CERIA Brief No. 14, February 2016
By Noah Tucker
Although most of the small number of citizens participating in the Syrian conflict appear to be ethnic Uzbeks fighting in or allied with Jabhat al Nusra (ANF), in Kyrgyzstan public and state attention, as well as social media discussion about the conflict, focus almost exclusively on ISIS, casting the potential expansion of the Islamic State as the country’s primary security threat. Overall, online activity by Kyrgyzstani citizens self-identified with ISIS, including recruiting operations and media messaging, is exponentially lower than neighboring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or Kazakhstan. In spite of this contrast, public and state discourse about the alleged ISIS threat – facilitated as in Tajikistan by a relatively free but deeply partisan media environment – is fervent, fractured, and conspiratorial: public participants in the social media discourse about ISIS in Kyrgyzstan not only dispute the numbers of citizens who have joined the group, but whether or not it exists at all.
Kyrgyzstan’s uniquely competitive and partisan media environment and past discourse, particularly around perceived competition between Russian and the United States over the Manas Transit Center, have created an environment in which many Kyrgyzstani social media users and popular pundits portray the country as a center of global “geopolitical” competition. Within this environment, many have warned that Kyrgyzstan is the “prime target” for ISIS expansion in Central Asia since late 2014 and argue that Kyrgyzstani citizens are uniquely vulnerable to recruitment, although the country lacks a border with any other state in which the group’s militants are active and its population is targeted by recruiters online far less often than in neighboring states.
These messages are frequently accepted and repeated by social media users, often locating them within a narrative that argues ISIS is a “project of the United States” and it is the oft-cited U.S. “desire to destabilize the situation in Kyrgyzstan” that allegedly makes the country a high-profile target. Productive public debate on social media about ISIS continues to be almost impossible in the region because there is no general agreement on whether or not the group and its messages are real, whether it is an Islamist militant group or a U.S. government operation, or why the group’s ideology appeals to some Central Asians.
State responses to the ISIS threat have had little effect on improving the factual accuracy of public discussion and have been consistent with the post-Soviet approach to religion, treating religious activity as a potential threat that must be managed and monitored by the state. Responses by state officials to the July 2015 discovery of an alleged terrorist cell and the first ISIS video message targeting the country have outlined an initial strategy for counteracting the threat of extremism that relies on identifying and eliminating “foreign influence” from “Kyrgyz Islam,” specifically targeting practices visible in public space, including women wearing hijab. State reactions are less conspiratorial and divided than those among the public reflected on social media, but focusing only on external cultural markers and ascribing the appeal of Islamism as a political system to “foreign influence” has done little to counteract conspiracy theories (many of which blame the United States for ISIS expansion) or to engage with Islamist criticisms of corruption, inequality and injustice that resonate with marginalized groups within the population targeted by recruiters.