BISHKEK -- More Kyrgyz citizens are accessing information online, spurring concern that extremist groups will increase efforts to use the internet as a tool to recruit vulnerable youth.
Currently, there are 5.9 million internet users in Kyrgyzstan, according to the State Committee of Information Technologies and Communications.
In addition, 1.9 million people in the country are considered "active users", or people who create an account and have to log in for any interaction on various social networks, said Timur Alkhojoyev, a spokesperson for the agency.
This has pushed government authorities to crack down on suspicious online outlets since extremist and terrorist organisations use the internet to conduct recruitment.
According to the Prosecutor General's Office, access to 64 websites and 233 user accounts and video channels has been banned or restricted this year in Kyrgyzstan.
"Such measures have been taken in regard to resources that disseminate informational materials on the internet that promote terrorist and extremist activities of individual organisations, as well as armed groups aimed at forcibly eliminating secular institutions of state authority," the Prosecutor General's Office said in a statement October 23.
According to the statement, "division of society on the basis of religion, ethnicity, race and gender has been increasing online, as well as the recruitment of mercenaries, including the involvement of minors in illegal activities."
"In order to counter cyber terrorism, in 2019 the Prosecutor General's Office has submitted 19 petitions to the court that recognise informational materials distributed on the internet as extremist. The court upheld the petition of the prosecutor general," the statement continued.
Online recruiting scheme
Marat Torobekov, a specialist at the Civil Initiative on Internet Policy -- a Bishkek-based non-governmental organisation that promotes decentralised and transparent internet regulations, said extremist recruiters are monitoring different accounts and targeting internet users who are interested in religious topics.
They then build connections by commenting on users' posts, Torobekov said.
"The comments are written in a way that you want to answer them," he said. "This way a connection is established. At first, when they begin to discuss religious topics, there is nothing extremist. When they can see that you are more interested, they begin to invite you to closed groups."
According to Torobekov, it's difficult to access these closed groups as they have their own systems. The passwords can change frequently, and the groups can constantly change names.
"And the first thing they say is that you have to fulfill the will of Allah," he added. "When you start to support these ideas, they begin to say that it is impossible in this country [to support the ideas in question], that they need to live in a country where they would be comfortable, where everything is according to religious canons."
"Then recruiting transfers from online to offline. That is, there is a meeting, education, or you are already being sent to a war zone," Torobekov said.
Typically the targets are men aged 20 to 35 and unmarried women, he said.
"Single women are promised a husband," Torobekov said. "They [recruiters] will write 'hello sister' and then the conversation will begin, and she'll be offered marriage for the sake of Allah."
"Strongly devout women won't be able to say no to them," he added. "They'll recite, 'Everything is done in the name of Allah' so that he will be pleased with you. If you do something, you do it for the sake of Allah's contentment, and then you will go to heaven."
Developing critical-thinking skills
Yuliya Denisenko, who specialises in countering extremism as well as rehabilitation, said that education is the most powerful tool in preventing cyber extremism.
Still, she is concerned that the current education system does not allow adults and children to develop a critical viewpoint toward what they hear and see.
"What is education for? To think," said Denisenko, who also is the director of the Asia Group Public Foundation.
"Someone can identify a recruiter and determine that [the recruiter] is trying to deceive him, but ... if the educational system is already not working, no religious education courses will save him," she added.
Denisenko suggests children as young as kindergartners should be taught critical-thinking skills.
"They must bring up a strong, healthy person who is not inclined to be misled," she said. "So that in 20 years, this person grows up, and entering adulthood does not need any guides, who can actually be recruiters for terrorist organisations. It is necessary to bring up an independent person with critical-thinking skills, which he or she can use as an everyday tool."
According to Denisenko, several European countries and the United States already have such educational programmes in schools, beginning in kindergarten and ending in doctoral programmes.
"The formation of critical thinking is a long process, but I think this is the only right way when it comes to prevention of extremism," she said.