Central Asian countries’ reputation as exporters of radicalized extremists appears to be giving way to one marked by a growing threat of terrorism domestically. A number of incidents in Tajikistan over the last year highlight the problem of increasing militant activity that targets both foreign and national interests. Several factors—the Islamic State’s shift in focus toward Afghanistan following losses in Iraq and Syria; growing Chinese influence in Central Asia; and ongoing repression by authoritarian governments—point toward a more widespread threat, however, that is likely to affect the region as a whole.
On November 13, Tajikistan’s authorities confirmed that they had apprehended 12 suspects with alleged ties to IS who were planning an attack against a Russian military base and school near Dushanbe. Officials claim that the would-be perpetrators, arrested on November 4, had been “recruited” by IS online and had taken an online oath of allegiance to the group. The incident follows two others in recent months with apparent links to IS. Most recently, a large prison riot reportedly instigated by IS adherents in the city of Khujand, in northern Tajikistan, on November 8, killed more than 50 people (Asia Plus, November 14). The second incident was the widely publicized killing of four foreign tourists cycling outside of Dushanbe in July. IS retroactively claimed responsibility for both incidents via its Amaq News Agency (SITE, November 8).
The thwarted attack against the Russian 201st military base in Tajikistan prompted Russian officials to increase security at the facility, suggesting that they believe there to be an ongoing, credible threat of attacks against the site—if not the region more broadly. Russia has been concerned with increasing militant activity in Central Asia since at least early 2017. Officials stated in June 2017 that they were reinforcing security at bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, citing the “deteriorating” security situation in Afghanistan (Asia Plus, June 8, 2017). As early as 2014, when U.S. forces began to withdraw from Afghanistan—but particularly since the military “defeat” of the IS Caliphate in early 2018—foreign observers have expressed similar concerns over a worsening militant threat in Afghanistan, which shares a 1,357-kilometer border with Tajikistan, a 744-kilometer border with Turkmenistan, and a 144-kilometer frontier with Uzbekistan. Spillover violence from Afghanistan into Central Asia is likely. At least some of the estimated 2,500-4,400 Central Asian fighters who traveled to Iraq and Syria have almost certainly shifted their focus to the Afghan battlefield, or are seeking to return to their native countries to carry out attacks (CAP, October 25).
Violence in nearby Afghanistan exacerbates the longstanding threat from radicalization driven by the repressive policies of Central Asia’s authoritarian regimes, with Kazakh policies being among the most draconian. The country’s 2011 Religion Law outlawed all unregistered religious groups. Amendments passed in 2016 have further narrowed the window of acceptable religious activity and implemented strict punishments including fines and lengthy prison sentences for individuals who violate the law. In June, the Senate of Kazakhstan began considering additional, similar amendments (Forum 18, June 5). Data showing that law enforcement personnel represent about 85 percent of all terrorism-related fatalities in Central Asia in the last ten years suggest that individuals who enforce such repressive policies are the preferred targets of terror attacks in the region (CAP, October 25). However, such reports of attacks and other terrorist activity must continue to be taken with a grain of salt. Governments in the region tightly control the press and have a broad definition of terrorism that also encompasses political opposition, criminality, and other activity.
Moving forward, militants and extremist sympathizers may also diversify their activities to increasingly target foreign interests in Central Asia. The July attack on foreign tourists in Tajikistan, for instance, could encourage IS adherents to carry out similar opportunistic attacks in the future. The growing Chinese presence in Central Asia—exemplified by Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative—also has the potential to draw extremist ire. Central Asians are likely to be highly sympathetic to Kazakh, Kyrgz, and Uighur Muslim minority groups reportedly being detained en masse in “reeducation” camps in Xinjiang (New York Times, November 6). As with repressive policies in Central Asia, alleged ethnic cleansing in China could inspire terrorist attacks against the country’s foreign interests. Whether any such plots will be successful almost certainly depends on the effectiveness of local security forces.