JIHADISM SPREADS TO KYRGYZSTAN
On January 17, 2011, Kyrgyz authorities arrested several jihadists who had either been engaged in terrorist actions or planned to do so. The group was known as Jaysh al-Mahdi and its members were engaged in killing members of the local law enforcement, robbing U.S. citizens and attacking Jewish targets. They also planned an attack on the U.S. base in Manas. Most of the members of the group were ethnic Kyrgyz. These events indicate the continuous spread of jihadism to an area where it has not previously been recorded and the increasing interaction between jihadist forces throughout Eurasia.
BACKGROUND: The importance of the new group of jihadists lies in the fact that they were ethnic Kyrgyz. The ethnicity of the group is important, since Jihadism is not yet present in all states of Central Asia. It is not Kyrgyzstan but its neighbor Uzbekistan that is most seriously affected by jihadism, with the presence of the most infamous Central Asian jihadist party, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The importance of jihadism in Uzbekistan is underscored not only by the fact that it is the most populated country in Central Asia, but also because a considerable Uzbek diaspora exists in other countries of Central Asia, including in Kyrgyzstan. There is also a large Uzbek community in Afghanistan. After the end of the civil war in Tajikistan, Uzbek jihadists, especially those of the IMU, were extremely active in Uzbekistan where they engaged in serious terrorist attacks and possibly played a role in the 2005 uprising in Andijan against the authoritarian regime of Islam Karimov. In all of these actions, Uzbek jihadists ignored Kyrgyzstan almost completely. At best, Kyrgyzstan had been a transit to Uzbekistan where jihadists from Afghanistan expected to find a susceptible public.The assumption of Afghani jihadists that Kyrgyzstan was not a place where they would find a receptive audience was hardly groundless. Kyrgyzstan is one of the most unreligious countries in Central Asia, with an educated population and elite and in many ways Russified. It was not accidental that Kyrgyzstan produced Chingiz Aitmatov, one of the most popular Russian language writers in the entire Soviet world. Aitmatov’s legacy represents the spirit of a considerable segment of the Kyrgyz intelligentsia and explains the nature of two out of three post-Soviet Kyrgyz leaders. Askar Akayev, the first post-Soviet president of Kyrgyzstan, was an academician. The current president Rosa Otunbaeva is a Moscow State University graduate.
Kurmanbek Bakiyev, in turn, was influenced by nationalism but not by universalistic jihadism. The June 2010 violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan, where hundreds of Uzbeks perished, could well be traced to this nationalistic fervor. Still, there were no signs of jihadist animus in these events. However, the emergence of Kyrgyz jihadists indicates that universalistic jihadism has started to emerge as an alternative to nationalistic animus in locations where Islam has previously played a secondary role or has not been present at all. It is also important to note that these groups were inspired by Said Buryatsky, ethnically half Buryat and half Russian, who was killed in 2010. His life and preaching indicated that jihadism could be accepted not only by a person for whom Islam is just an element of national tradition but even by someone who had never been exposed to Islam as a part of his national heritage. Buryatsky fought and died in the Northern Caucasus, and his supporters are located in either the North Caucasus or in the Russian heartland; and this is where the Kyrgyz jihadists had received their training, far away from their homeland.
IMPLICATIONS: These events are part of a trend throughout Central Asia and beyond. It is a transition from nationalistic animus as the inspirational motivation for the majority of those Central Asians who wished to create independent states after the collapse of the USSR to universalistic jihadism. Jihadism has become the Islamic substitute for the leftist radicalism of the last century, where Marx’ famous slogan, “The proletariat of all countries unite!” has been replaced by a structurally similar slogan: “Muslims of all lands unite!” A communist/utopian/harmonious society of the future has been replaced by an image of a different kind of utopian society — a global caliphate. Similar to the radicals of the last century, jihadists have acquired increasing numbers of “heroes” – martyrs – who are the most important role models and recruiting tools. It is the emergence of these role models and jihadist ideology in general that explains the recent conversion to jihadism among groups of ethnic Kyrgyz who would hardly have been suspected of being Islamists in the past. Not only have they become ardent jihadists but they are ready to fight and die for the cause; and their existence alone could explain similar processes in other parts of the former USSR and beyond. In all of these cases, increasing numbers of people who either have a very perfunctory engagement with Islam as a part of their national heritage or who had no connection with Islam have suddenly undergone a process of radicalization and become engaged in terrorist activities.This is the case with increasing numbers of converts of Slavic origin. There is a strong tradition of conversion in Russia, although Russian historians and political scientists are reluctant to discuss it. They tend to emphasize different facts, such as Russians taken prisoner by Muslim forces, who were ready for martyrdom but not for embracing Islam. Still, these cases are apparently much rarer in history than the opposite; Orthodox converting to Islam. The origin of this phenomenon can be traced to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Russia was been engaged in long wars with the Ottoman Turks and with Persia. At that time, quite a few prisoners converted to Islam to make their life easier and to be fully integrated in new societies.
During Moscow’s wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, some Russian soldiers became converts for the same reason. Still, there are numerous cases of conversion unrelated to captivity but caused by alienation and psychological transformation of Slavs who had little or no exposure to Islam before. Some of them became jihadists. The most important among them was probably Pavel Kosolapov, who was credited for several of the most spectacular terrorist attacks, including the bombing of the train Nevskii Express. The recent attack against Domodedovo airport was also originally attributed to a certain Vitaly Rozdobudko, a resident of the Stavropol region and, judging by his name, a Ukrainian. Thus, the emergence of Kyrgyz jihadists indicates the spread of jihadist ideology far away from fundamentalist hotbeds in Central Asia. This makes the case of several arrested Kyrgyz an indication of a new phase in the development of jihad in the post-Soviet space.
CONCLUSIONS: While the recent arrests of several terrorists in Kyrgyzstan could be regarded as trivial by the casual observer, this is not the case. The jihadist ideology has started to spread even among ethnic groups that had not previously been affected by jihadism. For members of some ethnic groups, i.e. Kyrgyz, Islam was just a part of their national tradition and fully integrated in nationalistic animus. For others, such as ethnic Russian and Ukrainians, Islam is historically an alien creed. Still, members of all these groups could well become universalistic jihadists. The events in Kyrgyzstan and other parts of the former USSR also indicate that the process of radicalization could actually take place anywhere.AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.