CERIA Brief No. 12, February 2016
By Noah Tucker
According to international estimates and statements made by regional authorities, some 500 Uzbekistani citizens and up to 1,000 ethnic Uzbeks from around the region (primarily Southern Kyrgyzstan) have traveled to Syria or Iraq to join the conflict there. In spite of overwhelming public and official attention on ISIS and its recruiting, ethnic Uzbeks appear to be drawn primarily into several groups united with the Syrian Islamic Front and Jabhat al Nusra, all groups currently at war with ISIS.
While only a small portion of the public is vulnerable to recruitment, overcoming ubiquitous conspiracy theories fed by Russian and local media that blame the United States for the ISIS threat and for the conflict in Syria is likely the primary challenge for the US government and other international partners in creating anti-ISIS messages that resonate with the Uzbek-speaking public. Even respected Uzbek Muslim activists who speak out against ISIS first have to counter conspiracies that deny the group’s actions (and videos portraying them) are real or that ISIS itself even exists.
Uzbekistan’s shift in tactics to use trusted religious figures genuine popular influence like Hayrulla Hamidov to counter ISIS recruitment reflects one of the most resonant public responses to ISIS messaging and is likely to be significantly more successful than past strategies. New support for ISIS by some members of hardline Uzbek Salafist networks on social media – as well as the group’s previously documented strategy of targeting “recent converts” and Central Asian migrant workers with little or no background in Islamic studies – reaffirms the need for articulating theological responses by figures viewed as legitimate and authoritative.