Thinking Aloud: A Look at Central Asian Fighters in Syria, Part I

Feb. 24, 2015 by Darius

I recently attended a fascinating event on Central Asian fighters in Syria and especially how they are recruited over the internet.  Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, the speaker asked that the event be not for attribution.  Thus, I won’t use names.

To preface his remarks, the speaker noted that using social media as a research source, as he does, is inherently biased: it depends on people representing themselves honestly when, in fact, a great percentage of the content relevant for his work is “deliberate falsification.”

The speaker began with the story of Umid (not his real name, of course, or the alias the speaker gave him), a 20-year-old Uzbek, as a case study for the mechanism of extremist recruiting.  Umid joined Facebook in 2013.  Based on his online activity, it was clear that in 2013, Umid’s goals in life were similar to many, if not most, young Uzbeks: find a girlfriend and get a green card to live in the US.  Umid didn’t accumulate more than a few dozen friends through 2013 but almost all were women.  In early 2014, though, Umid effectively gave up on his dream of a girlfriend and a green card.  Instead, he moved to Vladivostok, Russia, to find work.  At this point, away from his home and community, Umid began spending time on Islamic devotional websites and Facebook groups.  By June 2014, Umid was making many new friends online in the Islamic devotional community: his friendcount had increased to around 200.  Among these friends were recruiters for the Uzbek branch of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra.  By August, Umid was starting to repost jihadist memes to his Facebook page.  By October, he had changed his Facebook profile picture to a photo that may have been himself in pro-ISIS combat gear.  Soon after, Umid’s Facebook profile disappeared.  The speaker believed it is possible that Umid joined ISIS and traveled to Syria.

In 18 months, Umid had gone from being a typical 20-year-old Uzbek kid, looking for a girlfriend and a way to the US, to being an ISIS supporter and possibly fighter.  What had happened?  Are there any lessons to be learned from Umid’s case?

According to the speaker, there are at least four common patterns he sees in his work, each of which is also seen in Umid’s case.  (1) Jihadi groups actively and aggressively recruit, especially on Islamic devotional sites.  The speaker set up a bogus Facebook profile, “liking” the same religious sites and people some of his study subjects did, and within 24 hours he was being contacted by jihadist recruiters. (2) Most of the young people who end up radicalized knew little or nothing about Islam at the outset, which allowed extremist  groups to play a key role in shaping their understanding of Islam.  (3) Jihadi groups are especially likely to target young men away from home, including migrant workers like Umid, and/or new converts to Islam.  (4) Extremist recruiters pick at peoples’ resentment and sense of powerlessness.  For example, Umid was frustrated at his lack of ability to get a green card, and recruiters were able to turn Umid’s general frustration to resentment of the United States as the cause of his problems.

After examining the case of Umid, the speaker discussed the two main groups of Uzbek fighters in Syria and their respective approaches to recruitment.  I’ll share that portion of his presentation tomorrow.

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