Central Asia, the Next Frontline for Anti-Terrorism
Central Asia has always been overlooked by many. With a significant geopolitical position and vast development of its natural resources, the region should be the new promised land. While the area has experienced tremendous economic growth after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ongoing challenges of terrorism still exist, and they may pose significant challenges to global stability.
In recent years, terrorism in Central Asia is on the rise. Even though there are only a limited number of terrorist attacks in Central Asia, no one should ignore the direction of the development of terrorism in Central Asia. Russian speakers have become the largest group of foreign fighters in the Islamic State. Some attacks have targeted international entities and embassies. The U.S. embassy in Uzbekistan was the target of a firebombing and a car bomb attack targeted the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan in 2016, the first Chinese overseas mission under attack. Also, in 2018, four Western tourists were beheaded by a group with links to IS in Tajikistan.
This rise of Central Asian terrorism comes from three perspectives. The first being domestic elements. While Central Asian governments are relatively stable, there are still domestic elements that contributed to the growth of regional terrorism. Meanwhile, economic development in Central Asia is far from perfect. Rapid economic growth has lead to social and economic inequalities. The wealthiest decile earns 12 times more than the poorest in Kyrgyzstan. In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the number is 6. Corruption in Central Asia also creates a wider wealth gap. Turkmenistan, according to Transparent International, scored 19 out of 100 in the Corruption Perception Index.
The second perspective is the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan. As a result of the withdrawal, a security vacuum has been created which will also complicate security in the region. There is a fear that with the departure of American forces, Kabul may collapse within six months, repeating the same pattern as was witnessed following the fall of Saigon after American forces left Vietnam. Unfortunately, this may become a reality. The Taliban has developed dramatically in Afghanistan, claiming to control 85% of the nation. As Afghanistan becomes more unstable, the terrorism threat to Central Asia also becomes more concerning.
Considering the proximity between Afghanistan and Central Asia, a rapidly developing Taliban may further drag Central Asia into a terrorist threat. Recently, Taliban activities targeting Central Asia have become far more common. The Taliban have captured multiple key border checkpoints between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and Afghan soldiers have fled into Tajikistan. The security situation in the region is far from stable. Even though the Taliban recently promised that it will respect the border between Afghanistan and its neighbors, Taliban leaders have also stated that their success is not a threat to Russia during their visit to Moscow. The possible ripple effect of terrorism may still further damage the region as the growth of the Taliban may entice more Central Asians to join its ranks.
The third threat comes from other international terrorist organizations as they are also picking up pace in recruiting in Central Asia. The Islamic State has started an extensive recruitment process in the region to recruit young extremists. There are Facebook and Twitter posts in Russian specifically targeting these young extremists. According to the Russian Federal Security Service, the Islamic State has 5,000 fighters in the northern part of Tajikistan. According to the Afghan government, foreign fighters with various groups have been spotted. These foreign nationals include citizens from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. At the same time, Central Asia has become a transitioning point for extremists from Southeast Asia to join Islamic State. Ultimately, these international terrorists started to expand into Central Asia. The attack on Western tourists in Tajikistan is related to terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan also have the presence of these organizations. Meanwhile, as the Afghan situation worsens, al-Qaeda is also looking for a way to reassert itself into Afghanistan, further hindering the already fragile security situation.
However, with every question, there is a solution, and regional powers can still take actions to combat the security threat. First of all, the existing security mechanism in the region is still functioning. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is targeting extremism in Central Asia. The United States, at the same time, is also seeking the opening of a new military base in the region. This new military base may play an essential role in the future of combating terrorism in Central Asia and Tajikistan recently received Chinese donated weapons. These efforts may be critical for the future security and stability of Central Asia.