With the New York truck attacker having been identified as an Uzbek national, at least four of the recent high-profile Islamist terror attacks have been carried out by either an Uzbek national or an ethnic Uzbek. This list includes the Stockholm truck attack that killed four and the Saint Petersburg bombing that killed 13. Muslims from former Soviet republics in Central Asia, or the ‘5 stans,’ are one of the largest group serving in the ranks of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq — perhaps second only to recruits coming from Europe.
Once a sleepy backyard of the former Soviet empire, the region is steadily emerging on the map of global Jihad. Having personally worked in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, I have watched this region turn into a recruiting and training ground for Islamist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Earlier this week, the French broadcaster France24 noted the role played by the Central Asian states in the worldwide Jihad:
“Today, the biggest number of IS group recruits in Iraq and Syria come from Central Asia. We also know that these people have risen quickly in IS group ranks,” said FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist movements, Wassim Nasr.
The estimates of the number of Central Asians that have joined the IS group vary widely, however, and is mainly due to a lack of intelligence capacities in tracking them.
A report published by the independent think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) has put the number of IS group fighters in Syria and Iraq and who originate from Central Asia at between 2,000 and 4,000. But according to Nasr, along with many other experts, the real number is believed to be much higher. Uzbeks are seen as topping the list, followed by Kyrgyzstanis. The IS group has also been successful in its recruiting efforts in both Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Islam came to the region in the eighth century when the Arab empire subdued the nomad tribes of the steppes. In the thirteenth century, the region became the staging ground for a massive Mongol invasion that reached up to eastern Europe. The Mongol conquest decimated the Arab empire, a setback from which the Islamic world never truly recovered. By the 1800s, the western part of Turkestan, as this region was formerly known, came under the influence of the Russian empire. The East Turkestan, also known as Xinjiang region, fell under the Chinese dominance.
Soviet dictator Stalin used the region to resettle “anti-Soviet” populations, deporting ethnic Germans, Ukrainians, Poles and Greeks to the region. The resettlement often had genocidal character, as multitudes died under the harsh conditions it was carried out. Stalin also divided the region into separate states naming each after the dominant native ethnicity.
In 1991, the Central Asian republics became independent after the Soviet Union dissolved itself. The state machinery fell into the hands of handpicked Moscow-trained apparatchiks, who named themselves Presidents-for-Life and have been in power ever since. The fall of the Soviet Union also meant an exodus of ethnic and religious minorities, restoring the Islamic character of the region. By the 1990s, political Islam also became a dominant force in the region with Taliban establishing an ‘Islamic Emirate’ in Afghanistan, Islamization of the state and military in Pakistan, and Jihad in the nearby Indian region of Kashmir.
The global Jihad has permeating into China through its Muslim-majority Xinjiang province. To make matters worse, China’s One Belt One Road Initiative is steering the Commnist dragon right into the Jihadi hornet’s nest. The ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ that will connect China to Eurasia and the ‘China–Pakistan Economic Corridor’ that now links China to the Persian Gulf ports run right though this region. As the importance of these trade corridors rise for China, so will the need to ensure there safety — in extreme case even militarily. China mindful of this challenge, is already building a naval base in Pakistan’s port of Gwadar.
In early 1990s, Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington predicted the potential for a conflict in Central Asia when he pointed out that the region was sitting on the fault lines of a coming “Clash of Civilizations”. Central Asia is where the Eastern Orthodox, Islamic, Chinese and Hindu Civilizations — as Huntington categorized them — meet. Mainstream media and progressive academics continue to attack Huntington for daring to make those connections.
Obama’s mentor and Columbia professor Edward Said called Huntington ‘ignorant’ for making those predictions. In Said’s words Huntington was trying to “make sure that the West gets stronger and fends off all the others, Islam in particular.” Eight year’s of Obama presidency made sure that this won’t happen anytime soon.
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