jamaat Ansarullah (JA), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU or IJG) and the Afghanistan wing of Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) are known to be active there. All four groups operate under the protection and control of the Taliban and retain some ties among themselves. From the late 1990s to early 2010s, IMU, JA, IJU and two other Central Asian groups, Jund Al Khilafah and Jaysh Al Mahdi, which might not be active presently, had carried out some significant attacks in Central Asia from their bases in Afghanistan-Pakistan, while maintaining close links with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda (AQ).

Over the past decade, the aforementioned Taliban-linked groups have not carried out an attack in Central Asia. Nor have there been many large-scale plots disrupted by local governments that were planned by them.651 While this could partly be explained by the Central Asian states’ increased capacity to prevent attacks, another significant factor could be the Taliban’s prohibition of its foreign units to involve themselves in external operations or their sustained focus on fighting the Afghan National Army and western forces.652 While there has not been much public reporting around this, as the Taliban had been in protracted negotiations with the US government in recent years, they did start to issue edicts aimed at their foreign militant allies. For instance, in September 2020, the Taliban reportedly ordered the foreign groups operating from their territory to halt unauthorised travel and recruitment.653 Other leaked messages from the Taliban to their commanders and other groups had contained instructions to refrain from using Afghan territory to plan or execute external attacks, while some also detailed punishments if these groups worked with foreigners without special permission from the central leadership.654

Before capturing Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban used these foreign fighters as foot soldiers in their offensives against the Afghan forces, the US-led coalition and jihadist rivals. This generated a lot of video and other visual content which the groups would actively promote to highlight their activities, further recruit, fund-raise and radicalise. However, since 2020, the Taliban has prohibited Central Asian groups from publishing online photo and video materials of their activities in Afghanistan.655 As a result, their release of online propaganda materials has dropped precipitously. It is unclear how much this correlates with a cessation of activities, but it is likely part of an attempt by the Taliban to hide the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan.

Before the Taliban takeover, the IMU, with less than 700 fighters and their family members, were residing in the Afghan provinces of Faryab, Sar-e Pol and Jowzjan.656 The group was reportedly experiencing financial difficulties after the Taliban reduced financial support to them in the wake of their former leader Usman Ghazi’s defection to IS in 2015. Ghazi was killed by the Taliban as punishment in late 2015. The result of this clash was that the IMU would splinter into two factions: one comprising predominantly ethnic Uzbek militants (led by Jafar Yuldash, the son of Takhir Yuldash, the notorious founding leader of the group who was killed in 2009) and the other with mainly ethnic Tajiks (led by “Ilhom” alias “Usmoni Khon,” Yuldash’s former deputy). IMU has been significantly weakened in recent years by the loss of key leadership, the Taliban’s pressure and ongoing internal fissures within the group. It remains unclear how close the respective factions are with the Taliban, though their continual presence in Taliban controlled areas in Afghanistan shows they are clearly still dependent on their support to some degree.

Unlike the IMU, JA remains a reliable partner of the Taliban. Made up mainly of ethnic Tajiks, the group is known as “the Tajik Taliban” in Afghanistan. Its leader, Muhammad Sharifov (alias “Mahdi Arsalan”), who is originally from Tajikistan’s eastern Rasht Valley, is said to have at least 200 fighters under his command.657 In July and August 2021, the Taliban relied on JA when it captured the northern Afghan provinces. including Badakhshan, which shares a common border with Tajikistan. The Taliban have placed Mahdi and his militants in charge of several districts in the northern region, and armed them with new military vehicles (including Humvees), weaponry and other equipment seized from the toppled Afghan civilian government. While expressing doubts over the seriousness of the threat these groups pose across the border, Tajik authorities have heightened security along their own borders. The Taliban has denied that the militants were planning to infiltrate Tajikistan.658

Separately, the KIB’s Afghan wing, with about 25 to 150 fighters, was based mostly in Badghis. The group had reportedly received funding from its central core in Idlib through hawala methods to increase its operational capability.659 KIB’s leader Dilshod Dekhanov (alias “Jumaboi”) has encouraged the Taliban leadership to bring together all Central Asian militant groups in Afghanistan under his command. Some factions, however, instead proposed the IJU’s current leader, Ilimbek Mamatov (a Kyrgyz national who is also known as Khamidulla), as the overarching commander.660 Overall, the fate of Central Asian groups in Afghanistan, and their potential unification prospects remains unclear since the Taliban returned to power.

Militant Groups in Syria

In Syria, AQ-linked Central Asian combat units such as Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ) and KIB’s central core have remained active. As in previous years, both KTJ and KIB are part of the jihadist alliance of HTS, itself an evolution of AQ’s former representative on the Syrian battlefield. There are no official updated numbers on the force strength of KTJ and KIB in 2021. However, relevant reports from 2020 and recent online propaganda videos featuring militant training sessions suggest both remain among the most prominent foreign militant groups in Syria, commanding hundreds of fighters.661

KTJ is still led by Khikmatov (alias “Abdul Aziz”) and Akhliddin Novkatiy (Navqotiy), who serves as his deputy. Like KTJ’s former leader, both figures are hardline Salafi-jihadist ideologues who constantly preach before KTJ fighters and their families and release recorded videos online. Mainly, their propaganda appears designed to emphasise the importance and legitimacy of conducting armed jihad in Syria.

In this light, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan represents an iconic moment for Central Asian groups. In August, KTJ posted a video on its Telegram channel congratulating the Taliban on its “victory,” which it claimed “was achieved through a sustained patience and determined struggle.” In a recent video, Khikmatov also claimed that “the fate of the state built by Morsi” in Egypt was a “reminder of realities that it would be impossible to build an Islamic state through political methods.” For its part, KIB still operates under the command of “Abu Yusuf Muhajir,” who also actively engages in jihadi preaching activities.

Amidst their ongoing dispute for supremacy in Idlib, HTS and Hurras ad-Din (HAD), AQ’s current affiliate in Syria, had also jostled for control over the Central Asian fighters operating in the territory. As discussed in the previous year’s reporting, this had ended with the arrest of KTJ’s former leader, Abu Saloh, by HTS for attempting to defect to HAD. There has been some speculation about his subsequent fate. According to the United Nations’ (UN) reporting, Abu Saloh was given the choice of declaring his affiliation to HTS or being convicted of theft.662 Others speculated that HTS had considered deporting him to Russia, where he is suspected of masterminding the 2017 metro bombing in Saint Petersburg, if it could receive a substantive bounty in exchange.663 Currently, his status is unknown.

Nearly three years after IS’ territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq, Central Asian fighters have become nearly invisible. Whilst many detained IS women and children have been repatriated by their respective governments, the remaining IS fighters from the region have either gone into hiding or are scattered across ungoverned parts of Syria and Iraq and continued fighting. Some of those still at large have also opted to leave the battlefield to return home or relocate elsewhere. For instance in February 2021, Turkish security agencies in the city of Kilis detained Amanbek Samat, a former IS militant from Kazakhstan’s Atyrau region as he attempted to cross the border from Syria.664 Kazakh authorities worked closely with their Turkish counterparts to extradite Amanbek, who was on Kazakhstan’s most wanted terror suspect list.665

Internal Challenges

In 2021, Central Asian countries continued to foil attack plots and arrest suspected terrorists and self radicalised individuals. In the first half of the year, Kazakhstan had recorded 139 criminal cases related to terrorism and extremism, largely involving online radicalisation and the propagation of violence.666 This marked a twenty percent increase over the same period in 2020. Most cases were observed in the southern provinces of Turkistan and Jambyl as well as Shymkent city. In January 2021 in Kyrgyzstan, security agencies arrested a Kyrgyz national for planning to attack a local military unit under the instruction of an unnamed international terrorist group, of which he was suspected of being a member.667 Later in July, a Kyrgyz citizen who returned home from Afghanistan allegedly on the pretext of carrying out an attack was also detained.668 Details around this case were not released, making it hard to assess any potential links to Afghan jihadist groups. However, reflecting local officials’ concerns around the cross-border links of radicalised Kyrgyz, two individuals were arrested in October for their involvement in fund-raising believed to be linked to the January 2017 IS-linked shooting at an Istanbul nightclub.669

In August in Tajikistan, the Minister for Internal Affairs revealed the authorities had thwarted three attacks in the first six months of 2021 in Farkhor, Isfara and Vahdat districts. The foiled attacks were reportedly planned by members of IS and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). The latter is banned in Tajikistan and designated an extremist and terrorist organisation.670 The country also arrested 143 suspected members and supporters of other banned terrorist and extremist organisations, including IS, AQ, JA and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Uzbekistan in April, security authorities revealed they had thwarted two attacks in 2020, without providing further details.671 Further rounds of arrests were also conducted across the country throughout 2021, disrupting several online recruitment and fund-raising cells particularly linked to KTJ.672 In June, Uzbek authorities detained members of two separate support cells in Jizzakh and Samarkand for trying to travel to Syria to join KTJ and propagating extremism among residents in these provinces.673 In the same month, police also held another 20 individuals from Sirdaryo on suspicion of distributing ‘extremist materials’, while seizing extremist literature, a laptop, pistol, and sniper rifle.674 As in previous years, no reporting was available from Turkmenistan.

Diaspora Radicalisation

The networking of Central Asian and Russian-speaking fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the ability of such networks to reach out and radicalise some segments of Central Asian and Russian diaspora communities abroad, particularly in Europe and Russia, remains a security concern. In March 2021, investigators in France revealed that Abdoullakh Anzorov, a Chechen immigrant who murdered the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb, was in direct contact in October 2020 with Farrukh Fayzimatov, an Idlib-based Tajik militant, through Instagram right before the murder. Fayzimatov is an active member of HTS who goes by the nom de guerre “Faruq Shami,”675

While it remains unknown what role (if any) Fayzimatov might have played in Paty’s murder, Anzorov reportedly had regular discussions with him about jihadi topics. It also should be noted that Paty’s murder came a month after Fayzimatov called for an attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s offices, while expressing his own readiness to take part in it, in response to the republication of the controversial cartoon of Prophet Muhammad.676 An HTS spokesperson claimed that they did not know Anzorov, but stopped short of condemning the murder.677

Despite allegations that Fayzimatov might have been killed in Idlib, recent videos discussing battleground events in Syria indicate that he is still alive and continues working for HTS as an important virtual jihadist propagandist and fund-raiser. Since 2016, Fayzimatov has produced hundreds of audio and video propaganda materials in Russian and Tajik. In July 2021, the US Treasury Department blacklisted Fayzimatov for providing financial and material support to HTS.678 Through various online crowdfunding campaigns, Fayzimatov has apparently collected several thousand dollars in Bitcoin (BTC) and other cryptocurrencies transferred from multiple US, Russian, Asian and European exchanges.679

Like in recent years, Russian authorities in 2021 continued to investigate and arrest Central Asian migrants suspected of having links to terrorist or extremist groups. Most arrests involved cases of terrorism financing and recruitment as well as attack plots linked to members and supporters of KTJ in particular. For instance in August 2021, Russian security services rounded up 31 suspected members of KTJ in a coordinated operation across Moscow, Yakutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk.680 According to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the detainees were part of an “interprovincial structure of terrorists” that had transferred funds and recruits to Syria and called for committing terrorist crimes in Russia. However, it did not reveal how many of those detainees were from Central Asia.

