Terrorism Remains A Significant Threat To The Five Central Asian Countries – Analysis


By Kung Chan and Zhou Chao

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there has been a wave of terrorism in the five Central Asian countries, namely Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. In February 1999, extremist forces attempted to assassinate Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, with six bombs exploding along the route of his convoy, but in the end, Karimov survived. In the summer of 1999 and the spring of 2000, several armed groups launched attacks on Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, causing great upheaval in these Central Asian countries. In March 2004, terrorist bombings occurred in Tashkent and Bukhara at Uzbekistan, and smaller-scale terrorist incidents have been occurring frequently in Central Asia.

Overall, however, the frequency of terrorism in the five Central Asian countries has been relatively low since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Relevant studies show that from the transition period to 2012, the average annual number of terrorist attacks in each of the five Central Asian countries was generally below 10, indicating a relatively low frequency and intensity. Furthermore, the five Central Asian countries have been cooperating with major world powers to combat both domestic and foreign terrorism. In recent years, the intensity of terrorism threats in the five Central Asian countries seems to have remained low, with jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda not launching attacks in the region for several years. Therefore, the terrorism threat in the five Central Asian countries appears to be gradually diminishing. Recently, both the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and the Center for International Security and Strategy (CISS) at Tsinghua University did not mention terrorism risks in the five Central Asian countries in their External Security Risks for China in 2024.

However, considering both historical and current factors, researchers at ANBOUND believe that terrorism remains a significant threat in the five Central Asian countries, with strong potential for proliferation and diffusion, posing a sustained threat to regional stability, including in areas like China’s Xinjiang.

Firstly, the root causes of terrorism have not been effectively eradicated in the five Central Asian countries. Poverty and underdevelopment are fundamental factors contributing to terrorism. Despite efforts over the past 30 years to develop the economy and carry out social construction, significant achievements and progress have been made in Central Asia. However, the economies of most Central Asian countries still lag behind, with many people remaining poor, facing difficulties in employment, and limited opportunities for young people to develop.

The three countries of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are still classified as low to middle-income countries, with a large number of impoverished people. In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, about a quarter of the population still lives below the poverty line. According to World Bank data, comparing 1992 to 2021, the per capita income in Uzbekistan increased from USD 600 to USD 1983, more than tripling over 30 years. Kyrgyzstan increased from USD 520 to USD 1276, more than doubling, while Tajikistan increased from USD 280 to USD 897, roughly tripling. Despite these increases, the absolute values are not high, and when factoring in inflation, the real growth is lower. In 2022, the average monthly wage in Tajikistan was only USD 160, and in Uzbekistan, it was over USD 340. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, on the other hand, are considered wealthy in Central Asia. In 2019, Turkmenistan had a per capita income of USD 7344, while Kazakhstan reached USD 10373 in 2021, and even peaked at USD 12080 in 2014, classified by the World Bank as upper-middle-income countries. However, there is a significant wealth gap between urban and rural areas in these two countries. After the riots ended in early 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan stated that half of Kazakhstan’s residents had an annual income of only over USD 1300, with a monthly income of just over USD 110. At the same time, the richest 162 individuals in Kazakhstan owned half of the country’s wealth. The overall poverty and significant wealth gap in the region have intensified public dissatisfaction and resentment. The social foundation of religion is extensive in the five Central Asian countries. Poverty and religious factors make it easy for extremist religious ideas to accumulate and ferment in these five countries, providing favorable conditions for terrorism. Moreover, to make a living, many young people in Central Asia choose to work in countries like Turkey, where their economic conditions make them susceptible to radical religious ideas, and they may return home to further propagate such thoughts.

Secondly, terrorist groups in Central Asia have been consistently regrouping and have not disappeared. Overall, the most active terrorist organizations in the five Central Asian countries include the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Jund al-Khilafah (JaK), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Akromiya. These organizations often have intricate connections with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In recent years, the influence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) has also been gradually increasing. Over the past two years, ISKP has made significant progress in propaganda and recruitment among young Tajiks in Central Asia, as well as in fundraising. Commentators suggest that its operational model may serve as a template for similar organizations in the future. ISKP members are believed to be behind the recent explosion at the Qassem Soleimani commemoration event in Iran earlier this year. It is worth noting that in the terrorist attack at a Moscow music hall on March 22 of this year, initial reports indicated that the first four arrested suspects were all Tajik citizens. Although this information still needs further confirmation and the Tajikistan government denies it, subsequent information suggests a high likelihood that the suspects were Tajik nationals. This incident reflects that there still exists a conducive environment for terrorism within Tajikistan.

Research has found that over the past five years, there has been an exacerbation of internal conflicts within relevant terrorist organizations in Central Asia. Coupled with collaborative counterterrorism efforts both within and outside the region, there has indeed been a decline in the operational and destructive capabilities of terrorist organizations in the five countries. However, due to the social realities and relatively weak governance capacities within the five Central Asian countries, neither their internal efforts nor external pressures from major powers can completely eradicate terrorism. Moreover, faced with external pressures and internal conflicts, terrorist organizations themselves are undergoing adaptation. Once they complete their own restructuring and strategic adjustments, the operational and destructive capabilities of such organizations are likely to become even stronger.

Furthermore, the exacerbation of terrorism in the five Central Asian countries may also be fueled by the actions of Western countries. It is a known strategy for certain Western nations to support radical and terrorist forces to counter geopolitical adversaries. During the Cold War, to undermine the Soviet Union in geopolitical competition, the U.S. and its Western allies vigorously assisted radical Islamist forces in the Central Asia-Middle East region, ultimately leading to the rise of terrorist forces like Hamas, which continued to destabilize the region.

In terms of the global geopolitical landscape, Central Asia has long been a corner neglected by a large part of the world. Yet, in recent years, Western countries have intensified their efforts to court the five Central Asian nations due to competition in the industrial chain with China and to contain Russia’s influence. Countries like the U.S. have expressed interest in assisting in the development of rare metals in Central Asia, while Japan is seeking to increase cooperation in the digital field. However, it would be difficult to shake off the security influence of Russia and the economic influence of China in the Central Asian region for a considerable period. Additionally, Western countries, amid the trend of deglobalization, are increasingly focusing on cooperation with neighboring regions. With regards to Central Asia, there is a greater likelihood of Western countries engaging in strategic maneuvers, primarily aimed at preventing the stability of the region and the continued expansion of Chinese and Russian influence. Terrorism has been observed to play a significant role in these dynamics. Over recent years, Western media narratives have raised concerns about the perceived restriction of religious freedom in Central Asian countries. NGOs with Western affiliations have also been involved in disseminating such narratives, with a particular focus on reaching younger demographics. The involvement of Western actors in these discussions may potentially impact the situation in the five Central Asian countries, contributing to regional instability.

Final analysis conclusion:

Due to internal issues within Central Asian countries, the evolving dynamics of terrorist organizations, and Western influences, the terrorist threat in the five Central Asian nations continues to pose risks of expansion and proliferation. The directly adjacent Xinjiang region of China may potentially serve as a direct entry point for these related risks. Therefore, China should closely monitor and track the terrorism risks in the five Central Asian countries.

Kung Chan and Zhou Chao are researchers at ANBOUND


Anbound Consulting (Anbound) is an independent Think Tank with the headquarter based in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound specializes in public policy research, and enjoys a professional reputation in the areas of strategic forecasting, policy solutions and risk analysis. Anbound's research findings are widely recognized and create a deep interest within public media, academics and experts who are also providing consulting service to the State Council of China.

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