The conflicts in the Middle East have attracted recruits from all over the world to the ranks of extremist groups that appeared in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
Citizens of Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – have gone. Statistically their numbers are very small, several thousand from a region of 70 million. But even this has been a surprise to many, certainly to the Central Asian governments.
Most people living in Central Asia are Muslims, mainly Turkic and Persian peoples, and most are Sunni. But the traditional form of Islam in Central Asia differs distinctly from the orthodox perversions of Islam that Arab-led extremist groups in the Middle East preach.
So why did any Central Asians go to join extremist groups in the Middle East? What happened, or did not happen, to them back home in Central Asia, or in other countries, that made them vulnerable to recruitment? Are there lessons to be learned from their experience, or their deaths, that could prevent others from sharing their fate?
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has just finished a project – Not In Our Name – that follows the trail of those who went to the conflict zones of Syria and Iraq back to their homes in Central Asia. Starting in autumn 2017, RFE/RL went to the areas where some of the Central Asians who joined Middle East extremist groups came from. Project members looked at the conditions they lived in, and spoke with relatives, friends, and neighbors, but also with people in bigger Central Asian cities, to learn their views on the lures and causes of recruitment among Central Asians.
RFE/RL’s Noah Tucker led the project. The research was conducted in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan with the help of RFE/RL’s services there, known locally as, Azattyq, Azattyk, and Ozodi, respectively.
“In each country we have a ‘hot spot,’” Tucker explained, an area from which a noticeably disproportionate number of citizens had joined extremist groups in the Middle East.
Tucker pointed out, for example, “The Aravan district makes up less than two percent of the total population of Kyrgyzstan, yet around a third of all of the people who went to Syria left from Aravan district.”
In a village in Kazakhstan’s central Zhezkazghan Province, “people didn’t even have running potable water in their homes... and they talked about how they felt like… one of the factors maybe was that people living in their region just didn’t feel like they had a lot of other perspectives in life, the same kind of opportunities that they might get elsewhere,” Tucker explained.
Social conditions have been cited as a contributing factor to people’s decision to find their way to the Middle East and join extremist organizations. Other reasons have been noted, but the attraction is usually the same.
“They thought that they were getting something different in Syria. They thought that they were going to a place where you have justice and where everything will be fair and that they would get what they deserve out of life,” Tucker said, “That was the recruiting message, if you feel like you’re not getting your fair share then come here and everything will be fair, and this seems to be what a lot of the people recruited were looking for.”
In fact, as part of the project, Tucker and his crew, sometimes numbering some 25 people, arranged for small community meetings of young people. “We did like a town hall, a focus group with them,” Tucker said, “We asked them questions about what their own experiences were like, if they had ever been recruited to Syria, if they knew anyone who ever went to Syria, and then we showed them these video packages” that the team produced documenting the stories of people who had been recruited, and the consequences for their families at home.
“A lot of our participants themselves, who were practicing Muslims, felt like one of the real issues was that people were not receiving adequate religious education to be able to spot the hypocrisy and the distortions that are in ISIS (the so-called Islamic State extremist group) messaging.”
Bringing young people together to discuss religion and radicalization is not an easy task in Central Asia. “If you’re to gather together a group of your friends and say we’re going to have a discussion about why people go to Syria, that tends to make people nervous,” Tucker recounted, “we had some instances in some locations where the local authorities were very uncomfortable with what we were doing and in some cases let us know they would really prefer if we didn’t film in their city.”
The fieldwork in the “hot zones” was repeated in the region’s large cities. Tucker said these were the places “least affected by the problem of recruiting.” The groups in the big cities had a different view of radicalization and recruitment. “They felt like they knew all the answers, that they had things figured out,” Tucker commented, “Often times it reflected what a lot of the public discourses and the media and the government (said)…”
The fieldwork culminated in moderated, video-taped discussion sessions among participants from the “hot zones” and those from the large cities, both separately and together
“There are nine episodes, three for each country that are (each) 24 minutes,” Tucker said. For the final episode, “We brought together three participants from each of the six locations where we filmed, from all over Central Asia,” Tucker explained, “participants talked about why Central Asia? Whether or not bans on facial hair, or headscarves were productive, or counterproductive? Who should really take responsibility for these issues? Is it the government? Is it local community? Is it the mosque? Is it parents and families themselves?”
The series can be seen, in the local languages, on all five of the websites of RFE/RL’s Central Asian services, as well as on Kyrgyzstani television channels Nur TV, in southern Kyrgyzstan, on LTR, the Kyrgyzstani national TV station, on NTS, on Next TV, and it’s on (RFE/RL’s) Current Time.
“We did a couple of focus groups back in Aravan. We showed them the episode that featured people from their own town, to get their comments, to see if this made sense to them… if they identified with the stories that were being told and with what the participants were saying,” Tucker commented, “The responses were generally, ‘I wish someone would have made something like this four years ago, before all of these people left, and I wish we could talk about this more.”