2018-02-06

Why Russia monopolizes intelligence on Central Asian jihadists in Syria


With participation of jihadists from Central Asia in the Syrian civil war Russia became a vital source of intelligence for regional security services. Assets on the ground and developed ties with Damascus allow Moscow to gather information about foreign fighters and, with it, influence broader security ramifications of its own relations with Central Asian republics.

According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, there are 5000-7000 foreign jihadists from Russia and Central Asia fighting in Syria and Iraq. Recent report, prepared by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, place number of Central Asians at 8500 individuals, who participate in various capacities in Salafi-jihadist factions.

With the ISIS being largely pushed out from core territories of Iraq and Syria and its organizational and fighting potential being diminished, main threat from the terrorist organization for security and political stability in Russia and Central Asia come from returning experienced veterans or lone-wolf individuals who seek to carry out attacks in the name of radical ideology. In mid December Russian security services apprehended a group of individuals from Central Asia, who were attempting to carry out attacks on the eve of New Year holidays.

It may seem that Russian authorities would like to see their Central Asian partners to operate more actively in gathering intelligence on Central Asian jihadists in the Middle East as part of broader mechanism of cooperation in security issues among member states of Organization Collective Security Treaty (OCST). Moscow has been a leading contributor to technical and professional modernization of security forces in the region, as evidenced by multiple large scale anti-terrorism drills.

Russia seems to support current prevailing heavy handed approach in Central Asia in fighting religious radicalism. Despite the fact that this kind of policy may have contributed to deepening frustration among some Central Asian jihadists before they decided to go to Syria, on the whole regional security services managed to suppress religious dissent movements without giving them a chance to carry out large scale acts of violence in the region.

Civil war in Syria and mass participation of Central Asians in this conflict could contribute to activization of local security agencies beyond national borders. The case of Chinese contacts with Damascus is a good example. Peking seeks to improve its capabilities to fight the Uyghur movement by coordination efforts with Syrian government over issues like collection of information on Uyghur fighters located in country. Further dimension of such policy is establishing coordination with Turkey, where many Uyghur fighters established a network of support.

Instead of developing own capabilities for intelligence gathering Central Asian governments rely on Russia. There are two main interrelated forms of increasing dependence of regional governments on Russian security capacities.
In December 2017, a vice-chairman of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee Nurgali Bilisbekov in his meeting with deputies of the Kazakh Senate claimed that national security agences work hard to identity location of Kazakh jihadists in Syria.To do this, government works primarily by using partners' channels in the country, suggesting that all work is done via Russian security apparatus and assets on the ground. 

Yet another reason why regional governments have to rely on Russia assistance is the fact that, while being in their homeland countries jihadists don't many opportunities to self-organize because of the effective anti-terrorism measures, they find good environment in Russia, where recruiters find good breeding ground among estranged and marginalized migrant workers. A head of Russian Federal Security Bureau Alexander Bortnikov recently stated that security and stability in Central Asia after deaf of the ISIS will be contingent on Moscow ability to monitor inflows of migrants from and to Central Asia.

There can be a single underlining reason why Russia would not welcome Central Asian governments to act independently is issues like foreign jihadists and related security coordination with the Middle Eastern states like Iraq, Syria and Turkey. While Moscow can outsource tasks of security provision inside the region to local governments and even support local security agencies in their work by sharing relevant technology and professional skills, it will be inclined to preserve its role as a regional security provider as a source of legitimacy for outsized influence and leadership.

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