Staunton, June 7 – The defection of a senior Tajik colonel in April to the ranks of the Islamic State is not some isolated event but the first sign of what is likely to be a massive phenomenon in the event that Islamist radicals made a breakthrough in Central Asia, the massive shift away from the current regimes by people now thought to be their most reliable loyalists.
Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kygyzstan are most at risk of seeing the emergence of this trend, Central Asian experts say, but Uzbekistan and even Kazakhstan are not immune given unwillingness of their regimes to tolerate an opposition, fight corruption, or improve social (kursiv.kz/news/details/obshestvo/radikalnoe_reshenie_nachnetsya_li_massovyy_perekhod_voennykh_iz_tsa_na_storonu_ig_904/).
In his discussion of this, Kazakh journalist Askar Muminov recounts the story of Gilmurod Khalimov, the 40-year-old Tajik colonel who disappeared from his post on April 23 and then resurfaced on the Internet at the end of May with a 12-minute declaration about his decision and his appeal for others to follow his league.
“This event,” Muminov says, “is significant” because for the first time ever, the Islamic State attracted into its ranks from Central Asia a serving colonel, the commander of the MVD OMON, and an individual [up to that point] loyal to the regime and the product of military training in Russia and the United States.”
The situation was especially “paradoxical,” he continues, because “at one time, G. Khalimov himself fought with Islamist fanatics in Rasht and Khorog,” the very people whose ranks he has now joined.
In his Internet video, Khalimov “talks about the injustice which characterizes his native country and the other states of Central Asia, makes loud declarations about the Americans and the need to kill them, and calls for killing the kafirs, the unbelievers.” At the same time, he urges Tajik gastarbeiters in Russia “’to stop being servants of the Russians’” and to fight them.
The former Tajikistan colonel gives a face to the broader phenomenon of Central Asians joining the ranks of the Islamic State. Indeed, this has become such a large trend that articles are appearing with titles like “Five Reasons Kyrgyzstanis Go to War in Syria” (kyrtag.kg/interview/pyat-prichin-vyezda-kyrgyzstantsev-na-voynu-v-siriyu).
Muminov also spoke with four regional experts about the probability that other Central Asian officers will follow Khalimov’s lead. First, Maksim Kaznacheyev, an independent political analyst says that “the growth of radicalism among the military and other representatives of the political elite in Central Asia is not to be excluded.”
“More than that,” he continues, “to the extent that the regimes in the region continue to degrade, these tendencies will strengthen.” That is all the more true because the rulers of these states have not been able to come up with “any mechanisms for reforming the soviet style of administration” which they employ.
Kaznacheyev says that “among the representatives of the Kazakhstan political elite there are also people who do not conceal their at times radical ideas” and their desire for change. If there were a political opposition, such people would join it. But “unfortunately, the regimes in Central Asia don’t understand that a legal political opposition does not threaten the destruction of state institutions in the way a religious opposition does.”
Second, Peter Svoik, the head of the Almaaty Anti-Monopoly Commission, says that “the growth of radicalism will intensify as long as Kazakhstan remains a backward state” and that Islamism will fill the gap left by the end of ideology at the end of the cold war. Indeed, he says, Islamism will play a role in the process of national self-determination in the current environment.
Third, Arkady Dubnov, a Moscow expert, says that no one should ignore the attractions the messages of the Islamic State about justice represent for people in Central Asia and the way in which they can become a kind of asylum for such people despite the violence that the Islamic State engages in.
And fourth, Kadyr Malikov, the director of the Religion, Law and Politics Analytic Center, says that there is another reason for this attraction: “The Islamic state,” he observes, “is a deeply thought out project,” but it is “another question” as to how Islamic it really is. And its militant stance alone may also make it attractive for people like Khalimov.