Tenuous Wariness

18 december 2014

Post-Soviet Terrorist Organizations and the “Afghan Factor”

Nikita Mendkovich is a political analyst and expert at the Russian International Affairs Council and the Center for Modern Afghanistan Studies.

Resume: Central Asian countries should be prepared for any scenario and should try to prevent the most dangerous upheavals in Afghanistan. In particular, they can strengthen their own defense capabilities and establish close cooperation with Kabul to combat regional terrorism.

How will the situation in Afghanistan evolve after the withdrawal of the bulk of foreign troops from the country in 2014? This is not a speculative question since the answer to it directly affects the interests of Russia and Central Asian members of the Commonwealth of Independent States but not only because refugees and illegal weapons will start flowing across the border if the situation deteriorates. Already now several terrorist groups established by immigrants from the former Soviet Union operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan where extremists are fighting on the side of the Taliban movement and may try to use their territories as a base for operations against CIS countries.

Specialists are still divided over the phenomenon of “post-Soviet terrorism” in the region. Some Western authors believe that the media exaggerate this issue for political reasons. Local experts, on the contrary, take the activities of such organizations as a major threat. Terrorist groups are involved in drug smuggling and are trying to set up a network of cells in Central Asia. And some reports say that in recent years terrorist groups from Afghanistan have been infiltrating the region with plans to stage acts of terrorism.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

“Radical emigration” to Afghanistan began in the second half of the 1990s, after the end of the civil war in Tajikistan. Islamist opposition members rejected peace agreements and crossed the border into territories controlled by the Taliban. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), later renamed the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (IMT), was the first major organization to unite the new immigrants. Later, in Taliban-controlled areas there emerged affiliates of Arab al-Qaeda and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) established by militants from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Finally, extremists from other countries, including Russia, began to drift to the region. Most of them joined the IMT, which was closer to them in terms of language and culture, compared to the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.

Foreign jihadists who operated in Afghanistan received protection from law enforcement agencies of their own countries and some financial support. The IMT enjoyed special privileges, and areas populated mainly by its members virtually acquired autonomous status. The IMT had its own armed forces, intelligence and counter-intelligence services, and even a “party prison.” Taliban leaders planned to use IMT militants for further expansion into post-Soviet Central Asia after the Northern Alliance’s fall when the movement could get full control of Afghanistan.

In 2001, however, the Taliban’s plans were crushed by U.S. interference. The Taliban lost control over the country, and the radicals went underground, together with their foreign allies. This blow undermined their confidence in IMT leaders and divided the movement, spawning a splinter group, Islamic Jihad Union, headed by Najmiddin Jalolov.

The IJU focused on plotting terrorist attacks outside Afghanistan. It carried out several of them in Central Asian countries where its militants posed as members of the Jamaat of Central Asian Mujahideen. For example, the IJU is responsible for a series of bomb attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara in the spring of 2004, which left dozens of people killed and injured. The Uzbek authorities quickly eliminated the Jamaat cell then, but in 2009 it again claimed responsibility for attacks in Uzbekistan. An inflow of Muslim volunteers from Germany, many of whom came from immigrants’ families, enabled the Union to reach as far as Western Europe. In 2007, Union militants planned terrorist attacks in Frankfurt, but the plot was foiled by security services.

The Islamic Jihad Union’s example was contagious: militants from the former Soviet Union who were fighting in Afghanistan announced the creation of several terrorist groups for operation in their home countries. These groups focused on spreading their ideology among their compatriots to mobilize more people for fighting in Afghanistan, and create terrorist cells in their own countries.

These efforts resulted in an upsurge of extremism in Central Asia in the late 2000s and early 2010s: terrorist attacks, both failed and successful, swept the region, including Kazakhstan, one of the richest and most stable countries in the region. A group of young Kazakh militants, among them Rinat Habidolla, Urynbasar Munatov and Damir Znaliyev, announced the creation of Jund al-Khilafah (“Soldiers of the Caliphate,” also known as Kazakh Islamic Jihad). Its cells, each including several dozen people, began to operate in their home town of Atyrau. The militants produced homemade explosive devices and were engaged in racketeering and robberies to provide financial support to jihadists in Afghanistan/Pakistan (AfPak). They even planned to perform contract killings ordered by their leaders. However, in 2011 the group was exposed and crushed by the authorities.

In 2010, an extremist organization named Jamaat Ansarullah was set up in Tajikistan. The organization, headed by well-known radical Abdullo Rakhimov, carried out several attacks against the Tajik authorities. In particular, it is responsible for an explosion in Khujand.

Militants from Russia were united in Jamaat Bulgar, also known as Uyghur-Bulgar Jamaat, which performed a series of terrorist attacks in Tatarstan.

