Kyrgyzstan: Local roots of global jihad
By The Fake Spaniard
I head to Nariman village, some two kilometers north of Osh city in southern Kyrgyzstan, as I had heard that several youth from there had left for Syria. Incidentally, Nariman had witnessed acts of brutal violence during the summer 2010 clashes between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities, including an infamous police sweep on June 21 after the events, resulting in two residents dead and about two dozen wounded.
I scout the village market until I meet a spare-parts seller with a trimmed beard and shaven upper lip, Salafi-style. After some hesitation, he directs me to the house of "B", a local man whom everyone seems to know as the Kori, or "reader", indicating a
person of some learning about Islam. B owns the only two-storey house in the village: the gate is ajar and the inner-yard shows a house of means compared with the local average.
As it is Friday and B is teaching Sharia at a local madrassa, we agree to meet on the way to Osh. He is a short, bearded guy in his thirties. He prefers speaking Arabic to Russian as he has lived in Mecca and studied in Syria. During our 30-minute conversation, a Saudi national phones B: apparently, the latter is looking for Uzbek wives for his Saudi friends who are currently in town. I finally manage to convince B to put me in touch with some people who had fought in Syria and come back. He apologetically explains his initial reluctance: "They don't trust people, you see".
After a 10-minute drive, he hands me over to one of his students, who first delivers approximately 30,000 som (about $600, at least three times the Kyrgyz average salary) to B and then takes me to an all-Uzbek quarter at the edge of Osh city. I am led into a big sitting room in a private house, where more than 20 men with age ranging between 20 and 45 are sitting on cushions on the floor around a low table, set for a Friday late lunch. Most wear long beards, some hennaed, with shaven upper lips.
After they had drilled me about my origin and reason to be there, I ask if they know anyone who is fighting in Syria and where I can find their family. I add that the Kyrgyz media had emphasized how most of these Kyrgyz youth had been duped into believing that they would go and work in Russia or Turkey, and then had been taken to Syria instead to fight. The media carry statements by local imams and parliamentarians that there is no jihad in Syria, but a civil war.
After denying knowledge of anyone fighting in Syria or their families, they give me a lecture about the apostate Shi'ite regime of Bashar al-Assad killing Sunni Muslims. The group states with absolute certainty that most youngsters who had left for jihad knew exactly what they were doing: they were simply responding to the call for help (da'wa) of defenseless Syrian Sunni Muslims.
Material showing their plight is omnipresent on the Internet, and the youth had raised their own money to go fight: no visa for Turkey is needed, a flight to Istanbul costs a few hundred dollars, and then you are only a bus ride away from the Syrian border. The more the conversation drags on, the more the barriers fall down: some admit to "having gone to Turkey for private purposes", and to then coming back. Incidentally, this happens to be what some returnees from Syria have argued in their defense when questioned by the State Committee for National Security (GKNB, in its Russian acronym).
They now all know personally some of the jihadists and their families, but under no circumstances will they give me their contact details. "Some things are just forbidden". By this time, no-one in the room is speaking of Kyrgyz citizens: these are Uzbek youth going to fight in Syria.
The following morning, their fears to speak out are proved well founded: a contact in the secret services phones a common acquaintance and threatens to arrest me if I approach "suspects" again. Interestingly, after disappearing for a few days, B - the Kori - re-emerges to retract: "The guys went to Turkey, not to Syria. You just misunderstood me", he shrills on the phone.
Starting in early 2013, reports began emerging in the Kyrgyz and some international media with a focus on Central Asia concerning a few dozen Kyrgyzstan youths leaving to fight in Syria on the side of the opposition. Actually, the Kyrgyz jihadists became big news in the region when three of them (one a Kazakh of Kyrgyz origins) returned to Kyrgyzstan with the aim - according to the authorities - of executing a series of terrorist attacks in the capital Bishkek during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit on September 13 this year.
Apparently, those were not the only returnees: rumors are rife in the southern city of Osh as to five young people who were arrested a few months ago upon their return from Syria and are now being held by the GKNB. Up to seven are thought to be also in custody in a secret facility in Bishkek city center run by the Desyatiyi odel (10th section) of the GKNB, which is in charge of terrorism suspects, although it is not clear whether their detention is linked to their participation in the Syrian conflict.
As a source close to the top echelons of the police in the south tells me, no-one in the security apparatus has even an approximate idea of how many people have left to fight in Syria nor, of those, how many have come back. The source in the security services had initially warned me, via the same common acquaintance, of the sensitivity of the subject, adding that the services were on full alert and monitoring people suspected of any activity linked to the recruitment of fighters for Syria. In spring, the topic had also been appraised in a parliamentary session.
