Foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) associated with the unrest in Syria and Iraq, comprise over 40,000 individuals from 110 countries, spurring the international community to call upon these countries of origin to act. All Central Asian (CA) states are affected by problems related to their FTFs. The number of FTFs varies in each country: roughly 800 for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan; between 1,500 and 3,000 for Uzbekistan; 1,900 for Tajikistan; and between 400 and 500 for Turkmenistan. While the figures from four CA states come from governmental officials, Turkmenistan stands apart, and other sources had to be used due to a lack of official information.
Central Asia represents the third biggest source of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria, and if the outflow is calculated per capita, based on ICSR report data, it is comparable to that of the largest contributors such as Turkey, Tunisia, Jordan, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. In addition to their numbers, Central Asians held some key positions within the ISIS structure, serving as emirs or leading regiments. The most notorious example is probably that of a Tajik national, Colonel Khalimov, the former head of OMON regiment, who was appointed as ISIS War Minister. In addition, the Central Asian footprint has become evident in attacks committed in 2017 in Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, and New York.
While most CA states criminalised various FTF-related conducts (such as recruitment, training, and travel) and applied administrative measures (such as the deprivation of citizenship), there is a trend toward reintegration. Indeed, CA states transitioned from taking a peremptory position of no return and citizenship deprivation for those who travelled to the war zones to providing an active assistance in bringing them back. Overall, CA states developed a two-dimensional response which incorporated administrative sanctions and rehabilitation.
Responses to FTFs in CA: an overview
Following the departure of some its citizens to the Middle East, Kazakhstan’s initial reaction focused on the protecting the homeland against the threat posed by the potential return of skilled fighters, accompanied by simultaneous agitation against such departures through criminal liability. Former president Nursultan Nazarbayev emphasised in 2017 that relocation of ISIS fighters endangers Eurasia and amended the law on citizenship, adding article 20-1 on citizenship deprivation for terrorist activities and/or significant damage to the national interest and ensuring, at the same time, that returnees would be held fully accountable for the crimes they committed. In 2018, Kazakhstan reported the voluntary return of 125 citizens followed by the subsequent conviction of 57 of them. This attempt to prevent FTFs and their associates from coming back later evolved into an active repatriation effort from Iraq and Syria. In January and May 2019, the Republic conducted a three-phased operation called ‘Zhusan’, which repatriated 516 citizens from Syria including 22 men, 137 women, and 357 children. Then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev conferred victim status on the returnees, who were portrayed as ‘tricked into travelling abroad’, ‘hostages of terrorists’, or ‘innocent people’. He linked the operation to the nature of the state: “Kazakhstan always supports its citizens regardless their location”. The current president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev also emphasised the importance of repatriation and reiterated Kazakhstan’s commitment to helping Kazakh citizens abroad, especially children. Returnees were obliged to follow rehabilitation procedures in one of 13 specialized centres located in six regions. Rehabilitation involved medical, psychological, theological, and social assistance, as well as professional training, recovery and/or the issuing of new documents, especially to children born outside of the Republic. It is too early to evaluate the overall progress of reintegration efforts, yet Kazakhstan offers anecdotal stories of families returning to their hosting communities once they finished their rehabilitation.
In turn, Kyrgyzstan developed a protective policy regarding FTFs and returnees. In 2016, article 50 (2) of the Constitution was amended by a referendum allowing changes to the inviolability of the right to citizenship. Subsequent amendments to the law on citizenship, signed by the former president Almazbek Atambayev, made it possible to deprive adults of citizenship for specific crimes including terrorism-related ones. In the public domain, officials have repeatedly voiced concerns regarding repatriation of FTFs and their associates. In spring 2019, a member of the Kyrgyz parliament noted that bringing FTFs back home makes no sense and likened it to letting skilled criminals in the country. In June 2019, the current president Sooronbay Jeenbekov emphasised the threat coming from the repatriation of Kyrgyz nationals suspected in terrorist activities abroad. In addition to ensuring state security, the rehabilitation of returnees requires a significant financial commitment, which is another problematic matter. Nevertheless, things seem to be changing. Pursuing long-term security considerations, following the recent practice of its neighbours, and/or being pressured by activists trying to achieve the repatriation of their relatives by other means, Kyrgyzstan joined the repatriation trend evident in Central Asia. In cooperation with the Iraqi government, Kyrgyzstan has identified its citizens detained in Iraq, and continues similar efforts in Syria. The Republic announced plans to conduct a rescue operation in September 2019 and to return Kyrgyz children from Iraq.
