In July 29, 2018, four Western cyclists were killed in Tajikistan's Danghara district by a group of five men who hit them with a car before stabbing them to death. In a video released after the attack, the five men appear to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, while sitting under a tree in front of the Islamic State flag. The alleged attackers were quickly identified by the Tajik government. Four of them had only recently returned from Russia, where many Tajik migrate for economic reasons and where they had allegedly been radicalised. Despite the video showing the five men pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, Tajik authorities have dismissed such connection, blaming instead the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, an opposition party that was banned in 2015 by the ruling People's Democratic Party of president Emomali Rahmon.
The attack in Tajikistan is but one of recent incidents in which Central Asia seems to have been the target of Islamist militants. On June 5, 2016, a group of over 25 people conducted a series of attacks in the Kazakh city of Aktobe, in the western part of the country. In the aftermath of the attacks Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev pointed his fingers towards outsiders trying to destabilise Kazakhstan and to Islamic State militants who had returned from Syria. Only a few weeks after the events in Aktobe, another attack was carried out in Central Asia, this time in Kyrgyzstan. On Aug. 30, 2016, a suicide attacker drove a car bomb inside the Chinese Embassy compound in Bishkek, the capital, injuring three embassy employees. The attack was blamed on a Uyghur militant allegedly tied with al-Nursa, a Salafi group fighting in Syria. The Uyghurs, an ethnic group from China's Xinjiang province bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, have recently made headlines following a massive "re-education" campaign by the Chinese government, as part of which up to a million Uyghurs have been detained in prison camps. The motive of the attack was thus framed by Kyrgyz authorities within the ongoing Xinjiang issue, yet the trans-national ties of the attacker did not go unnoticed by western media and pundits alike.
Foreign Policy, for instance, described the attack as part of "Central Asia's forever war" with militant Islam. Both the embassy attack and the Aktobe incident in Kazakhstan were thus listed as evidences that extremism had found a new home in the region and that it was "here to stay".
Explicitly taking up the Syria Connection is a much-discussed 2015 report by the International Crisis Group, generally one of the most attentive sources for the analysis of socio-political movements in Central Asia. Emphatically titled Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia, the brief report claims that a growing number of Central Asians travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. Prompted by political and economic marginalisation, as well by a resurgence of Islamic beliefs and movements in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, the report states that attraction to violent extremism and the potential return of such militants from Syria represent a significant threat for "security and stability throughout Central Asia."
The argument seems a straightforward one. Missing economic opportunities, coupled with political authoritarianism domestically and growing ties with pious Islamic movements worldwide, led disenfranchised youth into the hands of militant groups.
Scholars of the regions, however, have questioned many of the assumptions that seem to underpin such argument. Most notably, political scientist John Heathershaw and anthropologist David Montgomery have defined Muslim radicalization in Central Asia "a myth fostered by security analysts and commentators but not borne out by the evidence". In a 2014 Chatham House report the two scholars argue that, based on the evidence at hand, there is no connection between the moderate threat of violent extremism in the region and the growing importance of religion-related expressions of piety in the everyday lives of Central Asian Muslims, or with non-violent forms of political Islam. In a subsequent articlewritten in response to the ICG report, Heathershaw and Montgomery further point out that there is no link between Islamization and radicalization, and that reports such as the ICG's are a gift to Central Asian governments' frequent attempts to equate the adherents of pious movements in the region and the proponents of non-violent Muslim political movements, to terrorist sympathisers.
What is certain, and often explicitly pointed out, is that Central Asian governments have been taking advantage of the perceived security threats posed by Muslim radicals to enforce repressive policies domestically. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, a recent report shows how two specific incidents were "used to secure funds internationally and silence popular discontent domestically, while averting attention from more pressing matters." Similarly, in Tajikistan, President Rahmon, who has led the country since 1992 and has been criticized for his authoritarian-style rule and for his country's poor human and civil rights records, has repeatedly played the Islamist menace to establish himself as the last bulwark against fundamentalism. To be sure, with the case of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, he managed to eliminate a possible political rival by deeming the Party a "terrorist organization" – once again, without providing much in terms of evidence.
Yet reality on the ground is often more complex and the repression of a particular political movement does not fully explain how the persistence of a terrorist threat can influence the everyday lives of Central Asians. In Tajikistan, for instance, following the July 2018 attack, a rumour spread among border residents in GBAO according to which Afghan Talibans were planning to cross the Panj river and make inroads into Tajikistan. Rumours were bolstered by an alleged incident in which mortar fire, possibly from Afghanistan, killed two locals. While such rumours are not exceptional in the region (and beyond), what they show is the power of certain discourses – which, in this case at least, are fuelled by central authorities – to mobilise fears and political commitments. While in general very critical of the current leadership, it is not rare to hear among resident of GBAO that Rahmon's rule is at least better than what would happen if he were deposed: political chaos, Islamization, or a return to a bloody civil war that is still a fresh memory for many.
To conclude, there is no doubt that a number of radical groups exist in Central Asia, and that violent attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam have happened. However, such violence seems to be fuelled by repressive politics in the region rather than by political Islam, and as Heathershaw and Montgomery point out it should be "better understood on a case-by case basis and not as part of a supposed general trend of radicalization.” To be sure, Central Asia remains one of the least-researched and understood regions in the world, and thus wild speculations and simplistic assessments are more likely to take root. What is needed, in its place, is more research on the ground, not scaremongering headlines.