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The strike against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek: Uyghur separatists, ISIS or somebody else?

The question of terrorism in Central Asia has been long relevant – especially if we take into consideration the existence and actions of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which for more than two decades has been challenging the regime of Islam Karimov and most probably will continue to be a challenge for his successor. IMU has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and a number of Uzbeks are fighting along ISIS. Moreover, Russian speakers constitute the third most numerous and influential group within the organisation.

October 6, 2016 - Tatyana Dronzina - Articles and Commentary

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Although in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan suffered some terrorist strikes, they had an incidental character and were considered to have external, rather than domestic roots. Terrorism became an important issue in the political agenda of the region only after the emergence of ISIS, due to the active process of recruitment of militants from Central Asian countries. It began when the first reports of a Kazakhstani presence in the battlefields of Syria appeared in July 2013. Then “France 24” wrote about 150 Kazakhs arriving with their families to fight against the regime of Bashar al Assad. Later it became clear that the real number was much higher.

The situation was almost the same in Kyrgyzstan. After the collapse of the rouble, a number of Kyrgyz immigrants living in Russia started looking for new opportunities in other countries. Some of them decided to join ISIS together with their families, and there are currently around 300 migrants from Kyrgyzstan who now live in Syria. They were recruited in Russia, but we still do not know how exactly this recruitment process is being organised.

Tajikistan is also meeting the challenge of recruitment to ISIS. The reports that the top commander of Tajik task forces, the colonel Gulmorod Halimov (trained first in Russia, then in United States military bases), joined ISIS with some of his most trusted people, showed Central Asia’s political elite that radical Islam could penetrate far deeper that it was first assumed. In his video message published on YouTube, Halimov explained the reasons that pushed him to abandon his high position and join the war, the battlefields of which were thousands of kilometres away from his country. 

Turkmen militants are relatively less represented in terrorist organisations. This is due to the fact that for Turkmen Islamists it is easier to join the Taliban in Afghanistan – a country they share a border with, than to travel to the much more distant Syria. Nevertheless, some Turkmen militants occupy important positions within ISIS – for example, we believe that one of the people responsible for the training of would–be–bombers is from Turkmenistan.

Why do people from Central Asia join ISIS?

My fieldwork demonstrates that there is no single universal motive to join the Islamic State. In general, migrants who left for Syria have been guided by different views. Some of them felt that the freedom of religion in their own countries was restricted (especially sensitive is the issue of the veil). Others were disgusted by the corruption, widespread in all government structures. More still believed that the Islamic State, governed by the Sharia law, would create a perfect environment for devoted Muslims and their children, far from drugs, alcohol and the sexual promiscuousness so innate – in their opinion – in the modern world.

However, there were also other motives. Some men chose to take part in jihad, and others wanted to be martyrs. Women joining ISIS often were guided by the dream of fulfilling their Muslim identity (as they imagined it) – to be wives, mothers and housekeepers. Romanticism and adventure were also present in people’s motivations – in the end, the vast majority of the migrants were young people who were searching for an identity, community and social ideal to work for. What is clearly important, is that religion is not the only motive to join the fight in Syria, as people have also been guided by the will to help their suffering Muslim fellows, to fight for social justice, to help the weak, and by personal motives such as to participate in building of a new, more just world. 

One of the main motives has had to do with the protest of the young generation of Muslims against the patriarchal order, where their destiny is determined not by themselves, but by the tradition, elders and men. The Islamic state is a youth project, which is designed for young Muslims who want to be the protagonists of their own lives.

The August 30th 2016 blast: Why in Bishkek and why a Chinese diplomat?

The blast of August 30th 2016 shocked Kyrgyz society for two reasons. First, as it was clear that what took place was an act of international terrorism. Second, it was the first time that a suicide mission had been carried out in the territory of the country. Moreover, the strike has had some symbolic meaning: it was committed on Independence Day. It is as though the terrorists are reminding the government that they are here and that they are powerful.

The general public has been looking for the answers to two questions: why in Bishkek? and why a Chinese diplomat? These answers shall become clear when we find out who the perpetrator was, however nobody up till now has claimed responsibility for the attack. Therefore, all we can do is make assumptions and, at the moment, any version is possible, including the most incredible ones such as that China organised the strike itself, that the attack was aimed at the nearby US rather China’s embassy etc.

When it comes to the first question, the answer is relatively easy: Kyrgyzstan is not prepared for countering such a form of terrorism. Security services are poorly equipped and trained and the police and security services are deeply corrupt. The answer for the second question, however, is much more difficult.

Most experts associate the attack in Bishkek with the Uygur separatist movement. And for the right reasons: Kyrgyzstan has a shared border with Xinjiang, the Chinese province populated by Uygur Muslims seeking their autonomy. Around 50,000 Uyghurs live in Kyrgyzstan and some elements of the Uyghur community have been involved in violent conflicts. 

This was not the first strike against Chinese diplomats and citizens. At the end of the 1990s, combatants of the Uyghur East Turkestan Liberation Organisation made Kyrgyzstan a base for their meetings and congresses. They murdered Chinese officials and representatives of the Chinese diaspora, but never Kyrgyz citizens or policemen. All this culminated with the murder of the first secretary of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek on June 28th 2002.  He was attacked and killed while sitting in a Mercedes which belonged to a businessman of Uyghur origin, who was helping his countrymen to start new lives in Kyrgyzstan. The businessman was also killed.

However, this was the last high profile attack committed by the Uygur. Why would they resume their fight in 2016? Some analysts believe it had to do with China’s decision to join the military campaign against ISIS. This explanation takes into consideration that some Uygur separatist groups pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and that a number Uyghurs are fighting within the ranks of the organisation. In this sense, the strike could be seen as a revenge for China’s decision to fight against the Caliphate. Moreover, in the last few years China has made significant progress in contributing to the stability of the region. Its investments encourage regional development, especially within Kyrgyzstan, which is seeking to become a point of Chinese re-export in the area. This in turn increases the prestige of the Chinese government. In addition, China has recently revised its domestic policies in relation to fighting Uyghur terrorism; it has begun to use the tools of economic development and investments rather than oppression and persecution of the rebels.

A week after the strike, it was announced by a Kyrgyz TV channel that the suicide mission against the Chinese embassy was ordered by Uygur terrorists fighting in Syria, in particular by the group Al Nusra, which recently changed its name and cut its ties with Al Qaeda, seeking to become part of the Syrian opposition. This suggestion is based on the identification of the identity of the perpetrator – he had a Tajik passport and was supposedly recruited in Turkey. Later media published a version of events, according to which security agencies of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) countries identified not only Chinese, but also a Russian and a Tajik trace in the attack.

It is unlikely that the Bishkek strike will shake the stability of the country. It faces much more serious challenges such as drug trafficking, political corruption, as well as state and nation building. However, the attack has shown that new activity  have been taking place in the region’s underground, which should be analysed, studied and evaluated.

Tatyana Dronzina is a lecturer at the Political Science Department of Sofia University, Bulgaria, and guest lecturer at Granada University and Carlos III University of Madrid, Spain. She is also a consultant of PhD programmes of several universities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Her research interests include female suicide terrorism, the Islamic State, radicalisation and home grown terrorism. She is the author and co-author of several books and articles on the topic.

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