The increasing activity of ISIS in Central Asia is driving regional leaders to ask Russia and the U.S. for help. Will Moscow and Washington become more active in the region to prevent terror attacks by ISIS?

Shadows of Iraqi soldiers fall over the concrete walls, as they watch movements of their enemy at the front line during clashes between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State group extremists in Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, March 28, 2015. Photo: AP

In early March the Afghan-Turkmen border witnessed increased activity on the part of the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq anf the Greater Syria (ISIS). Uzbekistani intelligence reported attempts by ISIS to enter the country across the border with Turkmenistan in order to commit terrorist acts. The information was confirmed by intelligence agencies in Kabul.

The Turkmen authorities have begun reinforcing their border with Afghanistan and called for assistance from border guards in Uzbekistan and Russia. Military aid to Turkmenistan in the fight against ISIS has also been agreed upon with the United States.

Given the secular nature of the regimes in the region, experts polled by Russia Direct do not overstate the Islamist threat, yet do consider it necessary to frame a coordinated plan of action to strengthen security in the region.

ISIS represents an increasing threat in Central Asia

The appearance of ISIS divisions in neighboring Afghanistan, and their movement towards Turkmenistan and increased activity on the Uzbek border have caused great concern throughout the region. The National Security Service (NSS) of Uzbekistan reported that militants planned to carry out terror attacks in March. Also in March the Uzbek Ministry of Internal Affairs conducted a large-scale “anti-terror cleanup” operation to prevent security threats, it was reported by national media.

On March 18 the presidents of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Islam Karimov and Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, held a telephone conversation during which they agreed to cooperate in countering the common threats faced by both countries. A few days later, Uzbek and Russian border guards were observed on the Turkmen-Afghan border. Turkmen troops are being redeployed to the border to carry out anti-terrorist operations against ISIS, reported the publication Chronicles of Turkmenistan.

On March 30, the head of the United States Central Command (US CENTCOM), General Lloyd James Austin, stated that in response to a formal request from the Turkmen authorities, the U.S. had agreed to render military assistance to the country in countering the ISIS threat.

Meanwhile, Nikita Mendkovich, an expert of the Russian International Affairs Council, believes that the worsening situation on the Turkmen-Afghan border is the result not of ISIS militants, but the Taliban.

“ISIS units have so far appeared only in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. Isolated detachments of Taliban fighters could be collaborating with ISIS and using their flag, but it’s not yet common practice. Politically the Taliban is relatively independent,” the expert told Russia Direct.

Daniyar Kosnazarov, head of the Central Asia and Caspian Geopolitics and Regional Studies Division under the Library of the First President of Kazakhstan, notes that back in 2014 the Taliban said it did not condone the actions of ISIS.

“The Taliban demanded that ISIS-loyal commanders leave Afghanistan, but the latter, hoping for an influx of funding and recruits, remained in the country,” he said.

Experts link the emergence of ISIS in Central Asia to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

“Small terrorist groupings in Afghanistan, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which existed on funds from the Taliban and the Haqqani network, lost their place at the feeding trough after the withdrawal of foreign troops,” notes Kosnazarov. “In the search for new sources of funding, they have sworn allegiance to ISIS. But all the same, ISIS will still have to come to an arrangement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, since the latter is not willing to share its resources.”

Kosnazarov is puzzled as to why the ISIS threat to the region is being hyped at this particular moment when negotiations are underway in Afghanistan with the Taliban. “Browbeating the Taliban into thinking that failure to find a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan will pit them against ISIS militants is not very wise. It will only irritate them,” he reckons.

ISIS is recruiting from the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia

According to a report by The International Crisis Group, up to 4,000 citizens of Central Asia are fighting on the side of ISIS. According to Uzbekistan’s NSS, more than 5,000 militants have joined ISIS from the IMU, which is a banned organization in the Central Asian republics, as well in Russia and the United States.

Abdulaziz Mansur, deputy chairman of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, believes that most people from Central Asia, particularly the young, are recruited as Islamists through online propaganda.

“About 200 Uzbek citizens are fighting in the ranks of ISIS. They leave the country mainly through Russia. Two or three tried to go directly from Uzbekistan, but were detained,” says Mansur.

PIR Center expert Vadim Kozyulin told Russia Direct that the involvement of a handful of Central Asians in the subversive activities of ISIS in no way means that the region is seriously exposed to the virus of Islamism, as it sometimes may seem.

“A serious insurgency requires not only weapons and financing, but public support. People in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have gone through numerous internal conflicts and recognize the importance of preserving peace in society,” explains the expert.

The Central Asian regimes are threatened not only by ISIS, but terrorist organizations operating out of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

“These organizations include post-Soviet terrorist groups with many natives of Russia and Central Asia. But ISIS and these terrorist outfits have yet to mount a united front in the post-Soviet space,” says Mendkovich.

Farkhad Tolipov, an independent Uzbek political scientist, is disinclined to exaggerate the threat posed by ISIS in Central Asia. He believes that ISIS militants are being closely monitored by Afghan and US intelligence.

The Central Asian republics feel intimidated by ISIS, but Kabul and Washington are in no hurry to take any specific action against it,” says the expert. “If the Taliban and IMU militants are fighting for ISIS, it’s absurd to suggest that the enemy is unknown and cannot be identified.”

Tolipov is at a loss as to why, in the age of navigational intelligence, ISIS militants remain undetected and free to continue their subversive activities.

“During the U.S.-led anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan, intelligence agencies tracked down the Taliban and launched surgical strikes on their positions. If ISIS is not crushed soon, it means the Americans themselves do not want to,” concludes Tolipov.

Kozyulin also alleges that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that a part of ISIS is under the control of U.S. intelligence.

“Remaining on the ground in Kabul, the Americans are keen to redirect militant aggression away from their bases,” he remarks.

Exploring new security mechanisms to combat terrorism in Central Asia

Back in February, Afghan villagers spotted Russian troops on the Turkmen-Afghan border, and recently teams of border guards from Uzbekistan arrived in the area, reported the news agency IA Fergana. Amid the growing regional tensions in Central Asia over the ISIS threat on the Afghan-Turkmen border, Moscow is reinforcing its 201st Motor Rifle Division, which is stationed in Tajikistan.

Mendkovich says that technical and financial assistance from Russia, including through the channels of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), is playing an important role in suppressing mass terrorist incursions across the borders of post-Soviet Central Asia.

“Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are trying to resist terrorist intrusions into the region on their own,” the expert spells out. “The extent to which they succeed depends on how clearly the authorities perceive the threats and their political priorities.”

He thinks that Ashgabat will distance itself from Moscow’s help for as long as it can, the rationale being its policy of neutrality, which is part of the state ideology of Turkmenistan.

Tolipov rejects the notion that Central Asia should rely on external forces to counter the terrorist threat.

“So long as we remain oriented towards Russia or the West, we will always be considered incapable of defending ourselves against extremists and terrorists,” believes the expert.

The solution to the regional problems, says Tolipov, lies in the creation of a Central Asian security structure made up of the five former Soviet republics in the region.

In this context, it worth mentioning that Uzbekistan suspended its involvement in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 2012, and Turkmenistan, adhering to a policy of neutrality, has never been a member of any regional security organization. In early 2014 the Taliban carried out a series of assaults on Turkmen border police on the Murghab River, killing three officers. And in September 2014 an ISIS flag was hung from a bridge in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, causing a stir in the law enforcement community.