However, one key fact is missing from virtually all reports: while it is openly acknowledged that these youths originate from the south, nowhere is it mentioned that most of the Kyrgyz nationals who are now fighting or have previously fought in Syria belong to the country's Uzbek minority.
A local journalist confirms to me that, in private, the GKNB admits to this. Along with their religious conviction, these young Uzbeks harbor strong resentment against the Kyrgyz community due to the violent clashes that exploded in summer 2010 and led to the deaths of many hundreds of people, mostly Uzbeks, and the destruction of more than 2,000 buildings, mostly homes.
Nowadays, tensions still run high between the two communities: most Uzbeks detest the local authorities as, in their view - which has been confirmed by independent testimonies - they sided with the Kyrgyz during the conflict, being complacent and even participating in the onslaught.
The discriminatory practices that Uzbeks endure in their everyday life, whether perceived or real, only heighten their common feeling of victimhood. "Uzbeks go and fight in Syria to get good military training and then come back, ready for the next round with the Kyrgyz", a friend told me.
"The subject has become so sensitive only after 2010, whereas people have gone to fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the last 10 years".
Another local journalist stresses how national identity and Islam mix in a toxic brew, as Uzbeks seem to question the Kyrgyz's Islamic credential: "They criticize the fact that they do not pray five times a day, for instance, or that their women do not wear a headscarf". It is a commonly held belief in the country that Uzbeks are more conservative Muslims.
Three sources, totally unrelated to each other, backed off from their previous promise to give me the address of a few families whose youngsters are fighting in Syria. All mentioned fear of the consequences as a reason, a further confirmation of how delicate the issue is.
"I" is a member of Hizb al-Tahrir (HT), a party banned in all Central Asian republics. I meet him in a car on the side of a little-trafficked road. "Families get $10,000 when their sons go to fight jihad in Syria. Jihad doesn't come for free. The fighter also gets money and, if he dies, the family receives compensation for his martyrdom."
He adds that many youngsters go to fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but since 2012 Syria has also become a top spot. Many join Jabhat al-Nusra, a group linked to al-Qaeda, and are recruited by people from da'wa organizations who go door to door in poor neighborhoods in places like Aravan, Naukat, Kara-Suu and Nariman.
He does not know B or whether private Saudi money is behind the flow of funds, but denies any participation of HT as an organization in the recruitment, although he is keen to stress that Uzbek youth are joining the jihad in Syria to train for the future confrontation with the Kyrgyz.
"R" instead tells me that three HT members tried to enlist him to fight in Syria in September this year. Apparently, the three men claimed to him that behind them were two rich Uzbek businessmen who were ready to shoulder all the expenses. He continues that HT affiliates visit local mosques at prayer time and during religious festivals: this way, they find out who are the most pious Muslims and those who are most in need in the community.
They then base their recruiting strategy on this information: in this line of thinking, religious conviction and economic need are the main engines of jihad. Once someone is in Syria, he keeps in touch with his family and relatives via his recruiter, who speaks with him via mobile phone using a different SIM card each time.
"D" saw his neighbors's picture on the Internet: he was martyred in Syria, where he went to fight in 2011. "A", 18, flew to Istanbul in autumn 2011 with "TM", who sells Turkish goods in Osh city market. After their arrival in Turkey, A called "his Uzbek friends, who were waiting for him in Syria". She continues that recently he contacted his family and told them to forget about him: "Soon you will receive a big sum of money." Perhaps he will be a martyr, a friend suggests.
Although precise figures are elusive, some put the number of Kyrgyz fighting in Syria at more than 100. With recruits officially confirmed as coming from all of Kyrgyzstan's three southern regions (Osh, Jalal-Abad and Batken), and given the pervasive fear of arrest and persecution associated with the subject, the figure may be much higher.
Likewise, while it is difficult to pin down all the diverse reasons that motivate young people to join the fight in Syria, in southern Kyrgyzstan radical propaganda seems to find fertile ground due to the state's failure to address the root causes of the deep distrust between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities.
Instead, social tensions and poverty - the World Bank estimates that 40% of the population lives under the poverty line - are pushing some of the country's youth in the south, mostly Uzbeks, into the arms of recruiters. This paints a bleak picture for the future and the government would do well to take notice and enforce not only security-based measures, but a comprehensive plan for reconciliation and development. In Kyrgyzstan, the roots of global jihad are very much local. And so is the solution.
The Fake Spaniard is a pseudonym for a Kyrgyzstan-based journalist.