The fabled Silk Road linking the Middle East and Europe with Asia has drawn adventurers and entrepreneurs for centuries even before the days of Marco Polo. But these days, the traffic seemingly is heavily from East to West: hordes of scruffy, bearded and almost penniless young men making their way to Syria to fight for the Islamic State group.
By some accounts, 180 different languages are spoken on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, and quite a few fighters are texting back home in Russian, Farsi and the myriad Turkic languages spoken in a string of Central Asian countries along the famous trade route: Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
“There are several factors coming together and creating a seedbed for radicalism,” said Paul Goble, an adviser to the CIA and the State Department and a longtime analyst on ethnic and religious issues in the post-Soviet space.
The phenomenon acquired a face when Gulmurod Khalimov, the U.S.-trained head of Tajikistan’s Special Assignment Police Unit, announced he was “going on a business trip” and suddenly resurfaced in an Islamic State propaganda video released in May. In the video, the 40-year-old Khalimov made an explicit plea to his fellow Tajiks to join the jihadi movement.
“You have become the slave of nonbelievers,” he said at one point. “Why do you humiliate yourself working for nonbelievers while they must work for you? Join us, brothers. There are no nationalities or states in the Islamic State, and our nationality is Islam.”
Although the bulk of the Islamic State’s estimated 30,000-plus army of fighters are drawn from its base in Syria and Iraq and from surrounding nations in the Middle East and North Africa, a rising number are coming from farther east, drawn by a dangerous mix of religious fanaticism, economics and demographics.
An investigation last year by the International Crisis Group found recruitment for the Islamic State, al Qaeda and other radical Islamic movements was occurring both online and in mosques and namazkhanas — prayer rooms — across the region, drawn by what the think tank’s analysts said was “an unfulfilled desire for political and social change.”
“Rich or poor, educated or not, young or mature, male or female, there is no single profile of an IS supporter, but fatigue with social and political circumstances is an important linking thread,” the study found.
Analysts say there is first and foremost a hunger for meaning through religion that draws many fighters.
“Under Soviet rule, authorities prevented people from gaining knowledge about religion. In Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, for example, most people couldn’t tell the difference between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam,” Mr. Goble said.
In Azerbaijan they referred to Sunni Islam as “the Turkish Islam” and the Shiite as “Persian Islam.” That absence of knowledge means that Central Asia and the Caucuses are “prime recruiting grounds for ISIS.”
Until recently, he said, 6,000 Tajiks were studying at madrassas abroad and were ordered to return home. This alienated many, who may have joined the Islamic State instead, he said.
Chechens and other Muslim populations in Russia’s Caucasus region have long chafed at what they say is their status as second-class citizens in their own land and have become major sources of skilled fighters for the Islamic State.
With their domestic economies struggling, thousands of Central Asians are flocking to Mosul, where the Islamic State offers generous monthly salaries to unskilled workers who are not required to do any military duty. One man from Central Asia got a clerk’s job in Mosul with a monthly salary, a four-bedroom furnished apartment with rugs, a television and a refrigerator, said Patrick Sookhdeo, author of recent book on the Islamic State’s theology and political motivation.
A third factor is simple demographics, Mr. Goble said. “There are an awful lot of young men in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other former Soviet countries who are unemployed. If the birthrate rises by 2 percent, the economy has to expand by 2 percent just for the nation to tread water, and that isn’t happening.”
By most accounts, the Islamic State pays its trained foreign fighters well. Jordan’s King Abdullah has said that foreign fighters earn as much as $1,000 a month in Syria, which is middle class by Jordanian standards. Other sources put the monthly salary for foreigners at $800 monthly, which is twice the rate of pay for Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces. Indigenous men may be paid as little as $200 a month, but fighters may keep 80 percent of property they capture or steal, which has encouraged looting on the battlefield.
The International Crisis Group noted that many Central Asian fighters in Syria are making cross-national alliances with recruits from other countries, “blindsiding governments ill-prepared to respond to a security threat of this type.”
Authoritarian governments such as those in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan face a dilemma in how to respond to the steady flow of its citizens following the Silk Road path to jihad. Political and economic reforms could weaken their hold on power, but cracking down even harder could paradoxically produce even greater numbers ready to leave the country to join the Islamic State.
Central Asians such as Gulmurod Khalimov, often with far more combat experience than recruits from the United States and Western Europe, are already making their marks as warriors in Syria and Iraq.
“The Islamic State’s most vicious fighters come out of the Caucasus, Chechnya and Dagestan, as well as from Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and surrounding areas,” said Mr. Sookhdeo. “Islamic State has come to prioritize parts of the Stans such as Azerbaijan where they are not only recruiting fighters but seeking to establish their own stronghold.”
He added, “Their objective is to establish ISIS very strongly within these areas, then moving upward throughout the Caucuses into the underbelly of Russia. [The Russians] believe that if they do not defeat ISIS at its source, they will ultimately have to fight it in their heartland,” Mr. Sookhdeo tells The Washington Times. “This is the reason for their troop deployment in Syria on the side of Assad.”
• Doug Burton can be reached at burtonnews@email@example.com or Twitter @DougBurtonmedia.