Similar but smaller scale arrests of Central Asians in Russia with links to KTJ took place in February in Novosibirsk and Tomsk, in May in Kaliningrad, and in October in Moscow and Vladimir. Other frequent arrests involved members and supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) within this migrant community. HT is a transnational pan-Islamist and neo-fundamentalist revolutionary group, which has been banned in Russia and all Central Asian countries and designated an extremist and terrorist organisation. Similar arrests involving HT-linked individuals are conducted regularly in Central Asia, particularly in Kyrgyzstan.

In previous years, concerns had been raised about a segment of the Central Asian diaspora networks in Europe having possible links to terrorist networks in the Syrian and Afghan conflict zones. In 2021, however, there were no major disruptions from this community. Previous cases, however, continue to work their way through the system, with police in Germany finally incarcerating a member of a Tajik cell detained in April 2020 for planning attacks on US military facilities, while posting charges against five of his associates.681 In January, a Greek court also refused an extradition request by Tajikistan against a 27-year-old individual accused of being an IS member. According to reports, the Tajik national, who was initially arrested in Tripoli in November 2020, had claimed the extradition request was politically motivated as he was the persecuted brother-in-law of an IRPT member.682

The case reflects an ongoing issue between Europe and Central Asia involving aspects of cooperation on counterterrorism, where European courts continue to accuse some countries in the region of alleged human rights abuses, which the latter have often refuted Still in other areas, it is notable that Central Asian states are providing some European powers, Germany and France in particular, a great deal of support, including supporting their evacuation of nationals and others stranded in Afghanistan. Beyond Europe, countries in the region have developed bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation, including the extradition of terrorist suspects, with countries such as Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Responses

Broadly, state responses in Central Asia for managing extremism and radicalisation have stayed fairly constant. Governments maintain heightened security measures, while also working through international partnerships to disrupt militant networks. Concurrently, community-level programmes have been rolled out to counter-radicalisation. A major effort deployed (to varying degrees of success and commitment) across the region is the deradicalisation and reintegration of those repatriated from Syria.683 While no independent evaluations of these programmes exist, it is notable that no plot involving returnees has been publicly highlighted yet.

Over the past year, the major shift in the threat picture has been prompted by developments in Afghanistan. Despite shared concerns, the five Central Asian republics have adopted differing responses to the ground situation and the Taliban’s return. Most in the region have viewed the Taliban’s capture of power in Afghanistan as a new reality to contend with, and sought to develop pragmatic but cautious relations with the new authority in Kabul. For now, this pragmatic relationship has been confined to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, re-establishment of mutual trade and discussions on important security issues, including the Taliban’s future relationship with Central Asian militants in territory under its control.

Beyond this, it will likely extend to an establishment of diplomatic relations only after international recognition of the Taliban-led government is attained. Ashgabat was one of the first capitals to engage with the new Taliban government, publicly meeting with them repeatedly long before Kabul fell. During the closing weeks of the Republic government, Turkmenistan faced clashes directly on its borders; as soon as the Taliban took over, they rapidly re-engaged and commenced talks about restarting major infrastructure projects connecting Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

Tashkent sees shutting off economic and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan as something which will only risk greater instability.684 The bigger question for Uzbekistan is the degree to which they will engage a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan into their vision for a greater Central Asia, which includes Afghanistan. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has placed great emphasis on his regional foreign policy initiative and, shortly before the fall of Kabul, hosted a large conference focused on Central and South Asian connectivity, with Afghanistan sitting at its core.

In contrast, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon has chosen to turn his country into the main home for opposition figures to the Taliban, hosting numerous elements from the Northern Alliance faction that used to dominate Kabul. Shortly after the Taliban’s takeover, President Rahmon signed a decree which posthumously awarded the country’s third highest honour, the Order of Ismoili Somoni, to Ahmed Shah Masood and Burhanuddin Rabbani, two dead leaders of the Northern Alliance who had fought against the Taliban and also played a role in Afghanistan’s brutal civil war.685 The awards have been followed by open and loud condemnation of the Taliban and a continuing willingness to back opposition groups.

Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have taken a more circumspect approach. While Kyrgyzstan in particular had suffered in the late 1990s from numerous large assaults by militants in the south with links to groups in Afghanistan, both countries have now established direct contact with the Taliban and largely accepted them as a new reality.686 Additionally, they seem keen to work both bilaterally and through regional structures like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to manage their responses.

Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan’s responses have also been bolstered by external military support, including from Russia. In the weeks before Kabul fell, Moscow held joint military exercises near both countries’ borders with Afghanistan. Russia has also sped up military sales, and sent military aid to the region. Mirroring its particular concerns, China undertook some limited joint exercises with Tajik Interior Ministry forces, and offered more support for Tajik border forces. China has also increased its diplomatic activity in Central Asia, though this reflects a wider range of concerns beyond just terrorism and extremism.

Outlook

The fate of Central Asian militants in Afghanistan will largely depend on the commitment, ability, and approach taken by the Taliban in dealing with foreign militants in the country. So far, the discussion around foreign militants has focused on western fears about AQ’s revival, the potential for the Taliban’s implacable adversary, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), to export terrorist violence or how the Taliban are managing the Uyghur contingent wanted by Beijing, believed to be in Afghanistan. Whilst historically, the Uyghur group has been close to the Central Asian militants fighting alongside the Taliban, the latter could now seek to decouple them, reflecting very different concerns in Beijing vis-a-vis Central Asia.687

In Syria, Central Asian fighters continue to play an active part in ongoing fighting, though it is not clear that their trajectory varies from that of HTS or the other remnant IS fighters on the ground. While the Central Asian governments continue to express a high degree of concern about the potential for terrorist violence to affect them, attacks are rare, and few indicators point to this changing soon. As in elsewhere, the spectre of foreign fighters returning home to launch terrorist attacks has not yet materialised, though they remain a concern for regional governments for the near to medium term.

The other key element involves the instances of Central Asians appearing in terrorist networks outside their region. While still an occasional occurrence, that Central Asian jihadist groups and ideologues continue to exploit – to varying degrees – online platforms, such as Telegram, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to post and disseminate their extremist materials underscores their connection with the increasingly diffused diaspora. Sometimes, this has manifested in attacks around the world, though the degree of direction involved is not always clear (for example, the Samuel Paty murder). Instead, the continuing presence and spread of extremist materials, inspiring segments of the Central Asian diaspora, provide another reason for security officials to be concerned about them.

About the Authors

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isnsoliev@ntu.edu.sg.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

651 Attacks which have taken place have been linked elsewhere (for example, the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was linked to Central Asian and Uyghur militants in Syria).

652 Further, it should be noted that sustained kinetic operations by the US-led international coalition has been another important factor in the decline of the militant threat in Afghanistan in the last decade as they had restrained the organisational capability of Central Asian groups, in addition to killing or capturing key jihadist leaders.

653 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 18, https://www.undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/486.

654 Rahmatullah Amiri and Ashley Jackson, “Taliban Narratives on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” Centre for the Study of Armed Groups Working Paper, September 2021, https://cdn.odi.org/media/documents/Taliban_narratives___13_Sept.pdf.

655 “Sovet Bezopasnosti OON: Taliban prodolzhayet pokrovitel’stvovat’ tsentral’noaziatskim dzhikhadistam,” The Center for Studying Regional Threats, March 19, 2021, https://crss.uz/2021/03/19/sovet-bezopasnostioon-taliban-prodolzhaet-pokrovitelstvovatcentralnoaziatskim-dzhixadistam/.

656 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 20.

657 “Commander of Jamaat Ansarullah Radical Group Declares His Readiness to Invade Into Tajikistan,” Asia-Plus, October 7, 2021, https://asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/security/20211007/commander-of-jamaat-ansarullah-radical-group-declares-his-readiness-to-invadeinto-tajikistan.

658 “Tajikistan Concerned About Taliban Plots to Infiltrate From Afghanistan,” RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, September 25, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-concernedtaliban-plots/31477716.html.

659 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 20.

660 Prior to the Taliban takeover, the IJU had about 100 fighters active in Faryab and Kunduz provinces. See “2002 god. Prednovogodniy terakt,” AKIpress, December 27, 2017, https://kg.akipress.org/news:628918.

661 HTS has involved these groups mainly in frontline duties, running checkpoints and offensives against the Syrian army.

662 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (February 3, 2021), 16, https://undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/68.

663 Charles Lister, “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Fight for Supremacy in Northwest Syria and the Implications for Global Jihad,” CTC Sentinel 14, no. 7 (September 2021): 1-105, https://ctc.usma.edu/twenty-years-after-9-11-thefight-for-supremacy-in-northwest-syria-and-theimplications-for-global-jihad/.

664 “Zaderzhan kazakhstanets, kotorogo nazvali odnim iz samykh razyskivayemykh terroristov,” Tengrinews, February 20, 2021, https://tengrinews.kz/world_news/zaderjankazahstanets-kotorogo-nazvali-odnim-samyih429572/.

665 “KNB raskryl lichnost’ samogo razyskivayemogo kazakhstantsa,” Sputnik, March 2, 2021, https://ru.sputnik.kz/society/20210302/16427658/KNB-raskryl-lichnost-samogo-razyskivaemogokazakhstantsa.html.

666 “Chislo svyazannykh s ekstremizmom i terrorizmom prestupleniy vyroslo v Kazakhstane,” Tengrinews, September 3, 2021, https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/chislosvyazannyih-ekstremizmom-terrorizmomprestupleniy-447516/.

667 “V Kyrgyzstane predotvratili terakt v voyskovoy chasti — GKNB,” Sputnik, January 2, 2021, https://ru.sputnik.kg/incidents/20210102/1050972720/kyrgyzstan-gknb-terakt-predotvraschenieterrorizm.html.

668 “V Kyrgyzstane zaderzhan boyevik, planirovavshiy sovershit’ terakt,” 24kg, July 16, 2021, https://24.kg/obschestvo/201365_vkyirgyizstane_zaderjan_boevik_planirovavshiy_sovershit_terakt/.

669 https://svodka.akipress.org/news:1736685

670 “MVD: v Tadzhikistane udalos’ predotvratit’ triterakta,” Sputnik, August 4, 2021, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/20210804/mvd-tajikistanterakt-1041398103.html.

671 “SGB predotvratila 2 terakta v Uzbekistane v 2020 godu,” Gazeta, April 5, 2021, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2021/04/05/securityservice/.

