Recent arrest serves as warning that extremists still recruiting Kyrgyz youth

By Arman Kaliyev


A screenshot from a YouTube video posted last December shows Kyrgyz militants somewhere in Syria. Kyrgyz authorities have identified college graduates among Kyrgyz citizens fighting in Syria.

BISHKEK -- A high-profile arrest of a suspected extremist cell leader in Kyrgyzstan serves as warning that extremists are still trying to recruit Kyrgyz youth, warn authorities.

Estimates vary on the number of Kyrgyz nationals fighting for "Islamic State" (IS) in Syria. The Interior Ministry (MVD) says more than 500, but Kadyr Malikov, director of the Bishkek-based think tank Religion, Law and Politics, puts the number at about 1,000.

Motivations vary too, say authorities and pundits: some militants are not there voluntarily, having been duped.

The suspected cell leader was arrested in Kyrgyzstan August 9, according to the State National Security Committee (GKNB) press office, which did not disclose the exact location of the arrest. He was on an international wanted list.

The suspect, Kh. M., a Kyrgyz citizen, is accused of taking orders from foreign extremist hubs, recruiting youth and setting up extremist cells. He has already confessed, according to the GKNB.

Resentment and economic motivations

Kyrgyz militants tend not to be driven by fanaticism, say knowledgeable observers.

Those who go to Syria out of religious conviction are seeking perceived justice, rather than to do battle, said Keneshbek Sainazarov, director of the Kyrgyz branch of the international NGO Search for Common Ground (SCG), citing a recent study by his organisation.

Impoverished Kyrgyz who take up militancy are dissatisfied with their social status and hope for justice in Islam, he said.

Other low-income Kyrgyz in militant ranks in Syria simply want the payday, he added.

However, Kyrgyz job-seekers who end up in Syria are not all there by choice, he said, adding that many are duped by employment agencies that in reality serve as extremist fronts. Those job-seekers believe they are going to Turkey for routine jobs like cooks, freight handlers and dishwashers and then are taken by force into Syria, he said.

Well-off radicals

While authorities are accustomed to the link between disgruntlement and extremism, they find the phenomenon of successful citizens who join IS to be much less understandable.

During the past few years, Kyrgyz with an ostensible stake in society have been joining IS at an alarming rate, they say, though they have no specific numbers.

If radical groups once could find a reliable stream of discontented and ill-educated villagers to join them, said Sainazarov, now they are drawing on the younger, highly educated segment of society, he said.

Sainazarov suggested some lures for such seemingly unlikely extremist recruits.

"Young people seek adventure and romance," he said. "Many of them ... are asking themselves: who am I, what are my values, what do I believe in, and what do I do? Kyrgyz society doesn't answer those questions."

Religious illiteracy is another factor that simplifies extremist recruiters' mission, he said, citing a common trait among secular, urban Kyrgyz who are likelier than other elements of society to have college degrees.

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