Now even the conservative IMT has adopted the practice of “exporting terrorism.” In 2013, Russian law enforcement agencies uncovered the organization’s cell that was preparing terrorist attacks in Moscow. In the same year, U.S. security agencies exposed the IMT’s terrorist cell in Boise, Idaho.

The actual independence of these groups, including the IMT and the IJU, is rather limited. Their infrastructure in Afghanistan and Pakistan is under full political and organizational control of the Taliban. Apparently, there are financial reasons for this: the majority of these organizations do not have extensive infrastructure in their home countries that would ensure their financial self-sufficiency. So they have to partake the hospitality of the Taliban and al-Qaeda which receive funding from Pakistan and Arab countries. In addition, militants from the former Soviet Union depend on terrorist organizations operating in AfPak as they often do not know the local conditions and cannot liaise with the local population due to linguistic and cultural barriers.

It is not clear how the Taliban leaders interact with foreign terrorist organizations operating in AfPak as outsiders are not privy to this process. It is only known that, as a rule, foreign terrorists are not represented in shuras (councils) which ensure coordination among militant groups and where Pashtun commanders speak on their behalf. In particular, the IJU is believed to be fully controlled by the so-called Haqqani Network, one of the largest factions of the Afghan Taliban. Jamaat Ansarullah stands lower in this hierarchy and is probably controlled by one of the Taliban’s “shadow governors” in the northern provinces of Afghanistan.

Members of post-Soviet terrorist organizations can gain more freedom of action only if they leave AfPak and return home (provided they are not on the wanted list there) or move to other trouble spots such as Syria, Iraq or even Somalia.

POST-SOVIET TERRORISM IN AFPAK

The Afghan armed opposition includes people from many countries and regions. They come from Arab, Central Asian or even Western European countries (usually they are second-generation immigrants). According to various estimates, the number of foreign fighters in AfPak varies from 5,000 to 24,000 people. They enter the conflict area mainly via Pakistan which they formally visit to receive religious education. Then they find themselves in one of many thousands of small underground madrasahs patronized by the Taliban, meet with recruiters and join groups of foreign fighters. They include largely people from CIS countries, mostly from Central Asia.

Information on arrested members of the IMT and Jund al-Khilafah give a rough idea of their composition. About 95 percent of their members are men under the age of 30. Women are recruited very rarely and almost all of them are trained as suicide bombers. Apparently, female relatives of militants, mostly their wives or younger sisters, take some part in the organizations’ work but their role is very small.

More than 85 percent of militants have only secondary or incomplete secondary education and 60-65 percent of them are unemployed. Another 25 percent are self-employed: they earn a living by making handicrafts, doing household repairs or engaging in retail trade. Only a few are employed as skilled workers in large organizations. Among radicals there are no well-to-do, up-and-coming and socially successful people. Due to the lack of resources, connections and education, and little life experience, extremists are not good at secrecy and cannot effectively use legal means. This is why secret services quickly uncover many newly established cells when they attempt to create arsenals and start preparing acts of terrorism. In Central Asia, there is no full-fledged recruiting network that would be directly linked to Afghanistan.

There are also other channels of recruitment. Some extremists join the terrorist underground through radical organizations not directly involved in the Afghan war but ideologically close to the Taliban. These include Hizb ut-Tahrir and Tablighi Jamaat, which Western authors have dubbed a “gateway to jihad.” The age and social status of their members make them different from the IJU or the IMT and ensure a higher level of secrecy for them. They also use legal religious institutions for their purposes. (Several clergymen in the Fergana Valley were exposed to have ties with Hizb ut-Tahrir.)

After spending some time in the “gateway to jihad” and going through indoctrination, radical young people go to Pakistan to “study in madrasahs,” many of which have no relation to the legal education system and are in fact training camps for militants. Some people go through this stage on their own: they establish contact with extremists via the Internet and receive their invitation to join them in the war. Often, however, such volunteers do not get the treatment they expected and some of them are taken hostage upon arrival in Pakistan or Afghanistan with a view to exacting ransom from their families.

Pakistan and southern regions of Afghanistan remain the main areas of fighting for foreign volunteers. Pakistani sources regularly report the participation of militants from post-Soviet Central Asian states in hostilities. For example, in June 2014 the IMT attacked an air base in Karachi, and witnesses said some of the attackers looked Uzbek. Earlier the IMT also claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in AfPak, although it often acts in close contact with the Taliban, and in many instances neither tends to draw a clear line between the two organizations.