672 “V Syrdar’ye zaderzhany chleny terroristicheskoy gruppirovki “Katiba Taukhid val’-Dzhikhad,”” Podrobno, July 20, 2021, https://podrobno.uz/cat/obchestvo/v-syrdarezaderzhany-chleny-terroristicheskoy-gruppirovkikatiba-taukhid-val-dzhikhad-/.

673 “Zaderzhany 14 chelovek, podozrevayemykh v popytke primknut’ k boyevikam v Sirii,” Gazeta, June 11, 2021, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2021/06/11/terrorism/; “Jizzaxda Suriyadagi terrorchilik tashkiloti tarkibiga kirmoqchi bo’lgan shaxslar qo’lga olindi,” Daryo, June 15, 2021, https://daryo.uz/k/2021/06/15/jizzaxda-suriyadagiterrorchilik-tashkiloti-tarkibiga-kirmoqchi-bolganshaxslar-qolga-olindi/.

674 “20 chelovek, podozrevayemykh v ekstremizme, zaderzhano v Syrdar’ye,” Gazeta, June 17, 2021, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2021/06/17/extremists/.

675 Thomas Chammah, “Assassinat de Samuel Paty : le dernier contact du tueur identifie en Syrie,” CNews, March 10, 2021, https://www.cnews.fr/videos/france/2021-03-09/assassinat-de-samuel-paty-le-dernier-contactdu-tueur-identifie-en-syrie; “Posobnikom ubiytsy uchitelya vo Frantsii okazalsya urozhenets Tadzhikistana,” Sputnik Tajikistan, March 9, 2021, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/20210309/urozhenetstajikistan-soobschnik-terrorista-france1032967527.html.

676 “Kak spetssluzhby Ukrainy formiruyut rusofobskuyu povestku v siriyskom Idlibe,” RIA FAN, December 3, 2020, https://riafan.ru/1345935-kak-specsluzhbyukrainy-formiruyut-rusofobskuyu-povestku-vsiriiskom-idlibe. This came after a separate attempt in France by a young radicalized Pakistani who tried to kill two journalists outside Charlie Hebdo’s old offices.

677 Luc Mathieu, “Le Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, parrain syrien d’Anzorov?” Libération, October 23, 2020, https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:6147-P9D1-JBW3-818W-00000-00&context=1516831. It is worth noting that in other contexts, HTS has been linked to attacks which it has kept silent about – like the 2017 metro bombing in St Petersburg which Russian investigators had linked to the group.

678 “Counter Terrorism Designations; Syria and Syria-Related Designations and Designations Updates,” July 28, 2021, https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/financialsanctions/recent-actions/20210728.

679 “OFAC Sanctions Syrian-Based Terrorist Financier and Associated Bitcoin Address,” TRM Labs, July 28, 2021, https://www.trmlabs.com/post/ofac-sanctionssyrian-based-hayet-tahrir-al-sham-terroristfinancier.

680 Roman Shimaev, “«Osushchestvlyali perepravku rekrutov v zony boyevykh deystviy»: FSB zaderzhala boleye 30 terroristov v chetyrokh regionakh Rossii,” Russia Today, August 25, 2021, https://russian.rt.com/russia/article/899393-fsb-zaderzhanie-terrorizm-yacheiki-regiony.

681 “Germany Charges Five Tajiks Over Islamic State Membership,” RFE/RL Tajik Service, February 15, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/germany-charges-fivetajiks-over-is-membership/31104482.html.

682 Yannis Souliotis, “Court Rejects Tajikistan’s Extradition Request for Alleged Jihadist,” Ekatheimerini, January 1, 2021 https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/261187/court-rejects-tajikistan-s-extradition-request-foralleged-jihadist/.

683 Kanymgul Elkeeva and Farangis Najibullah, “Central Asia Struggles to Reintegrate Islamic State Returnees,” RFE/RL, November 6, 2021 https://www.rferl.org/a/central-asia-islamic-staterepatriation/31548973.html.

684 Kamran Bokhari, “The Friend America Needs in Afghanistan,” The Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-friend-americaneeds-in-afghanistan-taliban-aid-diplomacyuzbekistan-11635708869.

685 “Tajikistan Posthumously Awards Afghans Masud, Rabbani With One of Country’s Highest Honors,” RFE/RL Tajik Service, September 2, 2021 https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-masudrabbani-awards/31440569.html.

686 Bruce Pannier, “Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Open Channels With the Taliban,” Qishloq Ovozi, October 1, 2021 https://www.rferl.org/a/kazakhstan-kyrgyzstantaliban/31487684.html.

687 So far, it is hard to gauge the Taliban’s actions in this regard. Having won the war fighting alongside these militant groups, it may see little reason to betray them. There is also a danger in rejecting one group, as the others will immediately fear a similar betrayal in future, potentially stirring tensions within Taliban ranks.

Been very busy with other things of late and have entirely failed to post. As a result a short backlog has accumulated, while some bigger projects and issues elsewhere have kept me rather busy. Anyway: catching up now starting off with a piece for the South China Morning Post on China-Russia relations over events in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year. Crazy to think how far we have come now with everyone’s attention firmly on Ukraine.

Why China won’t lose sleep over Russian troops in Kazakhstan

Suggestions of China-Russia rivalry for power in Central Asia miss the mark. In reality, while both are active in the region, their roles are more complementary than competitive

Russia is the de factor provider of security guarantees, while China is the economic opportunity everyone wants to tap

The outbreak of violence in Kazakhstan has awakened the question of Sino-Russian competition in Central Asia. The assertion of Russian hard power is interpreted as being an example of Moscow getting the upper hand, to Beijing’s detriment.

Yet this analytical framework is unhelpful in really understanding the situation or the nature of the current China-Russia relationship. Beijing and Moscow have no reason to clash with each other over Kazakhstan. Rather, they will play the situation to their advantage and further freeze out the West from the Eurasian heartland.

China and Russia’s broad interests in Kazakhstan are the same. Both want a stable country that is in their collective economic and military thrall, and ideally with looser ties to the West.

China has the upper hand in economic terms, but this is partially because Kazakhstan is rich in the raw materials needed for the Chinese economy. In contrast, Russian firms see Kazakhstan as a state in which they can ply their trade, and to which they have easier access thanks to the Eurasian Economic Union.

Russian service members disembark from a military aircraft as part of a peacekeeping mission from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation amid mass protests in Almaty and other Kazakh cities, at an airfield in Kazakhstan. This still image is from a video released by Russia’s Defence Ministry on January 8. Photo: Handout via Reuters

Russian service members disembark from a military aircraft as part of a peacekeeping mission from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation amid mass protests in Almaty and other Kazakh cities, at an airfield in Kazakhstan. This still image is from a video released by Russia’s Defence Ministry on January 8. Photo: Handout via Reuters

In strategic security terms, Russia has long had bases in Kazakhstan. The arrival of Russian forces under a Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) banner is new – both in terms of Russian deployments in Kazakhstan and in a first for the CSTO. But it is not clear how or why this might be a challenge to China.

Beijing has not expressed an interest in deploying its forces in Kazakhstan. China and Kazakhstan have done training exercises together, but these have been limited and done either bilaterally (mostly on counterterrorism questions) or under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), of which Russia is also a member.

Beijing has pressured the Kazakh government to do something about dissident networks of Uygurs, and it has in the past sought to get permission for its private security companies to operate in the country. While the Kazakh government was willing to accede to the first request, they were unwilling to let Chinese private security firms in.

None of China’s activity has been about competing with Russia. China is consistently focused on its specific interests in Kazakhstan.

Containers are loaded onto a train to Kazakhstan in the China-Kazakhstan Logistic Base in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, on September 17 last year. The base is an important seaport for Kazakhstan export and provides efficient transit for cargo and consumer goods from the Central Asian country. Photo: EPA-EFE

Containers are loaded onto a train to Kazakhstan in the China-Kazakhstan Logistic Base in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, on September 17 last year. The base is an important seaport for Kazakhstan export and provides efficient transit for cargo and consumer goods from the Central Asian country. Photo: EPA-EFE

Where there was a possible overlap in competition with Russia was on military sales, with Chinese firms having sold high-end weapons to the Kazakh government, like drones, some air and missile systems, as well as technological surveillance and communications tools. It is, of course, possible that these arms sales are depriving Russian companies of contracts, but Kazakh purchasing is done on the basis of quality and price, rather than Beijing trying to edge Moscow out of Kazakhstan.

In fact, China is happiest when someone else is dealing with Central Asian security questions. In the immediate fallout from the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, it was not Chinese soldiers or weapons that were rushed to Central Asian borders, but Russian ones.

On the economic side, Russian companies are active in Central Asia, but cannot compete with their Chinese counterparts, whose appetites are on a different scale.

Similarly, the almost bottomless Chinese consumer market is something that Central Asian producers are increasingly keen to have access to. The entire economic geography of this region is being pulled towards China not because of geopolitics, but because of its sheer economic weight.

The “Silk Road economic belt” strand of the Belt and Road Initiative, which cuts through Central Asia, also ties Russia into China’s wider vision of global prosperity. Consequently, Moscow has little interest in complicating it; rather, it is focused on ensuring it benefits as well.

The point being, this is not a competitive relationship. Beijing and Moscow are both active in Central Asia, but are different actors on the ground. Russia is the de facto provider of security guarantees, while China is the economic opportunity everyone (including Russia) wants to tap.

Seeing this through the lens of competition suggests that Beijing would rather be the one who is stepping in to provide security guarantees, and that Moscow is somehow going to push China out economically. There is little evidence in either capital that this goal is in play. Rather, they both seem happy to operate in parallel, playing a supportive rhetorical role and staying out of each other’s way.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his videoconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow on December 15 last year. Photo: Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his videoconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow on December 15 last year. Photo: Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The question is in the medium to longer term – when China starts to worry about being dependent on Russian security guarantees.

At the moment, Beijing seems comfortable. But, at some point, this thinking may change. In many other places, China has increasingly started to try to provide its own security guarantees, and there is no reason to think this might not also take place in Central Asia.

On the other side of the coin, the tipping point for Russia is likely to be when Chinese economic investment into Central Asia starts to turn into unfettered Chinese economic influence and power in Russia directly.

But this concern appears to be receding, as Moscow seems to increasingly welcome and open up its economy to Chinese investment and connections – in large part due to tensions with the West.

But none of this is about Kazakhstan. Rather, this is about China and Russia’s larger posturing and view of their respective roles in the world. Within this context, Beijing is happy if Moscow is going to play a role in tidying up what looks like an increasingly messy bout of political infighting in Kazakhstan, while Moscow is pleased to be seen as the regional security guarantor.

