ISIS Grows Roots In Central Asia - Why The World Must Worry

Rashmini Koparkar

Apr 01, 2024, 06:25 PM | Updated Apr 03, 2024, 10:51 AM IST

Scene of shooting at concert hall near Moscow.
Scene of shooting at concert hall near Moscow.

Evenings in Russia’s capital Moscow are similar to those in any major European city. The highways are packed with cars, metro lines inundated with passengers, cafes and pubs packed with the young and old alike. However, the evening of 22 March 2024 was different.

During a rock concert at the Crocus City Hall in the Krasnogorsk suburb of Moscow Oblast, four gunmen opened fire on the spectators, leaving 144 dead and many more wounded.

Russia had not seen an attack on this scale in nearly two decades since a school seizure in Beslan in 2004 that led to around 300 fatalities. However, the country has been on the hit list of Islamic terror groups for many years now.

In 2015, a Russia-bound flight crashed in Egypt, leaving all 224 passengers dead. The Sinai branch of ISIS had then claimed to have planted an explosive device on the plane.

In 2017, a 22-year-old radicalised student of Uzbeki descent carried out an attack on the Saint Petersburg Metro leaving 11 dead.

In 2022, a suicide bomber targeted the Russian embassy in Kabul, leading to the death of two staff members and four locals.

Terrorist organisation ISIS has claimed responsibility for all of these recent terror attacks targeting Russia. Just as news of the attack on the concert in Moscow started pouring out, its central Asian branch Islamic State– Khorasan (ISIS-K) promptly claimed responsibility for this attack through a statement released on Telegram by its news agency- Amaq.

Notably, the timing of the recent terror attack is crucial.

The attack in Moscow came just within four days of Vladimir Putin’s re-election as Russia’s president for the fifth term. ISIS, which aims to establish a caliphate across the world with Islam as its state religion, has been conducting attacks and directing its propaganda against Russia and Putin mainly for two reasons- alleged oppression of Muslims in Russia and its support to the Bashr-Al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

However, beyond these recent triggers, there are multiple layers to this long-drawn confrontation.

The Tajikistan Connection

A day after the attack on the Crocus Concert Hall, the law enforcement authorities nabbed four terrorists who were put on trial before the Russian court of law. Out of four, three pleaded guilty for carrying out the massacre. It has now been concretely ascertained that all the four gunmen and most of the other recently held detainees related to the case, hail from Tajikistan- a landlocked country located in central Asia.

Tajikistan’s security agencies which are working closely with the Russian team, too have detained nine suspects in Tajikistan for having been in contact with the perpetrators of the Moscow attack. These developments have brought the predominantly Islamic former Soviet republic which borders the Taliban ruled Afghanistan on its south, in increased focus.

As a matter of fact, the recent Moscow terror attack was not the first one in the list of terror activities perpetrated by persons belonging to Tajik nationality. Tajikistan’s President Emamoli Rahmon in a recent interview, claimed that as many as 24 Tajiks had either committed or planned terrorist attacks in 10 countries in the last three years.

Ethnic-Tajiks formed a significant chunk in the list of foreign fighters to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq, estimates going as high as 2,000. In 2015, a head of Tajikistan special armed force defected and joined the military ranks of ISIS. Most of these Tajik fighters in ISIS were either killed or detained by various countries; however, many of them have also returned home.

Over the years, several geo-political experts have observed that ISIS through its Khorasan branch has been exploiting the vulnerabilities of central Asian countries for radicalization and recruitment.

Tajikistan, in fact, is the poorest country in the post-Soviet space. Owing to lack of industrialisation and jobs, Tajik youth are compelled to migrate outside to earn a living. This situation can be more precisely discerned from the World Bank’s data on Tajikistan which notes that in 2022, personal remittances accounted for more than half - i.e. 50.9 percent of the country's national Gross Domestic Product.

If the disintegration of Soviet Russia in 1991 wasn’t enough, the Tajik Civil War that lasted from 1992 until 1997, completely devastated country’s fledgling economy. More notably, it had a profound impact on its society and polity. As one of the provisions in the ceasefire agreement, the hardline Islamic Renaissance Party was given a share in political power. However, President Rahmon, who has ruled the country for the last three decades with an iron-fist, banned party in 2015.

In the present, a large chunk of the remittances sent by Tajik nationals overseas come from those working in Russia. The Russian Interior Ministry estimated that 3 million Tajiks were working in Russia in 2021-22, which is almost a fourth of Tajikistan’s total population.

Considering the ageing population in Russia, the Tajik migrant workers have become a backbone of the Russian economy. Nevertheless, they face a different set of problems in their host country, including hard life in ghettoised neighbourhoods, low wages, discrimination on ethnic grounds, etc. This situation creates a fertile ground for them to fall prey to the sermons of radical Islamic preachers who sympathise with ISIS. This is coupled with easy availability of radical Islamic propaganda literature in Russian language heightens the risk.

Security Concerns in Central Asia

The emergence of ISIS-K in the recent past has heightened security risks for the central Asian countries by many folds. The terror organisation has attracted many disaffected former militants from al-Qaeda, Tehrik-I-Taliban (TTP) and the Taliban. In 2015, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) also declared allegiance to ISIS.

The situation has gotten only worse with Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021.

Tajikistan, as mentioned earlier, shares a long border with Afghanistan which has been in the midst of conflict for more than 50 years now. The risk of having such a country as its neighbour is of a larger magnitude for Tajikistan as people of Tajik ethnicity at 27 percent comprise the second biggest chunk of Afghanistan’s population. This enables ethno-cultural spillovers from the war zones of Afghanistan, with persisting fear of similar uprising in Tajikistan and other central asian countries.

Apart from the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism spreading across the borders, the central Asian countries are also vulnerable to other issues such as smuggling of drugs through international criminal networks and porous borders. Leaders of most of these countries over the years have consistently attempted to keep fundamentalism and criminal networks in check mostly through military and state intelligence.

Russia too helps maintain stability in the region by assisting these countries wherever necessary. For instance, in the case of Tajikistan, which is a member of the Moscow led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Russia continues to be an important security ally with its largest overseas military base stationed near Dushanbe. It also helps Tajikistan guard its borders with Afghanistan.

What This Means For Russia

Russia has been locked in a long-drawn war with US-backed Ukraine since February 2022. As a result, relations between Russia and the West are at their lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War. The recent terror attack in Moscow has sharpened these differences.

On one hand, the US has claimed that they had warned the Russian establishments about the attack in the beginning of March. On the other hand, Russia has blamed Ukraine and the West for their alleged role in the attack.

The Russian investigative agencies claim to have information about financial connections between the Ukrainian nationals and the perpetrators of the recent Moscow attack. Apart from this, it has also claimed that several Chechen and Central Asian terrorists affiliated to ISIS had been assisting Ukraine in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

At the backdrop of the ongoing conflicts in Eurasia, West Asia and Afghanistan, the terror attack in Moscow has thrown some new challenges to global peace and security.

Dr Rashmini Koparkar is an Assistant Professor at the School of International Studies, JNU. Her research interests include Central Asia, India’s engagements in Eurasia, and the role of culture in international relations.

Get Swarajya in your inbox.


Future of Indian politics and economy is closely linked to the politics and economy of Uttar Pradesh