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

Feb. 25, 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.  I began this discussion yesterday with a post about a case study that illustrates several of the key patterns seen in online jihadist recruitment of Central Asians.]

The speaker said there are two main groups of Central Asians fighting in Syria and Iraq.  The first is what he dubbed the “Aleppo Uzbeks.”  The Aleppo Uzbeks are comprised of a number of independent brigades, many affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra, who are fighting the Syrian regime around Aleppo.  The most prominent, the al-Buxoriy Brigade, is led by Uzbek veterans of fighting in Afghanistan and has seen some of the toughest fighting in Syria.

Recruiting videos produced by the various groups of the Aleppo Uzbeks feature extreme amounts of violence.  However, the videos emphasize the violence being inflicted on Syrian civilians by the Syrian regime.  The main recruitment angle of the Aleppo Uzbeks is that the cause of the Syrian opposition is just and that Muslims have a duty to come to Syria to protect civilians from the regime.  They prey upon young men’s feelings of resentment and powerlessness and suggest that for as bad as their lives are, the people of Syria have it worse.  According to the ideology of the Aleppo Uzbeks, a caliphate may be created in the future, but change starts in Syria now.  This ideology is in opposition to that of ISIS and does not necessarily line up with that of al-Qaeda’s war against the US.

The second major group attracting Central Asian fighters is ISIS, based in northeastern Syria and Iraq.  ISIS’s recruiting line is much different from that of the Aleppo Uzbeks.  ISIS recruitment videos emphasize that ISIS has already created the promised caliphate and that Muslims have a duty to come join the new state.  Some ISIS videos literally purport to show the quality of life in the caliphate by showing amusement parks and fighters giving candy to children.  In tandem, though, there is a second tack taken by ISIS recruiters: ISIS videos show enormous violence being inflicted by ISIS fighters against the caliphate’s supposed enemies.  These videos are designed to inspire recruits to join the caliphate to seek vengeance against their enemies.  They also prey upon young men’s feelings of resentment and powerlessness but suggest that they can be powerful and turn the tables on those oppressing them, including the US, by joining ISIS.

According to the speaker, the Aleppo Uzbeks are much better organized online.  In fact, ISIS’s Central Asian web presence has been virtually erased.  However, ISIS’s ubiquity in the news, including in Central Asian mainstream media, continues to give the ISIS brand major publicity.

In total, the speaker thought that there is no evidence that there are more than a few hundred Central Asians fighting with ISIS—a far cry from the figures in the thousands bandied about by Central Asian governments and security services.  He noted, however, that the real figure is impossible to know for certain.

He also said that one of the biggest factors in the recruitment of Central Asians is that anti-American Russian propaganda melds, presumably inadvertently, with jihadist recruiting.  He said that many of these young men spend time in the “netherworlds” of the internet, where conspiracy theories from the Middle East meet conspiracy theories from Russia.  Taken together, the United States looks like the cause of all evils.  Some of the conspiracy theories taken seriously are quite ridiculous.  For example, one theory states that Coca-Cola and Nike are hiding anti-Islam messages in their advertising.  Another claims that the Gap clothing store logo is an acronym for “Gay And Proud.”  However, conspiracy theories help explain the appeal of ISIS, in particular: if the US is the cause of all problems in the world, from immorality to joblessness, and ISIS is fighting the US, then joining ISIS will solve one’s personal problems as well.

The speaker also said that jihadist recruiters are so well embedded online that even the Facebook algorithm designed to help people find new friends will recommend jihadist pages to those who visit mainstream Islamic devotional sites and even Uzbek state resources.

The speaker wasn’t sanguine about the efforts of Central Asian governments to combat terrorism and recruitment.  He said that Central Asian governments use the bogeyman of terrorism to arrest people they wanted to arrest for completely different, often political, reasons.  He said there are some government plants on jihadist forums but (a) Central Asian governments are not terribly good at using social media and (b) governments seem to be more concerned with going after dissidents abroad than terrorist recruiters at home.  Additionally, Central Asian governments have removed (i.e., killed) a number of prominent, respected, mainstream Muslim religious leaders in the past few decades.  The vacuum has allowed jihadist groups to appropriate and repurpose many of the writings of these respected leaders who, because they are dead, cannot complain that their words are being misused.  Because of government crackdowns, there are few remaining mainstream Muslim community leaders who can either set the record straight or oppose the jihadist recruiters.

According to the speaker, many Central Asians are recruited when they go to Russia to find work simply because there is greater internet access available in Russia.  Even so, there seems to be limited awareness among Central Asians about facts on the ground in Syria.  For example, the speaker said that he found little evidence that would-be fighters from Central Asia (especially from Uzbekistan) are aware (1) that the Russian government supports the Assad regime in Syria or (2) that ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the two main groups recruiting Uzbeks, are mortal enemies within Syria and are killing each other about as often as they are killing government forces.  By contrast, Chechens and Dagestanis, who are heading to Syria from the Russian Caucasus region, have a much greater awareness than the Central Asians of the politics surrounding the fighting in Syria.

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