In contrast to many other situations involving China, this is a win-win for them both.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

With this piece I finally catch up to current events in my writing on Central Asia. I realize have been writing a lot about it late last year, and thus far don’t think events have vastly disproved what I wrote. Certainly, did not predict things, but then no-one really did. This short piece for my UK institutional home RUSI in the wake of events in Kazakhstan has I think stood reasonably well so far, but it remains still to be seen what the longer-term impact of events in Kazakhstan at the end of the year might be.

Kazakhstan in Crisis: It’s About the Country, Not Big Power Politics

The true significance of current events in Central Asia’s biggest country remains domestic.

Protests in the Kazakh city of Aktobe, 4 January 2022. Courtesy of Esetok / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The sudden and chaotic start to the year in Kazakhstan has taken even the most seasoned Central Asia watchers by surprise. The extreme and widespread violence and protests have been made even more shocking by the extraordinary decision of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to request the deployment of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help bring stability back to the country. Given wider global tensions with Russia, the prospect of a Russian-led military deployment in the country has been interpreted through the lens of Russian geopolitics and President Vladimir Putin’s aspirations, but this misses the degree to which this is about events in Kazakhstan.

Well-Concealed Cracks

For years, Kazakhstan has been considered among the most stable and prosperous of the belt of countries surrounding modern Russia. Endowed with enormous mineral wealth, the country seemed to be tacking a very different path. Autocratic and ruled largely by the same group who had been in power at the end of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s elites had also used their wealth to foster a growing middle class, which included large numbers of smart young Kazakhs whose education was paid for to help the country develop. Glittering events and buildings showcased the country to the world as a very different sort of post-Soviet state.

Yet, cracks existed beneath this façade. The ruling class was dogged by tales of massive corruption. Protests would periodically emerge, a sign of deep unhappiness in parts of the country that had not benefitted in the same way as the capital city. But the country was also home to a thriving NGO community and an active (if controlled) media, and was considered a place where a certain degree of openness was permitted. The government would tolerate some dissent, but would ensure that it never challenged its authority.

This generally positive trajectory clearly masked a more brittle structure than was generally thought. While regional watchers were unsurprised by the violence that marred Kyrgyzstan’s elections in October 2020 – the latest in a sadly long history of such violence – the sudden and widespread protests and subsequent violence in Kazakhstan have come as a shock. While it remains to be seen how organised any of it has been, there seems little doubt that underpinning it all is a deep well of local anger.

Botched Handling of Crisis

Part of this can be seen in the government’s initial reaction. Recognising what was happening needed a dramatic response. President Tokayev initially responded by removing from power the cadre of officials linked to the country’s founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev who were blamed for much of the corruption and inequality in the country. The father of the nation who had shepherded his country out of the Russian-Soviet yoke, Nazarbayev had formally stepped down as president in January 2019, handing over the reins of power to Tokayev – a longstanding member of his close cabinet. President Nazarbayev retained his influence, however, including as Chairman of the powerful National Security Council. His family and allies continued to control key parts of the country’s wealth and hold great power. The smooth transfer to Tokayev, however, was praised, although it was never entirely clear how much had actually changed.

Yet Tokayev’s sop to the protestors did not work. Pictures emerged from around the country of police putting down their weapons and joining the protestors. The decision to remove Karim Massimov, a close ally of Nazarbayev, from his role as head of the National Security Council showed how little faith Tokayev had in his own security forces, while also firmly cementing the removal of Nazarbayev’s cadre from the central leadership.

Pulling Out All the Stops

Hence, the decision to call in the CSTO. Fearing that the chaos in the country was escalating out of control and that his own security forces would not hold muster, it is clear that Tokayev felt he needed an external hand to help steady the ship. Russia initially seemed to dismiss the issues in Kazakhstan, with presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling the media ‘we are convinced that our Kazakh friends can independently solve their internal problems’. The Kremlin also warned others not to interfere in Kazakhstan, while various Russian commentators took this one step further and accused the US of being involved in instigating the trouble in Kazakhstan.

While the subsequent Russian action in sending its forces into Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO mission seems to entirely contradict these Kremlin statements, it is a response to events on the ground and requests from Kazakh authorities. This is not an informal invasion, or a way for Russia to firmly embed itself in Kazakhstan to draw the country back under Moscow’s sway. The truth is that Kazakhstan will always likely be tied to Moscow, no matter who is in charge. The country is bound through treaties, geography, infrastructure and population to Russia. Whoever is in power in Nursultan will have to have a good working relationship with Moscow. And while there has undoubtedly been a growth in anti-Russian sentiment in the country over the past few years as the government has sought to develop its own national identity and pride, Moscow is still an important partner (and locals tend to be even more sceptical of other partners like the US or China).

And even if Kazakhstan were to choose a different path, it would likely be towards China. In fact, both Nazarbayev and Tokayev have sought instead to strike a path between Russia and China, leveraging Kazakhstan’s natural wealth to foster an independent, ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy which attempts to stay somewhere in between the two (and even close to the West, where possible – Europe and the US are important economic partners for Kazakhstan).

Implications

Clearly, the credibility of this narrative is now in question. But this should not be interpreted as the success of Russian adventurism. Rather, it should be seen as a reflection of realities on the ground in a country whose government clearly did not appreciate the depth of its people’s unhappiness, which was playing out some complicated internal politics and which was always likely to rely on its traditional security partner, Russia, to play a supportive role in extremis.

The world should not be confused by the tweeting of Russian commentators in the West and meddlesome pro-Kremlin commentators in Moscow – echoed by parts of the Chinese state media – who suggest a larger plot which encompasses Ukraine and Belarus and falls into the geopolitical confrontation between Russia/China and the West. These events are about Kazakhstan.

This is not mere sophistry. For, if the events are seen only through the lens of confrontation between the West and Russia, then current developments could lead Kazakhstan to turn away from the Western direction it has kept trying to steer itself towards. If, however, the emphasis is placed on the issues underpinning the violence in the first place and efforts are focused on persuading the government to try to actually address those problems, it is possible that a better outcome can be found.

Of course, this will be hugely complicated by the presence of Russian forces under the CSTO banner. And it is possible that we will discover the levels of violence that took place over the past few days will fundamentally change things on the ground. But Kazakhstan is a country whose natural wealth and confidence does give it options – even if, at least for the moment, it seems to have taken the wrong ones.

It is a new year and there is a lot going on, something that I mean in every way. A lot of big projects landing this year, as well as various substantial papers. That on top of stuff in life in general means it is going to be very busy, and it seems as though posting material on here has already fallen foul of my scheduling! Am going to try to catch up slowly on myself, but have quite a few bits to do. Am also going to try to get back to posting my media comment highlights as well, but that is going to be an adventure for another day. First of all, a piece for the ever wonderful Nikkei Asian Review which ran back in early December before the current chaos in Kazakhstan. I have a lot more on those events which will come in due course, and of course all of this China-Central Asia writing is hopefully whetting your appetite for the forthcoming book, Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, which should be landing in April this year (and if you are so minded, can be pre-ordered here). A lot more on this to come as you can imagine.

Ties that bind Kazakhstan to China are starting to unravel

Frustrations with Beijing are becoming increasingly visible

Nursultan Nazarbayev, right, and Xi Jinping attend a news briefing after signing bilateral documents in Astana in September 2013: Kazakhstan’s view on its connections to China is not as rosy as they once were.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).”

When President Xi Jinping launched China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, he chose to do it in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana, where the concept of connectivity with China has been playing out for years.

Since then, Astana has changed its name to Nursultan, and Kazakhstan’s view on its connections to China is not as rosy as they were when the Silk Road Economic Belt was launched.

Among the countries that most warmly welcomed the Belt and Road Initiative, Kazakhstan had already been embracing Chinese investment for some time. A year after Xi’s speech, then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev inaugurated his own national vision Nurly Zhol, or Bright Path, which consciously sought to build on what was then called the Silk Road Economic Belt that President Xi had announced in Astana. Kazakhstan predicated its national development on China’s new foreign policy vision.

Yet, nearly a decade later, Kazakhstan is finding binding itself tightly to Beijing comes with as many problems as benefits.

Some of these issues are long-standing. In mid-November, Kazakh authorities reported that the water level in Lake Balkhash will fall to a critical point by 2040 unless something urgent is done, in particular at the consumer end of the river Ile in China. Kazakh authorities are developing plans, but most of them involve requiring China to curb its water consumption. Shrinking aquifers are not a new problem, but it has a growing urgency.

This is not the only waterway that Kazakhstan has problems with. Its shared rivers with Russia and Uzbekistan also suffer from similar problems, but the Chinese water consumption is causing the drying up of a critical lake.

But while too much Kazakh water is flowing into China, not enough Kazakh goods are. According to Kazakh data, between January and September 2021, food exports to China dropped 78%.

By March, a bottleneck of some 12,000 railcars had accumulated, and long queues of trucks were stopped at the border as stringent Chinese COVID-19 regulations prevented Kazakh products from getting in at the same rate as they were before.

Trains loaded with containers at the Altynkol railway station near the border with China in Kazakhstan, pictured on Oct. 26: stringent Chinese COVID-19 regulations prevented Kazakh products from getting in.   © Reuters

To the extreme irritation of Kazakh producers, transit traffic passing through Kazakhstan to and from China is facing no such delays. In fact, transit traffic has increased. This would seem to violate a key Belt and Road concept, which is supposed to be all about improving trade and connectivity among China’s neighbors first and foremost.

Another aspect of the Belt and Road idea that Central Asian nations have always liked is the idea that as manufacturing got priced out of China, production would move into their countries.

While Kazakhstan was never going to be that attractive for low-end manufacturers, the country did hope to reap some benefit from China’s economic boom, not just in terms of trade but helping its economy advance, and succeed in attracting some Chinese companies across the border.

Beijing’s decision to crack down on cryptocurrency mining has offered an unexpected opportunity for this transfer. Since China moved to shut down bitcoin mining in May, a substantial number of Chinese companies migrated to Kazakhstan, attracted by the country’s tech-friendly policies and cheap electricity.

However, these miners’ electricity consumption was too much for the Kazakh national grid to bear, forcing them to request more electricity from neighboring Russia that has created a new set of tensions with Moscow. This unexpected surge in demand for electricity is not the sort of technology transfer Kazakhstan was hoping for.

There is an element to which blaming all of these problems on the BRI is unfair. Geography can often be seen as the root issue. Similar issues are less relevant in more distant BRI countries. But at the same time, it does show the dangers of being overdependent on China, and how abrupt changes within China can have destabilizing consequences on countries that are heavily dependent. It also quite clearly undermines the win-win narrative often painted at the heart of BRI.

While Beijing continues to show a positive face with Kazakhstan, they have also let the country fall foul of the narratives stirred up during the pandemic. When Moscow started to spread stories that COVID-19 may have emerged from laboratories in Kazakhstan that the U.S. had supported after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Beijing fanned the flames.

