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Jihadists from Ex-Soviet Central Asia: Where Are They? Why Did They Radicalize? What Next?


Simon Saradzhyan, Founding Director, Russia Matters

In the fall of 2016 Fletcher School professor Monica Duffy Toft and I were completing work on an issue brief in which we argued that the Islamic State should be further rolled back and dismantled rather than allowed to remain in the hopes that it would somehow become a normal state. IS was already in retreat at the time, having lost much of the territories it had once controlled in Syria and Iraq. Watching this made me, like many other analysts of political violence, wonder what surviving foreign fighters—which, at the time, included an estimated 5,000-10,000 individuals from post-Soviet Eurasia—would do next if IS and other jihadist Salafi groups in the Levant disintegrated. To ascertain their next moves, one had to begin by discerning what made them leave their home countries and eventually go to IS in the first place, and whether/how their motivation may have evolved in the course of their stay with the group. As someone focusing on Eurasia, I was particularly worried about what nationals of the Central Asian states would decide to do next and what impact their decisions and actions would have as some of the regimes in these countries were considerably more fragile and, therefore, more vulnerable than, say, Vladimir Putin’s government. Another reason behind my interest in the subject is that the threat by violent extremists hailing from Central Asia had not been, in my view, as thoroughly examined as that posed by jihadists in and from Russia’s North Caucasus. Specifically, I had three sets of questions in mind: (1) What causes nationals of Central Asia to take up arms and participate in political violence and what might those of them who have gone to fight in Iraq/Syria decide to do next?; (2) if they decide to return to post-Soviet Central Asia en masse, can this region become a major source of violent extremism that transcends borders, and possibly continents, in the wake of IS’s demise?; and (3) is there a threat that chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials stored anywhere in Central Asia will be used by the returning nationals of Central Asia or others for purposes of WMD terrorism (considering that al-Qaeda has sought nuclear weapons and IS has used chemical weapons) and, if so, how serious is this threat? We asked three scholars to answer these questions. Vera Mironova is best known for her research on individual-level behavior in conflict environments and her fieldwork involving extensive interviews with former and active fighters. Edward Lemon is known for his research examining the intersection of authoritarian governance, religion, security and migration in Eurasia, along with his fieldwork in the region. Finally, William Tobey offers unparalleled expertise and years of experience in the U.S. government’s nuclear security and nonproliferation initiatives. Fortunately, they all agreed to delve into the issues, refining my initial questions in ways that made their answers even more illuminating than I had hoped for. The results of their tremendous efforts are presented here, skillfully fused into one narrative by Russia Matters editor Natasha Yefimova-Trilling with assistance from our project’s editorial assistant and student associates, in what I think is an insightful paper on the threat of violent extremism within and emanating from Central Asia.

This is a joint publication of Russia Matters and the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism. A PDF version of the report will be available shortly.

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