CERIA Brief No. 13, February 2016
By Noah Tucker
The Kazakh contingent in ISIS is unique in Central Asia because their ethnic battalion is the only one to be featured in global media outreach efforts from ISIS’ al-hayat media wing. The latter has used the presence of ethnic Kazakh women and children – and particularly children training for combat or participating in what appeared to be a summary execution – to advance its narrative that the group is not only a multi-national, but a multi-generational movement that will supposedly train a new generation of “citizens” who will come of age in the self-declared Caliphate and will fight for its values. The al-hayat videos of Kazakh child soldiers successfully targeted a global audience using violence meant to shock the conscience of viewers and drew intense global media attention, but they also generated widespread anger and denunciation within Kazakhstan. Far from offering to “liberate” Kazakhs, many expressed a belief that ISIS was callously exploiting Kazakh children and turned to conspiracy theories to challenge the idea that any Kazakhs at all would find the group appealing and rejected the idea that ISIS represents Islam in any form with which they could identify.
The response by the government of Kazakhstan to public evidence that some of its citizens have joined ISIS differs sharply from other countries in the region. While its neighbors appear to often exaggerate ISIS appeal to their Muslim-majority populations and politicize the threat to target domestic opposition groups, Kazakhstan downplays the threat of ISIS to its territory and emphasizes measures to attempt to control even the distribution of firsthand sources that show Kazakh participation in jihadist conflict in Syria. While the Kazakh government has been forced to acknowledge that some of its citizens participate in the conflict, it prefers to highlight arrests of returned militants or alleged recruiters and highlight participation in joint international counter-terrorism efforts in order to reassure the public that the country is secure and is on the frontlines of a large international effort to fight a common external enemy. State narratives face a steep challenge from Russian media and information operations, which consistently portray ISIS as an imminent threat to Central Asia that can only be countered in cooperation with the Russian Federation. Russian media and information operations in Kazakhstan claim that ISIS is a U.S.-created puppet, a message that resonates with a significant number of Kazakh social media users.
ISIS’s international media that used ethnic Kazakhs provoked overwhelming condemnation of the group from the public, often denying that Kazakhstani citizens participated in the videos at all and challenging the reality not only of the videos themselves, but as frequently happens in the rest of the region, questioning whether or not ISIS even exists. Independent Islamic groups online – including strict reformists and Salafists – promote strong anti-ISIS messages or ignore the group entirely, categorically rejecting any relationship between ISIS and the Islamic faith.