Eyes on the Threat of Extremism and Radicalisation in Central Asia

January 2024

Hana Raci Shillova

Hana is a research analyst specialising in Central Asia

On January 28th 2024, two members of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), including one Tajik national, conducted an attack killing one in the Santa Maria Catholic Church in Istanbul, and this was not the only incident involving Central Asian nationals during the past two years with reports of their participation in the Kerman attack in Iran in January 2024, a foiled attack in Kyrgyzstan in December 2023 and a shooting in Mashhad in 2022, among the most notable (Daily Sabah 2024). Central Asian nations grappled with the persistent challenge of extremism and radicalisation throughout their modern history. Despite recent successes in repatriating individuals from Syria and Iraq marking commendable milestones, they do not diminish the issue’s ongoing relevance. This complex struggle remains far from inconsequential, demanding our attention. This article delves into the intricate interplay of international and local dynamics that underscores the region’s continued vulnerability. By dissecting the factors contributing to this enduring trend, we unravel the complexities that mandate unwavering watchfulness. The fight against extremism and radicalisation in Central Asia requires a comprehensive understanding of the evolving roles of global and regional forces.

Taliban’s Return to rule in Afghanistan

Security concerns loom over Central Asia as the Taliban, despite pledges not to allow militant groups to use the country as a base to export terrorist activities abroad, grapples with factions which it was once loyal to and the consistent activity of violent extremist organisations. This includes both the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Jamaat Ansarullah combined with the growth of activity from Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) in Afghanistan which also heightens terrorism risks spilling over (Webber 2023).

Although no Central Asian states have officially recognised the Taliban as the government, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have notably been cultivating economic ties with the group, with record trade numbers between the states, indicating that engagement is flourishing (Kumenov 2023). Both countries have benefited from the size of the Afghan market of 40 million people and seen the potential of its economically strategic position as a corridor for further trade with countries in South Asia and the Middle East, also with the assumption that perhaps economic ties could be the best hope for stability.
Tajikistan stands alone among the Central Asian nations as it has kept its relations with the Taliban at a minimum, citing concerns about the spillover of unrest and the treatment of ethnic Tajiks in the country (Pannier 2023). While the issue at the surface may seem related to the persisting tensions along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, marked by ongoing incidents, including a May 2022 rocket attack claimed by ISIS-K. There is also an aspect of the Taliban’s attribution to ISIS-K to ethnic Tajiks raising further doubts about the Taliban’s border security capabilities and potential collaboration with militants (Inform.kz 2023).

ISIS-K recruitment at home, in the region and beyond

ISIS-K, in particular, poses a significant threat to the region, as despite the questionability of their capabilities, their interest in the region is evident (Soliev 2023). This can be seen in the manner in which ISIS-K has been leveraging a robust media apparatus to expand its global appeal, notably in Central Asia. This has been the case, particularly for recruitment, as the group now publishes materials, including videos, articles, and infographics in more languages than any other IS branch since the height of the caliphate and has vastly expanded its propaganda reach.

Concerning Central Asian nationals, the group is weaponizing its media apparatus especially targeting potential recruits not only in Central Asia but also abroad, disseminating their materials across Telegram channels and RocketChat. A striking trend noticed around mid-2023 was a surge in ISIS-K propaganda directed at a wider Central Asian audience evidenced by the increased materials produced in Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Russian (Soliev 2023).
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have already directly faced the consequences in connection to this, with ISIS-K recruiting numerous ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. In conjunction with the recruitment efforts, there have been recent terror plots attributed to Central Asian nationals. This includes an unsuccessful terrorist attack in southern Kyrgyzstan in December 2023, where Kyrgyz special forces thwarted a plan to attack multiple locations in the Jalal-Abad city, arresting two teenagers said to be members of ISIS-K after being radicalised on the internet (Bassarova 2023). International examples also include arrests of Tajik and Uzbek nationals plotting attacks in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands in 2023. And despite the operational failure of these attacks, they are raising morale and awareness of the group.

Geopolitical Rivalries

The geopolitical landscape adds another layer of complexity to the region’s fight against extremism and radicalisation. This concerns not only the strategic location of the states between Russia, China, and Iran which makes them vulnerable to the impact of their security decisions, but also wider geopolitical trends impacting public opinion on the ground.

Concerning Russia’s role, an aspect which has been raised is about the power of Russian propaganda, especially on television considering the Israeli war on Gaza. Russian television has been rife with footage of destroyed apartment buildings in Gaza after Israeli airstrikes and suffering Palestinian civilians, without providing analysis or context, an issue highlighted by regional analysts as it encourages media-illiterate people to eventually support the actions of Hamas (Janybekkyzy 2023). This further exacerbates a factor already raising concerns of a new wave of radicalisation. Gaza has become part of the agenda, it is a hugely politicised conflict which internationally has provoked polarisation and a clear dichotomy of good versus evil, therefore is also relevant in the Central Asian context, and although there have been no actions thus far it is not without relevance.

Concerning China, a potential factor lies in the high levels of Sinophobia in Central Asia, which conveniently align with the orientation of ISIS-K against China due to the Chinese persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. This serves as a potential lever for the group to further recruitment efforts in the region (The Democracy Forum 2023). Although, based on what we have seen so far, this has not been acted upon, it does highlight the need to consider radicalisation and extremism in Central Asia not only in an anti-American and anti-Israeli nature but also in an anti-China context.

Government’s Role in Terrorism Narrative

Central Asian governments strategically manipulate terrorism narratives, using anti-terrorism laws to stifle dissent and silence opposition (Foreign Affairs Committee 2023). This heavy-handed approach fosters a vicious cycle of discontent, eroding civil liberties and limiting political expression. Tajik authorities, known for weaving questionable narratives, recently reported a security operation where seized weapons surpassed plausible quantities for the stated number of militants. This raises concerns about the narrative’s credibility, suggesting potential fabrication for political motives and exemplifying the manipulation of counterterrorism measures in Central Asia.

As a result, there’s a possibility that Central Asian societies find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of repression and discontent. Eroded civil liberties and limited political expression fuel widespread disillusionment and alienation. Even in what was once known as the “Island of Democracy” in Kyrgyzstan, recent democratic setbacks in 2023, including a crackdown on independent media outlets and the persecution of dissidents, highlight the deterioration of democratic values (Rickleton 2024). Additionally, increasing protests during the past year, showing growing dissent, potentially offer opportunities for groups like ISIS-K to exploit grievances to increase their strength and destabilise the region. Especially considering the academic emphasis on state repression of religion and authoritarianism as key drivers of radicalization.

Central Asia grapples with the multifaceted challenge of extremism and radicalization, shaped by a complex interplay of external and internal factors. Governments strategically manipulate terrorism narratives, and geopolitical rivalries add layers of complexity. The increasing communications of groups like ISIS-K and uncertainties surrounding the Taliban’s security capabilities further heighten the region’s vulnerability. While there may be signs of relative decline compared to the past decade, the threat is far from dormant and requires ongoing vigilance.


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