Other groups are also actively involved in the fighting against international troops and local security forces. People in southern Afghanistan say there is a cemetery of foreign fighters near the border between the Afghan provinces of Paktika and Paktia, where 19 militants from the IJU and Jamaat Bulgar are buried. But each year, armed groups of these organizations move farther into the north of the country.

Now the composition of the IMT and the IJU in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly international with more ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks born in that country joining their ranks. The Taliban willingly uses these international terrorist organizations to divert attention from the recruitment of young Afghan non-Pashtuns in northern provinces where people are wary of the Taliban after ethnic cleansing during the civil war of 1992-2001. This makes Uzbek militants an ideal ethnic cover that allows radicals to achieve some success. An official from the Afghan province of Takhar told reporters that “ironically, children whose fathers and older brothers bravely fought not to allow the Taliban into Takhar now join the Taliban and the IMU [IMT – N.M.].”

As a result, Afghan citizens make up more than half of the militants in some IMT groups, which greatly changes the organization’s image and place in the international terrorist movement. Yet, the influx of volunteers from former Soviet republics is not subsiding. According to militants themselves, 50 to 100 new recruits come from Uzbekistan alone each year. These figures may be exaggerated, but, on the whole, the region attracts hundreds of radical volunteers a year. Last year, in Tajikistan’s Sughd province alone, 79 people were recorded as having undergone training in terrorist camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This figure includes those still remaining abroad and those who have returned home.

Most fighters remain in AfPak for no more than one or two years, after which time they go to other trouble spots or return home, except for those who have been admitted into the organization’s leadership or its propaganda bodies. In particular, two German brothers of Moroccan descent, Yassin and Mounir Chouka, who cooperate with Jundallah, a propaganda division of the IMT, have been staying in the region since 2011, one of the reasons being that they are wanted by the police in the majority of Western countries. Another militant, Russian-speaking Abdul Hakeem from a CIS country, has been in the region for almost as long. Hakeem, a long-standing presenter of videos released on the Internet by Jundallah, has recently established a terrorist organization of his own, Ansar al Aseer.

Some foreign fighters leave AfPak to continue terrorist activities in other regions. There have been reports that many IJU and IMT militants have left Afghanistan for Syria where Seyfuddin Uzbek Jamaat, an IMT subsidiary, and Imam Bukhari Jamaat, an alleged subsidiary of the IJU, operate. At least several dozen militants have entered Syria via their channels and are now fighting there on the side of the armed opposition.

Many of the militants from CIS countries who have been lucky to remain alive and who have failed to make a career in their terrorist organization return home. However, few of them become actively involved in illegal activities. As a rule, they retain their radical views, but the participation in hostilities may have caused them to revise their life goals and plans, although there are no guarantees that they will not revert to active extremism.

CENTRAL ASIAN AUTHORITIES AND THE “AFGHAN THREAT”

According to Central Asian countries, the presence of their own radicals in the Afghan armed opposition has a double effect. On the one hand, this is a channel for anti-state minded individuals to go out of the country, with a chance of getting killed or settling abroad. Naturally, this aspect of “post-Soviet terrorism” in Afghanistan has a rather stabilizing effect. On the other hand, Central Asian radicals create terrorist organizations in AfPak which are out of reach for CIS authorities and aimed against their countries and governments. Their activists gain combat experience, establish contacts with foreign extremists, and hone their ideology and propaganda methods. In addition, Taliban camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan have turned into a safe haven for extremists who have had to emigrate from their countries. They can hide in AfPak for years while continuing their criminal activities.

Developments of the late 2000s and early 2010s showed that the activity of post-Soviet terrorist organizations was not necessarily reduced to the conflict area. Having undergone training in international terrorist camps, groups of militants sometimes return to their home countries to use the criminal skills they have been taught. One such example is the attempt to shell the Nizhnekamskneftekhim plant in Tatarstan with homemade missiles in 2013. The attackers used the tactics employed by the Afghan Taliban. According to media reports, militants from the aforementioned Jamaat Bulgar were behind the attack.

For countries in the south of Central Asia the problem is much more serious than for Russia and Kazakhstan since they are closer to the war zone and most of them are relatively weak in socio-economic terms. This makes the combating of terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan one of the main tasks for national law enforcement agencies to tackle. Regrettably, available data do not confirm that local security services can always effectively analyze the situation in neighboring territories. Some experts take the diametrically opposite approaches in assessing the war against Afghan extremists: some of them insist that the international and national troops are absolutely ineffective, while others completely ignore the threat posed by the Taliban. Often experts from Central Asia have no opportunity to adequately assess the strength and actual combat capability of terrorist groups operating in northern Afghanistan. In recent years, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been trying to intensify exchanges of intelligence with Kabul, but the information problem still remains unresolved.

