By Iran Review
By Fatemeh Safavi*
Many stories have been told during recent days about the rise of Islamic State (Daesh) in the northern neighbors of Iran, including in Central Asian republics — as if Daesh, and its supporters, have started an extensive plan to spread insecurity along the northern borders of the Islamic Republic ,as well as in security environment of Russia. Russia’s military involvement in Syria crisis during recent months has also securitized the situation in Caucasus and Central Asia.
The current conditions in West Asia and the general focus on countries like Syria and Iraq have prevented due attention from being paid to the situation in a region, whose cultural, religious and political conditions should be studied in the light of the impact that extremist groups in the Islamic world can potentially have on this region. Familiarity with theoretical foundations as well as fighting methods and policies of Islamic movements, as one of the important actors in the political arena of Central Asia and Caucasus regions, which are both considered as part of the Islamic world, is among noteworthy issues.
Major questions that are currently raised by experts include: Have developments in Syria and Iraq had any security impact on Central Asia and Caucasus and how possible impacts of these developments can be analyzed? And will Russia’s military intervention in Syria prompt Takfiri forces to take the war theater to Central Asia and Caucasus and other spheres of Russia’s traditional influence?
Just in the same way that a move by the former Soviet Union in the past decades led to certain currents that engaged and affected the entire world, this time around, the performance of Russia has had a powerful effect on developments in the world and the region. Therefore, Russia joining the progressive parts of the global anti-terrorism front in Syria has led to heated debates about the necessity of taking more active measures in Central Asia and Caucasus, which are close to Russia’s borders and unlike the Middle East, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, have not gotten out of Russia’s sphere of influence.
They say that a major reason for Russia’s presence in Syria was to protect the security of Central Asia and post-Soviet Union republics. At present, a large number of the citizens of these republics are fighting for terrorist and extremist groups in Syria and Iraq and against governments in both countries. Although different analyses have been so far offered by political circles about this course of events, there is no doubt that Russia’s military presence in Syria is the result of a security necessity felt by the entire region.
After the beginning of the crisis in Syria and the role played by Salafist Islamist figures from Central Asia and Caucasus in committing unprecedented violence, and also due to high influence of such elements in terrorist organizations such as al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or Daesh), concerns raised about possible spread of religious extremism into these regions. As a result, intelligence organizations in Central Asia and Caucasus countries expressed concern in their latest meeting about a phenomenon they described as the “exodus and transfer of Talibanism to territories in Caucasus and Central Asia.” From this viewpoint, Moscow is well aware of the possibility that such Takfiri groups may try to strike blows to its interests in those regions that are considered Russia’s backyard after the beginning of Moscow’s military intervention in Syria. Therefore, in coordination with intelligence services of countries in Central Asia and Caucasus, Russia has embarked on large-scale arrests and routing of all groups that are potentially capable of cooperating with Daesh. In other words, as a result of the securitization of the region, the ruling governments have created difficult conditions for their people.
Following the start of Russia’s military operations in Syria and bombardment of the positions of the Takfiri terrorists, which are considered a serious threat to Moscow and member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), there were hopes that the above risk would be somehow reduced. However, despite what experts thought earlier, after Russia’s intervention in Syria began, countries in Central Asia have practically found themselves at war with Takfiri terrorists.
At present, various groups made up of the nationals of Central Asian and Caucasus countries are coming together under the same flag. One of the serious groups, which is considered as an offshoot of Daesh in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, is Jaish al-Khorasan, whose main goal is infiltrate into Central Asian countries. In view of the branching that took place among the Taliban following the death of its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and official announcement by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) about swearing allegiance to Daesh, Daesh is sure to strengthen its positions in Afghanistan in the near future and will gain more influence in that country. It must be noted that “Usman Ghazi,” the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, who swore allegiance to Daesh last summer and vowed his fealty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of this terrorist group, has been quoted as saying that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is no more a movement, but a state. Ghazi has also said on behalf of all his fighters and followers that ‘from now on, we are a branch of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in “Khorasan” region’. Allegiance of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to Daesh is, in fact, the latest example of swearing fealty by various groups in the Middle East region, North Africa and Caucasus to Daesh terrorist group; a group, whose reach now extends from Nigeria and Libya to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and even Uzbekistan.
In a possible scenario, semi-autonomous groups and networks and units will take steps to get activated under suitable conditions and will declare jihad after being recognized by leaders of foreign groups. They will plan terrorist operations and assassination of political figures. The difficulty of political and military conditions in Iraq and Syria require that part of forces recruited from Central Asian countries go back to that region or go to Afghanistan. Infiltration of that country by Takfiri forces will certainly sow unrest in northern provinces of Afghanistan. On the other hand, blocking the transit route of terrorists to Syria via Turkey may cause some Central Asian Takfiri groups to stay in their own countries and focus their activities there.
The issue of the nationals of these countries playing role in regional and transregional developments following measures taken by Daesh terror group has raised more concerns among the ruling elites in the region. They are afraid that this issue will lead to conditions in future under which these people would go back to their own countries and set up their own organization and conduct terrorist activities with the goal of destabilizing these countries and speed up the current trend in favor of their own goals and interests.
* Fatemeh Safavi
Central Asia Analyst