BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz college students and young professionals are banding together to find ways to fight extremism.
The effort comes as security agencies estimate that about 600 Kyrgyz are fighting alongside militants in Syria and Iraq. A group of young teachers, civil society representatives and students from several Bishkek universities, who refer to themselves as "Youth against extremism", are planning a series of activities to prevent the spread of extremism among youth, including college students, the organisers said.
Members of the group convened in Bishkek on November 22 to discuss "New formats for fighting religious extremism: youth initiatives".
Youth today are "the subject of recruitment and constant attention by extremist and terrorist organisations", Kadyr Malikov, director of the Bishkek-based think tank Religion, Law and Politics, said at the event.
Presently in Kyrgyzstan, authorities are prosecuting about 1,700 individuals in connection with charges of terrorism and extremism, according to the Interior Ministry (MVD). Most of them are aged 18 to 35.
"We have a chance to influence the situation," Malikov said at the forum. "We need to create alternative platforms ... where we can discuss the issues concerning our youth: balancing Islam and modern realities for youth, as well as balancing Islam and Kyrgyz folk traditions."
Extremist recruiters have changed their tactics and no longer urge Kyrgyz to come join them in Syria and Iraq, he said. Instead, they are urging their Kyrgyz recruits to stay home and to create terror cells in Kyrgyzstan.
Identifying high-risk groups
Certain Kyrgyz youth face a higher risk of recruitment than others do, according to observers.
The high-risk group is composed mainly of low-opportunity rural youth, Sergei Masaulov, president of the Bishkek-based Advanced Research Centre, said at the forum.
Other vulnerable individuals are heavy users of the VKontakte and Odnoklassniki social networks, where extremists aggressively recruit, he added.
"The average young Kyrgyz out in the provinces, limited to his own little world, is the most convenient target for recruitment," he said. "He has never travelled anywhere beyond his ayil [village]."
Youth with persistent psychological and economic problems become easy recruiting targets, Mametbek Myrzabayev, director of the Bishkek-based Institute of Islamic Studies, said at the forum.
"[When] young people cannot find their social niche ... they become radicalised," he said. "Those aged 25 to 29 account for the peak of extremist activity among Kyrgyz youth."
The majority of Kyrgyz who went to fight in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan, though, fell into the 22- to 25-year-old age cohort, he said.
Some high-risk Kyrgyz are those working abroad, where radicalised migrant workers from the North Caucasus can mingle with them and recruit them, police Lt. Col. Erlan Bakiyev, the Interior Ministry (MVD) 10th Main Administration official in charge of theology-related activity, said at the event.
Bakiyev cited the example of Jaish ul-Mahdi (Army of the Righteous Redeemer of Islam), several of whose members killed four Bishkek police officers in January 2011.
Those Kyrgyz extremists derived inspiration from the writings and messages of the late North Caucasus extremist Said Buryatskii, who was killed in Ingushetia in March 2010, Kyrgyz police say.
The greatest cause for concern are "internet imams" who proselytise on social networks, Bakiyev added.
Ignorance drives some youth into militants' arms, Kalys Stamkulov, a Bishkek college student, said at the forum.
"In the provinces, there are almost no libraries or information centres where people who want to can go study," he said. "[Rural dwellers'] knowledge of world religions is ... superficial."
"We need to work with youth in the provinces more, so that there is not a chasm between rural and urban youth," Stamkulov said.
Introducing a course called "Students against religious extremism" into universities would help, Klara Alimova, a philosophy and social sciences instructor at Kyrgyz State Technical University Named after Iskhak Razzakov in Bishkek, said at the forum.
Bakiyev stressed the value of online patrols by youth, who seek out extremist and terrorist videos and text messages.
So far the youth and law enforcement have removed about 10 videos, he said.