At the same time, there have been some obvious achievements. Reports about operations of national intelligence agencies confirm their ability to accomplish tactical tasks in their countries. In Tajikistan, for example, the number of extremist acts has been decreasing in recent years. While 200 suspected extremists and terrorists were arrested in 2011, their number decreased to less than 150 in 2012 and to merely about 50 people in 2013. The small number of major terrorist acts and the prevention of terrorist attacks before they occur also attest to the effectiveness of local security agencies.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan lay emphasis on reinforcing their borders with Afghanistan to prevent large armed groups from crossing into their territory. Uzbekistan has built a well-guarded fortified security line which local smugglers consider almost impenetrable. Tajikistan is also strengthening border security. The Turkmen Embassy in Kabul is even helping ethnic Turkmens create anti-Taliban self-defense groups on the Afghan side of the border, which have already eliminated extremists in the border zone.

Yet, these efforts do not guarantee complete security. Central Asia itself has pockets of instability, one is the Fergana Valley torn by ethnic and socioeconomic problems. In addition, almost all countries in the region are experiencing objective social and political difficulties that are not related to external influence. They are faced with acute problems of corruption and high unemployment, and are in dire need of long-term economic growth. Finally, some states, like Turkmenistan, lack political freedoms and legal mechanisms for political struggle, while others, such as Kyrgyzstan, have been hit by excessive protests, with which their weak state institutions are unable to cope.

Social and economic problems and inaccessible education opportunities cause young people from villages and small towns in Central Asia to go to trouble spots. In the lack of legal channels for horizontal and vertical social mobility, the offers made by recruiters from Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMT to join armed groups in AfPak sound particularly attractive. To some young men, this may seem like the only chance to “see the world” and acquire new skills and at least some status in the eyes of others.

Another problem in the region is the lack of harmony in its religious life. The shortage of professional clergymen results in a situation where foreigners with a tainted background or local former extremists start preaching Islam in the provinces. This practice causes strong reactions from the authorities which begin to impose indiscriminate restrictions on all religious organizations as regards their work with young people, and this, in turn, leads to a lack of understanding among Muslims and increases mutual distrust.

Finally, in some cases terrorism and purely criminal activities complement each other. Field commanders of the armed opposition in Afghanistan, who have close ties with criminal gangs in post-Soviet Central Asia, have established close control over drug trafficking operations from the country. When national authorities try to put an end to the illegal business, criminals use extremist organizations and their slogans to protect their interests. People may not always show appreciation for attempts to clamp down on organized crime as the governmental authorities are too weak and corrupt to offer a viable alternative.

In 2012, for example, a conflict between the authorities of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region and local militant forces, engaged in smuggling, triggered an outbreak of social unrest. Simultaneously, there came reports that Taliban groups had stepped up their activity in Afghan border areas, allegedly with a view to intervening in the conflict. And a new recent outbreak of violence in Gorno-Badakhshan is quite worrying.

It is too early to say that terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan pose a direct and obvious threat to the ruling regimes in Central Asia. All states in the region have sufficiently strong security forces to repel direct military aggression by terrorist groups from adjacent territories. However, given internal problems in these countries, terrorism can become an additional destabilizing factor.

*  *  *

At present, there are no signs of sharp destabilization in Afghanistan. The 2014 election campaign was relatively calm notwithstanding the armed opposition’s efforts to upset it and the fierce struggle among legal elites for presidency. The army and police keep the situation under control, despite the withdrawal of foreign troops on which national security forces have become accustomed to rely in their work. The “Iraqi scenario” – where the ruling elite retains power but there remains a certain level of terrorist activity – is believed to be the most likely course of events in Afghanistan.

However, recent developments make any reference to the Iraqi experience ambiguous. Of course, this does not mean that Afghanistan will repeat the fate of Iraq in both bad and good ways, but this example shows how the government’s mistakes in an unstable country, waging an uphill struggle against terrorism, can provoke catastrophic deterioration of the situation.

In these circumstances, Central Asian countries should be prepared for any scenario and should try to prevent the most dangerous upheavals in Afghanistan. In particular, they can strengthen their own defense capabilities and establish close cooperation with Kabul to combat regional terrorism. Member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which can rely on the military and financial resources of Russia and Kazakhstan, have been pooling their efforts against terrorism. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan remain outside the CSTO for political reasons. The two countries pursue their own policies with regard to the “Afghan issue.” Experience has shown, however, that when combatting terrorism, all countries need to exchange information, even in limited amounts, at least, to be sure of one’s neighbors. In addition, “Problem 2014,” although caused by external threats, makes one think of internal problems, the resolution of which should make the post-Soviet space securer against extremist calls coming from Afghanistan/Pakistan.

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