And when a series of articles emerged in the Chinese media suggesting Kazakhstan was, in fact, a historical part of China, leading to an uproar on Kazakh social media, the Chinese embassy in Nursultan did not apologize and instead blamed it all on the West.

All of this for the country where President Xi launched his keynote foreign policy initiative and which has eagerly embraced China as an economic, security and cultural partner.

In some ways, Kazakhstan had no choice, forced by geography to be bound to China. But it is slowly finding that the ties that BRI fosters are not necessarily ones that deliver as you expect.

Two more longer pieces to get the year going, this time part of my new institutional home ICPVTR at RSIS‘s annual Counter-Terrorist Trends and Analysis (CTTA) which provides an overview of the threat picture in a series of jurisdictions over the past year with some brief thoughts about where things might go. I worked with colleagues Nodir and Kyler separately on two of the pieces, looking at Central Asia and the Extreme Right Wing respectively. Will post both, but would encourage people to read the whole document as it provides a useful overview of threats around the region. First up, however, the Central Asia paper with Nodir.

Central Asia

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

There were no reported terror attacks in Central Asia (referring to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) in 2020, although the threat of terrorism and radicalisation persisted in the region. The current jihadist threat to Central Asia can be categorised in three ways: i) threats associated with Central Asian nationals fighting in the Afghan and Syrian conflicts and the security implications posed by their potential return home or move to a third country to continue engaging in violent activities; ii) prospective attacks orchestrated by self-radicalised individuals or cells of supporters within Central Asia; and iii) radicalisation of members of Central Asian diaspora communities and their involvement in terror plots.

Central Asian fighters in Syria and Afghanistan

Official estimates indicate that up to 5,650 individuals from the region – 2,000 Tajik, 2,000 Uzbek, 850 Kyrgyz and 800 Kazakh nationals respectively – have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside jihadist groups to date.698 Some foreign newspapers and international organisations have also alluded to the potential presence of fighters from Turkmenistan in the Syrian conflict, although officials in Ashgabat have refrained thus far from publicly addressing the issue.699

Based on observations of online materials released by Central Asian jihadists based in Syria and Iraq, it appears that large segments of Kazakh and Tajik operatives are fighting alongside IS, while Kyrgyz and Uzbek nationals appear to have mostly aligned themselves with Al Qaeda-linked groups.700 To date, an estimated 1,633 (29 percent) of the reported Central Asian nationals have been killed in battle, while another 1,715 (30 percent) individuals, comprising mostly women and children, have been captured (or surrendered) and placed in detention facilities across Syria and Iraq.701 As far as is known, the remaining IS fighters from the region have either gone into hiding or are scattered across ungoverned parts of Syria and Iraq continuing fighting. Others have relocated to conflict zones elsewhere. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda-linked Central Asian groups remain active in the north of Syria.

In Afghanistan, Central Asian fighters continue to appear occasionally, with local authorities regularly referencing their presence. For example, in a November 2020 address at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Leaders’ Summit, Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) Director Jumakhon Giyosov informed that his organisation, a permanent body within the SCO that focuses on terrorist issues, had received intelligence of growing numbers of Central Asian fighters in northern Afghanistan.702 A threat appeared to materialise just over a week later, when a Tajik-led Taliban cell in Badakhshan attacked a police station near the Tajik border, killing 19 Afghan policemen. Following the attack, the cell’s leader made threatening comments in a propaganda video towards Tajikistan, suggesting the group may seek to launch attacks there too.703 Additional threats from Tajik fighters affiliated to the Taliban were also visible elsewhere in Afghanistan, with media reports in August identifying four Tajik nationals as members of a cell involved in an IS-claimed attack on a prison in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.704

IS’ External Operations Arm Has Weakened

IS-linked Central Asian nationals presently detained in Kurdish prisons include prominent Tajik members of the “Amniyat alKharji” (or “Emni”) – IS’ external operations arm dedicated to organising terrorist attacks outside of Syria and Iraq. In January 2020, Tajik prosecutors revealed that two highranking Tajik IS militants, Parviz Saidrakhmonov (“Abu Dovud”) and Tojiddin Nazarov (“Abu Osama Noraki”), were being held in Syrian prisons, along with several other Tajik IS militants, following capture by Kurdish forces.705 The duo were wanted in Russia and Tajikistan respectively for their alleged links to a number of terror plots in both countries. Swedish authorities claimed the two militants are also part of a Syriabased IS attack network reported to be behind the 2017 Stockholm truck attack.706 Their extradition is still being sought.

There have also been conflicting reports on the fate of Gulmurod Khalimov, Tajikistan‘s former police special operations colonel, who defected to IS in May 2015, and was later promoted as the group‘s ‘War Minister’ in Syria.707 In August 2020, Tajikistan’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Ramazon Rahimzoda Hamro, stated that some IS Tajik fighters who had returned home from Syria testified that Khalimov and his family had been killed in an air strike in Syria.708 However, the minister highlighted that without hard evidence, such testimonies were insufficient to officially declare Khalimov as dead. Tajik authorities had earlier alleged that Khalimov and some of his associates could have relocated to the northeastern Afghan province of Badakhshan.709 In October 2020, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) announced the inclusion of Khalimov in its updated sanctions list, suggesting that official confirmation of his death remains elusive.710

The possible loss of senior figures such as Saidrakhmanov, Nazarov and Khalimov highlights the degree to which IS’ core cadre of Tajik operatives appears to have been weakened. Nonetheless, the recent detention of Tajik nationals over IS-linked terror plots in countries such as Germany and Albania has shown that IS remains connected to its Tajik support base, and is still able to direct supporters to carry out attacks, including, for example by providing them with the necessary operational guidance through dedicated online tutorials or communications via encrypted Internet applications. Throughout the year, the group also continued to produce propaganda material aimed at its Central Asian constituency.

KTJ Stuck in a Rivalry Between HTS and HAD

Al-Qaeda-linked Central Asian combat units such as Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) and Katibat Imam Al Bukhari (KIB) have remained active in Syria. Both groups, operating under the umbrella of the Al Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist alliance, are predominantly made up of ethnic Uzbek fighters from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In 2020, both KTJ and KTB were caught in the middle of escalating tensions between HTS, the dominant Islamist militant group in Idlib, and Hurras ad-Din (HAD), one of several other jihadist factions operating in the area. HAD is currently Al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria. In June 2020, KTJ’s founder and former leader, “Abu Saloh”, along with two accomplices, defected to Jabhat Ansar al-Din (JAD), a newly-formed jihadist faction closely aligned with HAD.711 Prior to 2016, when it formally severed ties with the global jihadist group, HTS’ predecessor al Nusra Front had been regarded as the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, and they had fought together under the same umbrella. HAD and HTS have since fallen out.

Since HAD’s inception, hardline elements have criticised HTS, arguing it had abandoned the Al Qaeda agenda, and was alienating itself further by showing a willingness to endorse the ceasefire agreements over Idlib put forward by Turkey and Russia. HAD and other Al Qaeda-linked factions have rejected the Idlib agreement, which they view as “a conspiracy of the occupiers”.712 The accusation, it appears, has undermined HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani’s authority and inspired some of the more hardline factions within HTS to break away from the group.713

Abu Saloh’s defection to JAD triggered a larger migration of fighters. Following in his stead, around 50 KTJ members defected to JAD.714 Al-Julani would later respond to these defections by launching a manhunt for Abu Saloh and other defectors. Soon after, Abu Saloh and the other dissenting fighters were arrested and jailed by HTS in Idlib. Some media reports have speculated that Abu Saloh’s defection might have occurred after the KTJ’s new leadership accused him of stealing a significant amount of money from the baytumal (common budget) of the group.715 Regardless of the true motive, Abu Saloh’s arrest was a significant coup for al Julani. Had he gone unpunished, it could have inspired more defections from KTJ as well as possibly precipitated a fracturing of HTS. Later, al-Julani announced that Abu Saloh and his accomplices could be released, on condition they agreed to return to the HTS fold. Failing this, the HTS leader threatened to charge and punish Abu Saloh for a series of crimes, including embezzlement of group funds and property as well as apostasy.716 His ultimate fate remains unknown.

Abu Saloh’s arrest came as he was stepping back from a leadership role in KTJ. In April 2019, he announced his resignation as leader of the group “to focus on recruitment and fundraising following an injury in a terrorist operation”.717 At the same time, he has maintained a high degree of visibility online, continuing his radical preaching activities under KTJ’s banner and endorsing Al Qaeda’s ideology. Despite his present troubles, some of Abu Saloh’s audio and video preaching materials still exist on the KTJ’s website.

Following its recent leadership reshuffle, some new figures have emerged within KTJ’s upper echelon. The group’s online propaganda materials have introduced “Abdul Aziz” as a successor to Abu Saloh. While referencing his family name as “Khikmatov”, a UN report disclosed that he had fought alongside the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), the Al Qaeda-linked Central Asian group fighting in Afghanistan, for close to two decades prior to joining KTJ in Syria.718 It was later reported that Abu Saloh’s role as the group’s key ideologue was taken over by Akhliddin Novkatiy (Navqotiy), who reportedly arrived from Turkey at the personal invitation of Abdul Aziz.719 The “Navqotiy” name is synonymous with the southern Kyrgyz town of Novqat (or Nookat), hinting it could be his original birthplace. As the new ideological leader of the group, Navqotiy has appeared in a series of audio and video propaganda lectures.

KIB and Other Central Asian Groups in Syria/Afghanistan

KIB is assessed in UN reporting to have a total of 220 fighters in Syria, while about 70 fighters from its military wing are active in Afghanistan.720 In Syria, KIB together with other groups such as KTJ and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) have played a crucial role in defending HTS’ territorial positions in Idlib from the Syrian government’s offensives. KIB’s Afghan wing, while known to operate under the umbrella of the Taliban, has maintained close contact with its central core in Syria.721 It conducts militant operations against Afghan government forces in Faryab and Jowzjan provinces, where ethnic Uzbeks constitute a large portion of the indigenous population. According to data from the United Nations Monitoring Team, KIB’s Afghan wing leader Jumaboi is reported to receive funding from the group’s cell in Istanbul, Turkey via the hawala system.722

In July 2020, KIB released photos on its Telegram channel in which it claimed to have undertaken a joint operation with the Taliban that led to the capture of several Afghan government soldiers.723 Soon after, however, this claim was disputed by the Taliban’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who countered that the footage circulated by KIB had been stolen from the Taliban’s archive and falsified by “anti-peace elements for
propaganda”.724 It is difficult to interpret this divergence in claims. Notwithstanding KIB overall leader Abu Yusuf Muhajir’s welcoming of the Taliban’s peace agreement with the United States, which he described as “the great victory of the Islamic Ummah”, some elements within KIB clearly oppose the pact.725 Other Central Asian groups based in Afghanistan include the IJU, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Jamaat Ansarullah (JA). These groups continue operating under the banner of the Taliban, while receiving sanctuary, protection, and training from the movement in return. Their status, however, could be thrown into doubt if the Taliban follows through on its agreement to stop foreign groups from using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks.

