BACKGROUND: Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, several thousand jihadists across the Muslim World have joined the rebels. In the first half of 2013 alone, more than 600 foreign fighters were killed in Syria. They came from countries ranging from Morocco at the western periphery of the Islamic World to Xinjiang, China. In addition, hundreds of Muslims from Europe, the U.S. and Turkey have joined the rebels.
Although the majority of fighters are Arab, one of the most influential contingents is the North Caucasians who, according to Russian intelligence sources, number more than 200 fighters. The jihadist website Kavkaz Tsentr claimed in March 2013 that Chechnyan-led Jaysh al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar (Army of the Immigrants and Supporters) included jihadists from the “Caucasus Emirate, Russia, Ukraine, the Crimea, and CIS countries.” Yet, there are also several hundred fighters from the five Central Asian countries.
In May 2013, the Dushanbe-based weekly Nigoh confirmed that citizens of Tajikistan were undergoing training in Syria. One month later, in June, Uzbekistan’s Harakat Online reported that several cells from the Islamic Rebirth Party of Tajikistan were sending youths to fight with Syrian jihadists. It also said that Tajikistani labor migrants in Russia had been recruited to fight in Syria. In 2012, the Guardian reported that Uzbeks were in Syria when it interviewed a Turkish jihadist “smuggler” who said he saw Uzbek foreign fighters entering the country almost every day.
Kazakhstan’s Religious Affairs Agency Chairman has said that disaffected Kazakh youths have traveled to Syria. In June 2013, Kazakhstan reported that eight of its citizens were arrested while seeking to secure funds to travel to Syria to fight with the rebels. One month later, in July, a Kazakh named “Brother Abu-Mu’adh al-Muhajir” appeared in a video of the Iraq and Sham [Damascus] Network with Syrian rebels introducing the “mujahedeen from Kazakhstan.” He called on “those who live in tyranny” to “emigrate from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or any other country” and engage in jihad. Kyrgyzstani officials have also confirmed the presence in Syria of as many as 20 of its citizens and reported detaining several citizens at the airport on the way to Syria.
Finally, there are Chinese militants in Syria. A Han Chinese convert to Islam, Yusuf al-Sini (Bo Wang), was featured in a rebel YouTube video released by Jaysh al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar in March 2013. Another video showing a “Chinese jihadist” was posted on YouTube by the user “Al-Nusrah Front” and featured a group of rebels repairing a projectile weapon, while a militant who appears to be ethnically Uighur and who a rebel calls “The Chinese Man” leads a prayer asking God to support the Muslims against “the infidels.” The Pakistani-based Uighur-led Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) has implied its involvement in the Syrian conflict in its magazine Islamic Turkistan where it wrote in March 2013, “If China has the right to support al-Assad in Syria, we have the right to support our Muslim Syrians.” China has alleged that the TIP is sending fighters from Pakistan into Syria by way of allied Turkish Uighur organizations.
IMPLICATIONS: The greatest concern of Central Asian governments is not only that their citizens are fighting with militant groups connected to al-Qaeda in Syria, but that these militants will return home. Syrians who remain in the country report that Central Asian rebels, who mostly speak classical Arabic instead of local Arabic dialects, are more prone than Arab rebels to mistreat the local population in Syria. One reason for this is that they do not understand Syrian dialect or culture or have immediate family members in the country, so they tend to act like an occupying army just as Uzbek militants did when they first migrated to North Waziristan in the early 2000s. This has generated resentment towards Central Asians in the area of northern Syria where they mostly operate. It may also be why some of the rebel groups are encouraging Central Asians to return to their home countries, where they can carry out the jihadist mission without damaging the reputation of the jihadists in Syria.
The first reports that Central Asian jihadists returned to their home countries emerged in July 2013 when China reported that an Uyghur militant who studied in Istanbul and fought in Aleppo was arrested while planning “violent attacks” in Xinjiang. China also alleged that some of the 15 individuals who carried out an attack on a police station and nearby offices that killed more than 40 people in Turpan, Xinjiang in June 2013 were denied permission to travel to Syria and then carried out the attack at home. After the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Bishkek on September 12, Kyrgyzstan also reported that it broke up an Islamic Jihad Union cell, including Kyrgyz and Kazakh returnees from Syria, that targeted the SCO Summit.
Compounding the threat to Central Asia from jihadist returnees from Syria is that there are already several thousand Central Asian jihadists in Afghanistan. Since 2010, there have been numerous reports from the International Security Assistance Forces that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is carrying out attacks in northern Afghanistan near the Uzbekistan and Tajikistan borders, especially in Kunduz and Takhar provinces. In 2013, the IMU has also been active within 20 miles of the Turkmen border in Afghanistan’s Faryab province.
The IMU is also threatening to attack Central Asia, despite the fact that the Afghan Taliban has promised to focus only on Afghanistan and not neighboring countries as long as they do not support the Karzai government. After IMU members carried out suicide bombings in Panjshir, north of Kabul, the IMU announced in a martyrdom video that its “future conquests are very near in the Mawarounnahr region” (the ancient name for modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan). In addition, the Uzbek-speaking IMU mufti, Abu Zar al-Burmi, said in a video with Kazakh and Caucasian Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) fighters that after the U.S. war in Afghanistan, China will become the “number one enemy.” Before 2001, the IMU and Uighur militants were under the control of the Afghan Taliban, but now they are under the Pakistani Taliban, which may not have the same political interests as the Afghan Taliban to prevent Central Asian militants from attacking their home countries.
CONCLUSIONS: Central Asian fighters in Afghanistan and Syria will pose a threat to their home countries if they return. It is increasingly important for Central Asian countries to coordinate intelligence and identify fighters abroad and monitor them if they return or attempt to connect with radicals through the Internet or other jihadist networks. Moreover, the sympathy towards the rebels in Syria has the potential to radicalize and inspire Muslims throughout the world, including in Central Asia, to join the so-called “jihad.” This should heighten the exigency for Central Asian countries to see an end to the civil war in Syria through a negotiated solution that would necessarily involve Iran, Russia, the U.S and potentially Israel in a broader framework deal that includes chemical, biological and nuclear weapons reductions. The SCO’s support of Russia’s proposal to disarm al-Assad’s chemical weapons facilities and avoid an American attack on Syria can be attributed to SCO countries’ desire not to see an rebel victory in Syria - although they recognize an al-Assad-led Syria is also not sustainable. A rebel victory would likely embolden jihadists around the world, lead to al-Qaeda-connected militants controlling several Syrian cities and governorates, and the return home of the Central Asian militants who won their “jihad” in Syria.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn is an analyst of Eurasian and African Affairs for the Jamestown Foundation and non-resident research fellow of the Center of Shanghai Cooperation Studies (COSCOS) in Shanghai. He testified before the U.S. Congress on Islamist Militant Threats to Central Asia in February 2013.