Uzbekistan, too, included a norm on deprivation of citizenship, approved by the former president Islam Karimov in 2015. This norm, however, was not explicitly aimed at FTFs. As article 33 of the Law on Citizenship states, citizenship can be revoked, inter alia, if a citizen significantly damages public and state interests by working for a foreign state, or by committing crimes against peace and security. In 2017, president Shavkat Mirziyoyev declared he was open to possibility of applying this norm to deprive active Uzbek extremists of their citizenship. Yet its implementation remains unclear. Nevertheless, in May 2019 Uzbekistan organized a humanitarian operation titled ‘Kindness’ and repatriated 156 Uzbek citizens from Syria including two men, 48 women and 106 children. President Mirziyoyev ensured that the state would provide medical, psychological and financial assistance as part of reintegration efforts. He interestingly mentioned that returnees ‘mistakenly left the country’ and portrayed them as victims of brutal times, reflecting discourse present in other CA states.
Media and academic sources have reported on Tajikistan’s amendments to the law on citizenship allowing citizenship deprivation for FTFs. Yet such amendments are not to be found on the official website. Interestingly, along with hard security measures, Tajikistan promoted amnesties of FTFs and introduced a note to article 401(1) in the Criminal Code pardoning individuals who voluntarily terminate their criminal behaviour. According to the Ministry of Interior, more than 160 Tajik citizens, suspected FTFs, have voluntarily returned home since 2018. Their pardoning depends on a screening of their respective criminal history during their engagement with the terrorist groups abroad. Moreover, Tajikistan announced its readiness to repatriate every Tajik citizen from Iraq and Syria, prioritising minors. President Emomali Rahmon stated that “not a single Tajik child will be left in a foreign country”. Tajikistan managed to repatriate almost the entire population of Tajik minors held in Iraq. Similar identification work continues in Syria.
Turkmenistan abstained from officially commenting on FTFs matters, which makes it impossible to assess its relevant policies, if any. According to unofficial data, around 400 Turkmen citizens joined the armed conflict in Iraq and Syria, and given alleged ISIS-related border incidents, Turkmenistan might model its policies on those of other CA states.
The hard/soft response dilemma
CA states employed both administrative measures and reintegration to manage FTFs-associated threats. Yet governments of the region seem to slowly transit towards prioritising position of actively returning their citizens, and then domestically prosecuting or reintegrating them based on their newly developed criminal history.
Administrative sanctions, adopted by three out of five CA states (Tajikistan allegedly, no data on Turkmenistan), include citizenship deprivation for those travelling abroad for the purpose of joining terrorist organisations or taking part in hostilities. The aim of this norm remains unclear, as it could serve as a punishment for engaging in terrorist activities abroad, a deterrent against future departures, or as a means to keep the most dangerous individuals outside the country. Deprivation of citizenship, however, is one of the most controversial solutions to the FTF challenge as it undermines a broader set of rights, bringing extreme vulnerability. The effect it has on dependants (e.g. spouses, children) constitutes a key argument against its widespread application. Additionally, this measure transfers responsibility to the states where FTFs are held or relocated.
In turn, active repatriation and rehabilitation lead to long-term sustainable solutions. The international community promotes the establishment of a national reintegration mechanism for returnees. In Central Asia, repatriation could have been motivated by three potential reasons including public pressure, reinforcement of specific features of the state’s public image, and long-term security considerations. First, public pressure was evident across the CA states, when relatives of FTFs and their associates, moved by their horrific stories, pressured relevant governmental institutions to react. For example, volunteers in Kyrgyzstan suggested to return 150 women and children from Syria and Iraq using their own resources. Second, the CA governments strengthened the state’s image as ‘responsible’, and a ‘caring parent state’, illustrated by the words of the Kazakh President Tokayev: “No one from our people will be left behind”. Third, bringing home FTFs and their families prevents them from further radicalisation and alienation. Furthermore, the states face possible consequences of ISIS relocation to neighbouring Afghanistan and expansion of undercover ISIS activities to CA.
Although various opinions have been voiced regarding repatriation of male citizens, CA states share an agreement in repatriating minors. Naturally, and realistically, traumatised minors might constitute a threat themselves. This possibility, nevertheless, should not prevent states from treating minors as victims of violence in the first place.
Rehabilitation requires considerable investments, financial and in human capital. Working with returnees, and especially, traumatised minors, demand highly skilled professionals. Nurturing qualified staff and finding financial means to maintain a lengthy rehabilitation process is a challenge for some governments in the region. Yet the rehabilitation experience of the CA states could bring insights into the state practice of reintegrating former radicals and their associates elsewhere, and presents a rich topic for further research.