Terrorist Developments Within Central Asia

Despite the global shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorist activities have persisted in many parts of the world, including Central Asia. In 2020, Central Asian countries continued to foil attack plots and arrest several suspected jihadists. In October, Kazakh authorities revealed they had thwarted five terrorist attacks since the beginning of the year, resulting in the arrest of ten suspects.726 The foiled attacks included a reported plot by an IS supporter planning to target mass gatherings with grenades during the Navruz spring festival in Almaty. Another reported plot involved an IS supporter planning to detonate an explosive device in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan. Both plots were thwarted in March 2020.727

Uzbekistan saw a relative increase in arrests for terrorist recruitment and funding compared to 2019. Uzbek authorities in June 2020 arrested 15 residents in Surkhandarya province, who were reportedly part of an extremist recruitment and fundraising cell linked to KTJ.728 The cell’s ringleader was reportedly radicalised while working as a seasonal worker in Russia, and later recruited members from among his compatriots. While in Russia, the cell members regularly met up to listen to and discuss online audio and video propaganda preached by extremist ideologues such as Abu Saloh, Abdulloh Zufar, and Sodiq Samarqandiy. The suspects, all of whom were reportedly detained upon their return home, were allegedly planning to travel to Syria and had also sent money there to finance KTJ’s activities.729

A similar case emerged in the Uzbek province of Jizzakh, where counterterrorism agencies arrested a group of 23 young men reportedly part of a virtual extremist cell linked to KTJ. The leader of the cell had reportedly been radicalised by extremist ideologies in Turkey and, in turn, began recruiting via the Odnoklassniki and Telegram social networks.730 Later, during two rounds of additional arrests conducted in Tashkent city and Tashkent Province, the police arrested a further 36 men, also with links to KTJ. They had reportedly planned to travel to Syria to fight for the group.731

In August 2020, Tajik authorities revealed that in the first half of the year, the country’s counterterrorism agencies had thwarted two terrorist plots by IS followers targeting police officers in the Rasht and Shakhrinav provinces.732 Authorities used the opportunity of the announcement of the two plots to declare that over the year they had detained 274 people and detected around 900 extremism-related crimes.733

While similar cumulative data is hard to come by in the context of Kyrgyzstan, there was a steady patter of terrorist related activity reported in the country throughout 2020. In February, authorities detained a 23-year-old Kyrgyz citizen who had returned home from abroad intent on recruiting others. The individual had allegedly failed previously to travel to Syria via an unnamed foreign country.734 In October, a foreign individual was arrested, having entered the country also reportedly with the intent to partake in radicalisation activities. He had previously served time for terrorism offences in another Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) country.735 Two others detained in the same month had reportedly undertaken robberies in the southwestern Jalal-Abad Province on behalf of an unnamed militant group. Both had previously fought in Syria for the same group, before returning to Kyrgyzstan.736

Overall, security risks to Central Asia persist, with authorities continuing to report detentions. While the full scope and nature of the terror networks and plots disrupted are rarely made public, strands of reporting repeatedly point to radicalisation taking place in Russia, the significance of social media and regular efforts to send money to Syria.

Central Asia Diaspora Radicalisation Abroad

There continue to be worrying signals of the expansion of a threat from Central Asians outside their home region. More particularly, Central Asian migrant and diaspora communities based in the Republic of Korea, Russia, Turkey, and other parts of Europe, continue to be a target for online jihadi propaganda and recruitment737. In the past year, plots featuring Central Asians were uncovered by authorities in parts of Europe and Russia.

In mid-April 2020, German authorities detained four Tajik nationals over an IS linked terror plot to attack US military facilities and personnel stationed in the country.738 According to the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, the detainees and their ringleader, who has been in pre-trial custody since his arrest in March 2019, were in a regular contact with two senior IS militants in Syria and Afghanistan, from whom they had reportedly received instructions. While the attacks were not planned for the immediate term, the cell members had already ordered bomb parts online and were stocking up on firearms and ammunition in preparation.739 The reported plan was to target the US air base in Spangdahlem and the NATO AWACS air base near Geilenkirchen, potentially using remote-controlled drones or paragliders armed with explosives.740 Reports also suggested that the individuals had initially sought to return to Tajikistan to launch attacks, but had been re-directed to Europe by their external handlers.741

The detainees were also accused of raising and channeling funds for IS’ core operations in Syria. As part of these fundraising missions, they had reportedly partaken in a murder-for-hire operation in Albania and collected money from Chechens from France who were working on a construction site in Germany. The team deployed for the attempted contract killing operation in Albania had included two Russian-born Chechens from Austria.

All the suspects involved in the plot to attack the US air bases were Tajik citizens residing in Germany as migrants, although much remains unclear about their exact path towards radicalisation. It is believed that none had previously travelled to jihadist conflict zones. The said plot was announced shortly before authorities in Poland detained another group of four Tajiks, reportedly also connected to IS. Along with a fifth individual, who was detained later, they were deported to Tajikistan in September.742 The details of this group’s suspected activities remain sketchy, though they were reportedly accused of recruiting others and potentially being linked to another extremist arrested by Polish authorities in December 2019.743 In October, an IS-linked Tajik national who had been granted asylum in Greece was arrested following an international search operation.744

As in recent years, Russia in 2020 saw a regular diet of arrests involving Central Asians reportedly plotting terrorist activity in the country. In October, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) disrupted a cell reportedly linked to KTJ which was planning terrorist attacks in Volgograd. The cell members, alleged to be in contact with others in Syria, were seeking to attack government buildings, military personnel residences, enterprises and a famous Motherland Calls statue, possibly using firearms and an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). According to the FSB, two members of the cell, who were migrants from an unnamed Central Asian country, were killed at the scene as they resisted surrender. FSB later arrested the other cell members in operations across Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ufa and Maikop, but did not disclose their nationalities.745 Earlier in July, an IS-linked cell that reportedly included Central Asians was disrupted in Rostov-on-Don. The cell leader was killed in a shoot-out with authorities, with narcotics reported subsequently found alongside weapons.746

Most other arrests during the year were, however, of a smaller scale involving isolated individuals. For example, in October, the FSB in Moscow arrested a Central Asian planning an explosion in the city.747 Three months earlier, another individual was shot when he opened fire on officers trying to arrest him. He was reportedly planning a mass shooting in Moscow.748 These arrests, in addition to other arrests and attack plots foiled over the past year, reflect a persistent level of concern by Russian authorities of potential threats from radicalised members of the substantial Central Asian diaspora living within the country.

Responses

On 8 December, Uzbek authorities announced that they brought back 25 women and 73 children from Syria in the latest round of the “Mehr” (‘Kindness’) humanitarian rescue operation.749 However, other countries with similar plans have had to hold back such plans, largely owing to the global pandemic. For example, Tajikistan halted plans to repatriate a group of women and children (about 300) from Syria due to the ongoing lockdowns and other challenges in dealing with the health crisis.750 In spite of this, the relevant governmental and nongovernmental organisations in the three Central Asian states, namely Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, that in recent years have conducted large-scale repatriations, continued to offer the necessary material and social support for the repatriated women and children, to facilitate their reintegration into their respective communities. However, such efforts remain a work in progress given, as various experts have pointed out, transforming the extreme beliefs of some ideologically hardened repatriates has been notoriously slow.

Responses to terrorism have increasingly incorporated soft measures. Governments are tapping on civil society institutions as part of efforts to bolster their populations’ resistance against extremism. For instance, Kazakhstan announced increased funding for projects aimed at preventing online extremism,751 while the government also announced that 13,000 pieces of material propagating extremism and terrorism had been blocked online.752 In Uzbekistan, a police department in Tashkent launched a consultative centre in 2020 as a pilot project. Staffed with experienced religious clerics and theologians, the centre can anonymously arrange consultations for people who find themselves confused about specific religious doctrines – such as jihad – that are often misinterpreted and distorted by extremist groups.753

Regional governments also increasingly sought international collaborations in countering terrorism. During the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) meetings, terrorism was mentioned as a source of mutual concern and, throughout the year, various UN bodies hosted workshops focused on the Central Asian experience. The Uzbek government is planning to host a large conference in 2021 reflecting on the experience of cooperating on a joint regional action plan for countering terrorism. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and UNDP have also collaborated with various youth organisations and civil society institutions around the region on training programmes, reflecting a desire among regional authorities to continue promoting their work related to Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Central Asian governments have also conducted bilateral exchanges with numerous western states throughout the year, with many championing the region’s particular approach to the repatriation of foreign fighters in Syria as a model to emulate.

However, varying perceptions in the west of the human rights records of some Central Asian states could complicate potential cooperation between the latter and the EU in particular. In Europe, the September repatriation of a group of Tajik nationals accused by Poland of involvement in terrorist activity followed attempts by lawyers to block the repatriations on the basis of human rights concerns that were upheld for some time. Earlier attempts by Sweden to deport Uzbeks who had served time for terrorism offences failed on this same count, suggesting a potential impediment in smooth EU-Central Asia cooperation in particular counterterrorism objectives. All of these issues may become more significant going forward, given the numbers of Central Asians arrested in Europe linked to alleged terrorist activity and the need for greater regional cooperation to effectively manage such threats.

Outlook

The worrying prominence of Central Asian jihadists on the international jihadist scene will persist. While the biggest contingents of Central Asian fighters remain on battlefields in Syria and Afghanistan, the recent disruptions of terror plots and arrests in Europe, in particular, point to a rapidly evolving and expanding threat landscape. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on this problem will be difficult to track, given the lack of access to real-time intelligence and data, although the common history of migrant labour that many of the radicalised Central Asians share, and the likely setbacks this workforce will experience in COVID-blighted economies, could exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. In the near term, Central Asian nationals are likely to remain a significant component of the global jihadist milieu, highlighting the importance of buttressing domestic responses and greater international cooperation in the regional security sphere.

About The Authors

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isnsoliev@ntu.edu.sg.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

698 i) Tokhir Safar and Mumin Ahmadi, “Istochniki: v Sirii arestovany tadzhikskiye «dzhikhadisty» Abu Dovud i Abu Usama Noraki,” Radio Ozodi – RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, 19 December 2019, https://rus.ozodi.org/a/30332766.html; ii) The figure on Uzbek fighters, was revealed by a counterterrorism officer from Uzbekistan during an Interpol regional experts meeting held in Tbilisi, Georgia in September 2018. The stated figure constitutes the total number of Uzbek militants fighting in armed conflicts abroad, including the Iraqi-Syrian and Afghanistan theatres; iii) “Nuzhno li vozvrashat kyrgyzstantsev iz Sirii. Chto dumayut MID i eksperti?” (‘Is it necessary to repatriate Kyrgyz militants from Syria. What do the Foreign Ministry and experts think?’), Kaktus Media, 1 June 2019, https://kaktus.media/doc/392271_nyjno_li_vozvrash_at_kyrgyzstancev_iz_sirii._chto_dymaut_mid_i_eksperty.h tml; and iv) “Za rubezh vyiekhalo svyishe 800 kazakhstantsev – posledovateley destruktivnykh ideologiy” (‘Over 800 Kazakhstanis – followers of destructive ideologies traveled abroad’), Khabar 24, 6 November 2019, https://24.kz/ru/news/social/item/352893-za-rubezhvyekhalo-svyshe-800-kazakhstantsevposledovatelej-destruktivnykh-ideologij.

