Staunton, July 7 – For many Central Asians, “jihad [has been] a form of labor migration,” experts say. When ISIS paid well, Central Asians went to the Middle East to fight for it; now that the Islamic State has stopped paying, these same people are returning to their homelands or other countries in the search sometimes to pursue Islamist goals and sometimes just to find work.
Last month, Jeffrey Feltman, UN deputy secretary general for political issues, made the general point that “the defeats of ISIS in Syria and Iraq has led to a growth in the number of foreign militants who have returned to their motherlands.” Now, two Russian experts provide details on this trend in Central Asia (dw.com/p/1JK2y).
Andrey Serenko, a researcher at the Moscow Center for the Study of Contemporary Azerbaijan, says that estimates of the number of people from Central Asian countries going to fight for ISIS and the number of them vary widely but that it now appears that more are returning home than heading to the Middle East.
Officials in Kazakhstan suggest there are only a few dozen or “at the most” a hundred Kazakhs who have gone to fight for ISIS. Kyrgyz experts say privately that there may have been as many as 800 from there, including those killed or who have attempted to return.” Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have each sent more than 1,000. The number from Turkmenistan is unknown.
According to Serenko, many from Central Asia have returned home after Russia stepped up its military activities there and ISIS, in difficulty, stopped paying foreign recruits. He even suggested that this shows that “jihad is becoming ‘a form of labor migration,’” whose participants go where the money is rather than out of ideological commitments.
The Moscow expert says that “the number of those attempting to return to the republics of the region, but among them, a significant share have done so not to continue a jihad in their own countries but because they have been left without salaries.” They are thus returning to Central Asia for the same reasons gastarbeiters from there are coming back from Russia.
A second Russian expert, Lev Korolkov, suggests that one should not as a result minimize the Islamist threat such people represent because even if some have only mercantile goals, the remaining ones are better trained in military activity and thus constitute a greater threat than their numbers might suggest.
“These are professionals in the conduct of mobile war,” he says. And they can apply those skills in Central Asia for various radical groups other than ISIS, including the an-Nursa Front. Such groups, Korolkov continues, also draw on former gastarbeiters now flooding back from Russia to Central Asia.
Serenko agrees with this assessment, adding that many of the Central Asian militants returning from Syria and Iraq are now not in their homelands but in northern Afghanistan in the ranks of a shadowy new group, Lashkar-i-Horasan, which appears to have supplanted the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan which swore loyalty to ISIS but which also wants a kalifate.
This new group, Serenko continues, appears to have arisen “as a result of competition between ISIS and the Taliban,” opposes both but is closer ideologically to the former. “It is already considered a potential source of a new threat, but not so much for Afghanistan itself as for its northern neighbors” in Central Asia proper.