699 There have also been occasional references to Turkmenistani fighters in other contexts – for example, Cypriot authorities reported to the UN they had captured a Turkmenistani national amongst a group of individuals “linked to either ISIL-or Al-Qaidaaffiliated groups”. See: “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council, p.15, 23 July 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/717.

700 This conclusion has been drawn by the first author based on his systematic monitoring and analysis of online extremist content in Central Asian languages.

701 These figures have been compiled by the first author based on local newspaper reports. The data also shows that since 2019, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have separately repatriated a total of 1,003 of their detained citizens from Syria and Iraq. According to news reports a substantial number of these repatriated citizens were associated with IS.

702 He spoke at the SCO Heads of State Summit held online on November 10, livestream recorded here: https://eng.scorussia2020.ru/video/20201110/1080285/Livestreaming-of-the-SCO-Heads-of-State-CouncilMeeting.html (he spoke at 2: 01).

703 “Afghan Taliban said planning to attack Tajikistan,” BBC Monitoring, 11 December 2020; Andrey Serenko, “Tadzhikskiye taliby anonsirovali perenos dzhikhada iz Afganistana na rodinu” (‘The Tajik Taliban have announced the transfer of jihad from Afghanistan to their homeland’), Nezavisimaya gazeta, 11 December 2020, https://www.ng.ru/world/2020-12-11/100_afgan111220.html.

704 “Indian doctor suspected of having been Jalalabad prison car bomber,” Ariana News, 5 August 2020, https://ariananews.af/indian-doctorsuspected-of-having-been-jalalabad-prison-carbomber/.

705 “Genprokuratura: iz tyurem Sirii v Tadzhikistan ekstradiruyut terroristov-verbovshchikov” (‘Prosecutor General’s Office: terrorist recruiters to be extradited from prisons in Syria to Tajikistan’), Sputnik Tochikiston/Tajiki, 28 January 2020, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/country/20200128/1030615883/tajikistan-syria-ekstradiciya-terroristy.html.

706 Sirojiddin Islom, “Ozodlik tekshiruvi xulosalari Shved matbuotining bosh xabariga aylandi” (‘The findings of an investigation conducted by Ozodlik grabs the headlines of the Swedish press’), Ozodlik Radiosi, 10 February 2018, https://www.ozodlik.org/a/29032493.html.

707 Amir Abdallah, “Former Tajikistan police chief appointed ISIS minister of war,” Iraqi News, 5 September 2016, https://www.iraqinews.com/iraqwar/former-tajikistan-police-chief-appointed-isisminister-war/.

708 Avaz Yuldashev, “Glava MVD Tadzhikistana: Gibel’ eks-komandira OMON ostayetsya na urovne slukhov” (‘Tajik Interior Minister: The death of the exOMON commander remains at the level of rumors’), Asia-Plus, 4 August 2020, https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/security/20200804/glava-mvd-gibel-eks-komandira-omonostaetsya-na-urovne-sluhov.

709 “Tadzhikskiy «igilovets» Gulmurod Khalimov zainteresovalsya situatsiyey v Gornom Badakhshane” (‘Tajik IS militant Gulmurod Khalimov became interested in the situation in Gorno-Badakhshan’), Fergana, 11 January 2019, https://fergana.agency/news/104222/.

710 Bakhmaner Nadirov, “Zhiv ili net? Sovbez OON prodlil sanktsii v otnoshenii Gulmuroda Khalimova” (‘Alive or not? UN Security Council extended sanctions against Gulmurod Halimov’), ASIA-Plus, 22 October 2020, https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/security/20201022/zhiv-ili-net-sovbez-oon-prodlil-sanktsii-votnoshenii-gulmuroda-halimova.

711 Abu Saloh is the nom de guerre of Sirojiddin Mukhtarov, a Kyrgyzstan-born ethnic Uzbek.

712 Sirwan Kajjo, “Jihadists in Syria’s Idlib Form New ‘Operations Room’,” The Voice of America, 15 June 2020, https://www.voanews.com/extremismwatch/jihadists-syrias-idlib-form-new-operationsroom.

713 Rami Jameel, “HTS Leader al-Julani’s New Strategy in Northwestern Syria,” Terrorism Monitor, 13 October 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/hts-leader-al-julanisnew-strategy-in-northwestern-syria/.

714 “Tahrir al-Sham arrests a leader of the Ansar alDin Front. Who is Abu Salah the Uzbek,” Step News Agency, 18 June 2020, https://stepagencysy.net/2020/06/18/%d9%85%d9%86-%d9%87%d9%88-%d8%a3%d8%a8%d9%88-%d8%b5%d9%84%d8%a7%d8%ad-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a3%d9%88%d8%b2%d8%a8%d9%83%d9%8a/.

715 Viktor Mikhaylov, “V Siriyskom Idlibe arestovan odin iz liderov boyevikov iz TSA – Abu-Salokha” (‘In the Syrian Idlib, one of the leaders of the militants from Central Asia, Abu Saloh, was arrested’), Novosti Uzbenistana, 23 June 2020, https://nuz.uz/antiterror/1157170-v-sirijskom-idlibe-arestovan-odin-iz-liderov-boevikov-iz-cza-abusaloha.html.

716 “Siriya novosti 7 iyulya 22.30: predotvrashchen terakt v Afrine, Dzhulani ozvuchil svoi usloviya dlya osvobozhdeniya Abu Salakha Al’-Uzbeki” (‘News from Syria, July 7 22.30: terrorist attack in Afrin prevented, Giulani announced his conditions for the release of Abu Salah al-Uzbeki’), RIA FAN, 7 July 2020, https://riafan.ru/1291658-siriya-novosti-7-iyulya-22-30-predotvrashen-terakt-v-afrine-dzhulaniozvuchil-svoi-usloviya-dlya-osvobozhdeniya-abusalakha-al-uzbeki.

717 “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council, p.15, 20 January 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/53.

718 Ibid.

719 Viktor Mikhaylov, “Idlibskiy peredel ili kak grazhdane Kyrgyzstana i Uzbekistan raskololi v Sirii mezhdunarodnuyu terroristicheskuyu organizatsiyu” (‘Idlib redistribution or how citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan split an international terrorist organization in Syria’), 31 March 2020, CSRT, https://crss.uz/2020/03/31/idlibskij-peredel-ili-kakgrazhdane-kyrgyzstana-i-uzbekistan-raskololi-v-siriimezhdunarodnuyu-terroristicheskuyu-organizaciyu/.

720 “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council,
p.15, 20 January 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/53.

721 Ibid.

722 Ibid.

723 Viktor Mikhaylov, “Ozhidayemyye provaly v uzbekskikh etnicheskikh terroristicheskikh gruppirovkakh” (‘Expected failures in Uzbek ethnic terrorist groups’), Novosti Uzbekistana, 24 July 2020, https://nuz.uz/antiterror/1160924-ozhidaemye-provaly-v-uzbekskih-etnicheskihterroristicheskih-gruppirovkah.html.

724 Gulabudin Ghubar, “Uzbek Militant Group Claims it Conducted Operation with Taliban,” TOLOnews,
9 July 2020, https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/uzbek-militantgroup-claims-it-conducted-operation-taliban.

725 “Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” United Nations Security Council,
p.15, 23 July 2020, https://undocs.org/S/2020/717.

726 “V Kazakhstane soobshchili o predotvrashchenii pyati teraktov s nachala goda” (‘Kazakhstan reported on the prevention of five terrorist attacks since the beginning of the year’), RT, 16 October 2020, https://russian.rt.com/ussr/news/793267-kazahstan-predotvraschenie-terakty.

727 i) “Spetssluzhby Kazakhstana predotvratili terakt v Nur-Sultane” (‘Kazakhstan’s special services prevent terrorist attack in Nur-Sultan’), RT, 26 March 2020, https://russian.rt.com/ussr/news/732030-kazahstanzaderzhanie-terrorizm; ii) “V Kazakhstane spetssluzhby zaderzhali podozrevayemogo v podgotovke terakta” (‘In Kazakhstan, special services detained a suspect preparing a terrorist attack’), RT, 14 March 2020, https://russian.rt.com/ussr/news/728393-kazahstanzaderzhanie-terakt.

728 “Surkhondaryo va Jizzakh viloyatlarida noqonuniy guruhlar faoliyatiga chek qo’yildi” (“The activity of illegal groups have been eliminated in Surkhandarya and Jizzakh provinces”), Xalq so’zi, 9 July 2020, http://xs.uz/uzkr/post/surkhondaryo-vazhizzakh-viloyatlarida-noqonunij-guruhlarfaoliyatiga-chek-qojildi.

729 Ibid.

730 Ibid.

731 “V Tashkente presekli deyatel’nost’ 11 uchastnikov terroristicheskoy gruppy” (‘The activity of 11 members of a terrorist group has been crashed in Tashkent’), RIA Novosti, 30 June 2020, https://ria.ru/20200630/1573707230.html.

732 “V Tadzhikistane predotvratili dva terakta” (‘Two terrorist attacks were prevented in Tajikistan’), Sputnik Tochikiston/Tajiki, 3 August 2020, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/country/20200803/1031674398/tajikistan-predotvratili-dva-terakta-2020.html.

733 “V Tadzhikistane za posledniye polgoda predotvratili dva terakta” (‘Two terrorist attacks were prevented in Tajikistan over the past six months’), Mir24.TV, http://tj.mir24.tv/news/103295.

734 Mokrenko, Anastasia, “Propagandista terrorizma zaderzhali v Kyrgyzstane” (‘A terrorist propagandist was detained in Kyrgyzstan’), 24.KG, 5 February 2020, https://24.kg/proisshestvija/142685_propagandista_terrorizma_zaderjali_vkyirgyizstane_/.

735 “Zaderzhan inostrannyy verbovshchik v ryady terroristov” (‘A foreign terrorist recruiter was arrested’), Kabar, 3 October 2020, http://kabar.kg/news/gknb-zaderzhan-inostrannyiverbovshchik-v-riady-terroristov/.

736 “Zaderzhany chleny terroristicheskoy organizatsii – GKNB KR. Chto u nikh nashli” (‘Members of a terrorist organisation were detained – the SCNS of the Kyrgyz Republic. What they found’), Sputnik Kyrgyzstan, 29 October 2020, https://ru.sputnik.kg/society/20201020/1050127498/kyrgyzstan-mto-terrorizm-zaderzhanie.html.

737 The precise targeting of foreign diaspora in jihadist material is hard to trace. But it is clear that some members of the Central Asian diaspora are consumers of extremist material given the growing volume of overall arrests from these communities outside Central Asia. Security services have reported finding volumes of extremist material on their personal electronic devices.

738 “Festnahme fünf mutmaßlicher Mitglieder einer Terrorzelle der ausländischen terroristischen Vereinigung „Islamischer Staat (IS)“,” An arrest warrant, the Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor, 15 April 2020, https://www.generalbundesanwalt.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/aktuelle/Pressemitteilungvom-15-04-2020.html.

739 “Festnahme fünf mutmaßlicher Mitglieder einer Terrorzelle der ausländischen terroristischen Vereinigung „Islamischer Staat (IS)“,” An arrest warrant, the Office of the German Federal Public Prosecutor, 15 April 2020, https://www.generalbundesanwalt.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/aktuelle/Pressemitteilungvom-15-04-2020.html.

740 i) Axel Spilcker, “Zugriff nach Hinweis vom FBI,” Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, 08 September 2020, https://advance.lexis.com/document/?pdmfid=1516831&crid=e182b99c-42e8-46c0-92abab1ea56e4a06&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fnews%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A60SSJCH1-JBR8-40RX-00000-00&pdcontentcomponentid=360784&pdteaserkey=sr0&pditab=allpods&ecomp=tzg2k&earg=sr0&prid=568b144a-b4d0-4fe1-977a-907dc44a0d5a; ii) Matthias Gebauer, “Traum vom Fliegen,” Der Spiegel, 18 April 2020, https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:5YPB-8SG1-DYJRP2HN-00000-00&context=1516831.

741 “Germany arrests IS suspects plotting attacks on US bases,” Deutsche Welle, 15 April 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/germany-arrests-is-suspects-plotting-attacks-on-us-bases/a-53129563

742 i) “Four Tajik Nationals Detained For Alleged Militant Recruitment In Poland,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 11 May 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/four-tajik-nationals-detainedfor-alleged-militant-recruitment-inpoland/30605951.html; ii) “Poland Deports Five Tajiks Suspected Of Terrorism,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 29 September 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/poland-deports-five-tajikssuspected-of-terrorism/30863940.html.

743 Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, “Deporting Muslim Immigrants Won’t Make Poland Safer,” Foreign Policy, 19 October 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/10/19/deport-muslimimmigrants-poland-counterterrorism-pis-islamistradicalization/.

744 Paul Antonopoulos, “Leading member of ISIS that was granted asylum status has been arrested
in Greece,” Greek City Times, 5 October 2020, https://greekcitytimes.com/2020/11/05/isis-asylumgreece/.

745 “Boyeviki pokushalis’ na «Rodinu-mat’»: FSB predotvratila terakt” (‘Militants attempted to destroy the Motherland Calls statue: FSB prevented the attack’) Gazeta, 15 October 2020, https://www.gazeta.ru/army/2020/10/15/13320667.shtml.

746 Vusala Abbasova, “Russian Security Service Detains IS Cell In Rostov Region,” Caspian News, 14 July 2020, https://caspiannews.com/newsdetail/russian-security-service-detains-is-cell-inrostov-region-2020-7-13-15/.

747 “Terrorist attack reportedly thwarted in Moscow region as FSB arrests suspect & seizes ISIS flag (VIDEO),” 22 October 2020, RT, https://www.rt.com/russia/504264-terrorist-attackthwarted-moscow-region/.

748 “Russia says it has foiled a militant attack in Moscow,” Deutsche Welle, 27 July 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/russia-says-it-has-foiled-amilitant-attack-in-moscow/a-54331742.

749 ““Mehr-3″ operaciyasi doirasida Suriyadan 25 nafar ayollar va 73 nafar bolalar yurtimizga olib kelindi” (‘As part of the “Mehr-3” operation, 25 women and 73 men were brought back to our homeland’), Xalq so’zi, 8 December 2020, http://xs.uz/uzkr/post/mehr-3-operatsiyasi-doirasidasuriyadan-25-nafar-ayollar-va-73-nafar-bolalaryurtimizga-olib-kelindi

750 “Nearly 300 Tajik women and children ready to return home from Syria,” Asia-Plus, 28 July 2020, https://asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/society/20200728/nearly-300-tajik-women-and-children-readyto-return-home-from-syria.

751 Asel Sultan, “Countering Extremism in Kazakhstan: Where Do They Waste Millions?” CABAR.asia, 16 January 2020, https://cabar.asia/en/countering-extremism-inkazakhstan-where-do-they-waste-millions.

752 Torgyn Nurseitova, “Boleye tysyachi kazakhstantsev poluchili tyuremnyy srok za terrorizm i ekstremizm” (‘More than 1,000 Kazakhstanis received prison sentences for terrorism and extremism’), Zakon, 30 November 2020, https://www.zakon.kz/5049486-boleetysyachi-kazahstantsev-poluchili.html

753 Navruz Melibaev, “Policy of Countering Terrorism and Extremism in Uzbekistan: How Did It Change Over the Past Few Years?” CABAR.asia, 4 May 2020, https://cabar.asia/en/policy-ofcountering-terrorism-and-extremism-in-uzbekistanhow-did-it-change-over-the-past-few-years.

A bit late posting my latest for the Straits Times, this time digging into the question of nationalism and the problems it causes countries using the lens of the Wolf Warrior mentality in Beijing as the entry point. Still crashing to finish some bigger projects, hoping to have more time for other writing soon!

Beware the spirit of the Wolf Warrior
Summoning the forces of nationalism anywhere in the world invites the risk of a bite-back

Screen Shot 2020-07-01 at 15.18.51

The film Wolf Warrior 2 has managed that special feat of entering the lexicon.

Wolf Warrior has become the byword for a mood in Beijing that sees little reason to stand down before adversaries. Its primary audience is domestic, showing the Chinese public they are living in a strong country built by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But this sort of narrative is also dominant globally, where political leaders are stoking nationalist and nativist fires at home to bolster themselves.

Such narratives rarely stop at borders, however, and usually create friction abroad. This can constrain government options as they seek to please domestic audiences. Nowhere is this clearer than in the current stand-off between New Delhi and Beijing where cool heads are struggling to maintain control.

Wolf Warrior 2’s key message was clearly stamped in its final scene, where against a backdrop of a Chinese passport, words appeared saying: “To citizens of the People’s Republic of China, when you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, do not give up hope. Please remember, behind your back, will be a strong and powerful motherland.”

This film is aimed at a Chinese audience – something that is important to remember when considering what the point of the so-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy is. It is not something aimed at the rest of the world, but at Chinese citizens to show them their motherland’s strength.

The specific phrase “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” appears to have been coined in July last year, in a BBC Chinese article that explored a Twitter spat between then charge d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Mr Zhao Lijian, and former US national security adviser Susan Rice.

Now a senior spokesman with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Zhao at the time ran one of the most prominent and prolific Chinese government official Twitter accounts. He was at the forefront of a growing mood in Beijing that the film seemed to encapsulate – of a China that was no longer hiding and biding its time, in Deng Xiaoping’s phrase, but was rather standing tall and thrusting itself into prominence on the international stage.

The aggressive posture Mr Zhao encapsulated was intended to show that China was no longer being pliant, but was taking the rhetorical fight to the enemy.

Chinese people will often receive a mixed message at home – on the one hand, they see their country getting rich and leaders talking of national rejuvenation, but then abroad they see they are treated as a second-tier power with anger directed at them.

The extraordinary growth at home and hostility abroad do not seem to fit together, and actually undermine the CCP’s messaging to its own people about how well things are going. Stoking nationalist fires helps strengthen the public’s positive feelings towards their government.

This is a global problem. In the United States, President Donald Trump has made a domestic virtue out of attacking allies. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s spending, decoupling from China, withdrawing the US from international agreements – these are all policy decisions that he has championed to his voter base, heedless of the impact or appeal to allies.

In London, the entire Brexit conversation was predicated on the fact that Europe was a millstone to British ambition. Similar narratives can be found in almost every European capital. Leaders pandering to their political bases have long blamed a distant and abstract Brussels as the source of domestic problems. Yet, in a world of superpower confrontation, the idea of walking away from what could be one of the most powerful alliances on the planet seems absurd.

And in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has harnessed Indian and Hindu nationalism to win resounding election victories. Globally, however, it has brought him condemnation with concerns about human rights of minorities in the country and the troubles in Kashmir.

Stoking these fires can be dangerous after a certain point. By getting people worked up at home about mendacious or evil foreigners, you create a context not only for racism to thrive at home, but also for your citizenry to pick fights for you abroad.

In Kazakhstan, China is having to deal with the fallout. In mid-April, a series of articles emerged on the Chinese Internet that suggested many of China’s neighbours wanted to “return” to China. The implication was that they were all so envious of China’s success that they wanted to renounce their own nationhood to become part of greater China. Produced by a click-bait farm in Xi’an, they appeared to be an attempt to monetise the nationalist mood at home.

When one article referring to Kazakhstan came to the attention of Kazakh netizens, however, it created an uproar, surfacing as it did against a backdrop of growing concern about Chinese influence in their country. The public anger that followed led to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs hauling China’s ambassador in to give him a dressing down. The ambassador in turn expressed anger at the stories, claiming that the entire event was being stirred up by Western media – all done on Facebook, blocked in China.

In Ladakh, we might now be seeing the apotheosis of this problem. With strong nationalist sentiment stirred up at both ends, China and India are facing off at a moment when the popular sentiments in both countries are being agitated by strongman national leaders against each other.

In this light, an admission of large loss of life in conflict is something that neither side wants to accept without consequences. The public has been brought up on narratives of how strong they are and how weak the other is. There is a danger domestically if this does not fit with what they see. Both sides are constrained in their choices as a result. They have to keep the public happy, yet at the same time are concerned about escalating into a larger conflict.

The danger is in some ways best captured by the experience of Wu Jing, the director and star of the Wolf Warrior movies.

In the wake of the runaway success of the second movie, he became a talking point on Chinese social media. Among the many stories that circulated was the rumour that he was from Hong Kong, and that his wife was an American green card holder and his son had United Kingdom citizenship – somewhat contradictory, given the nationalist tone of his blockbuster. In an echo of the “birther” scandal in America around President Barack Obama’s right to contest the presidency, Wu’s mother had to post on Weibo photos of their Chinese passports. The nationalist fires that his film had fanned ultimately circled back to burn him. This is the danger that such nationalistic narratives can create. Uncontrollable anger at home which limits your options abroad.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.